Individualism  is the principle that the individual is sovereign in his life and actions. Individualism acknowledges that each person is best able to determine the affairs of his or her life. The free market, with its voluntary cooperation between individuals, acknowledges this fact. Individualists demand that people not be treated as some faceless cog in a machine, that people shouldn't be forced to act like a herd of animals or hive of insects.
Collectivism  is the philosophy that the group is more important than the individual. Collectivists believe the rights and desires of the individual must be sacrificed for the good of society. Many collectivists are altruistic in their intentions, believing they know better than individuals what is good for individuals and society. They are unwilling to let individuals determine their own course of action, as they believe individuals might make the wrong choice.
While Individualism and collectivism are often presented as completely opposite methods of living, it is really a matter of emphasis on the means people are given to choose to live by. Individualists see value in voluntary groupings, and many staunch individualists highly value family, civic groups, charity, community, religion, and society. Where individualists and collectivists really part ways is in the use of force to meet their goals. Individualists abhor force as a method of compliance, and realize that the individual is best able to determine what groups he or she wants to associate with. Collectivists approve of force, and view force as mandatory to subjugate the individual to the greater good of the collective.
The state, with its reliance on force and coercion, is the primary instigator and beneficiary of collectivist thinking. The state could not function, getting away with murder and theft, without collectivism. The state realizes this, and has its propaganda machine (the mainstream media) and state indoctrination centers (public schools) portray absolute submission to the government as the norm. Any deviation from absolute obedience to the dictates of the state is viewed as unpatriotic. Those who dare question the policies of the state are labeled traitors, and a threat to society.
Many people, especially freedom lovers, wonder what is the greatest right that people possess. They wonder what is the ultimate right that enables them to enjoy freedom. Many will argue that the right of self-defense is the greatest enabler of freedom. Others will argue for the right of self expression, or some other right. But the greatest enabler of rights and freedom is individual responsibility. Without personal responsibility, rights are meaningless.
From the Zero Aggression Principle :
"A libertarian (freedom lover) is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians (freedom lovers), whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians (freedom lovers), regardless of what they may claim." ~ L. Neil Smith I put in freedom lover; I like it better than libertarian. People have a responsibility to not aggress against their fellow man; because people violate this natural law, especially the state, people are justified in using their right of self defense. If we could get people to accept individual responsibility, and exercise their freedom and rights responsibly, we could do away with the state, and live in a world where free association and trade would flourish.
Individual responsibility has been the cornerstone of human achievement and civilization. The free market, with its voluntary cooperation between individuals for mutual benefit, is the epitome of lawful, responsible behavior. Most people know it is wrong to transgress against their fellow man, and favor a system of peaceful exchange.
Are people responsible?
One of the main arguments of those that support the state is that people are irresponsible, and because of this we need the state. The overwhelming evidence from everyday life is just the opposite--which is that most people know how to act individually responsible in regards of their fellow man. What should be fantasy, but is only fantastic, is that people believe in the collective entity of the state, and that the state can ignore and violate all individual responsibility.
Of course, not all people act responsibly, and some will resort to aggression. Individually, people who view aggression as acceptable are a small minority. Only the state uses force and coercion on a large scale. Because of collectivist thinking, most people believe it is all right for the state to murder and steal. But it is not a normal condition for individuals to interact with each other in this manner. If it were, we would all be living in a constant war zone similar to Afghanistan or Iraq .
To get some perspective on individuals who commit crimes, we can look at the FBI's Persons Arrested National Volume, Trends, and Rates  data: 'In 2003, law enforcement in the United States made an estimated 13.6 million arrests for crime committed (excluding traffic offenses). Law enforcement made 1.6 million arrests for property crimes that occurred in 2003, which represented 11.8 percent of the total arrests. An estimated 597,026 arrests for violent crimes made up 4.4 percent of the total arrests. Drug abuse violations accounted for nearly 1.7 million arrests, the most arrests for any offense type.' There are several things to note about the FBI's data: one individual arrested can generate multiple crime arrests, an individual can be arrested multiple times in a year, the total arrests include victimless crimes, and these are arrests ' not convictions. This means that the number of individuals committing crimes is less than the number of arrests, and if the number of arrests for victimless crimes is factored out, it significantly reduces the arrest data. The only arrests that can be identified as legitimate law enforcement activities are for violent crimes (597,026) and property crimes (1.6 million), or about 2.2 million out of the 13.6 million total. From further FBI data we find: 'An estimated 1,381,259 violent crimes  were committed in the Nation in 2003' and 'In 2003, law enforcement agencies reported an estimated 10,435,523 property crimes .' The almost 12 million crimes committed in 2003 occurred in a population of 290,809,777 . This leads to several conclusions: a relatively small group of individuals is responsible for the majority of crime, the state and its armed goons with badges are abysmally inept at providing basic law enforcement services, and the state and its thugs spend most of their time and resources on arresting and terrorizing innocent citizens who run afoul of the state's draconian legal system. One can't help wondering if the state and crime share a symbiotic relationship, and instead of the state working to eliminate crime, it actually encourages crime to flourish to justify the existence of the state.
The Individual versus the State
While it is utopian to think that everyone will not kill, steal, and lie (defraud in free market business transactions), society depends on individual people following these basic principles in their everyday life. Civilization is built on these foundations of individual responsibility. Only the state, on a collective basis, violates these rules with impunity. Consider the hundreds and maybe thousands of individuals whom most people come into direct and indirect contact with on a daily basis by traveling/driving, shopping, and working. Happily, these people do not interact with each other by murder, robbing, or lying in free market business transactions. Such occurrences are aberrations; a society where these were normal occurrences would be completely dysfunctional. While the right of self defense is an important aspect of individual freedom, it is also a barometer of society as a whole. In a healthy and responsible society, the number of times self defense must be employed is minimized. Now consider how many times a day the state murders, how many times a day the state lies, how many times a day the state steals. It is no exaggeration to claim that the state engages in these activities on a 24 hour, 7 day a week basis. Yet people, who would consider it a crime or dishonest if done by an individual, consider it OK for the state, and for collective individuals working for the state. They even have a word for this collective criminal activity--"patriotism"--and those who participate in it are "doing their duty."
Rights and freedoms do not exist in a vacuum or by mere belief. All freely exercised rights and freedoms are contingent on people recognizing these rights and supporting their implementation. Another way of looking at it is that rights do not exist, only power  (or the lack thereof) for implementing freedom. The right to self-defense is a moot point when the state can bring overwhelming power to force compliance. The people slaughtered at Ruby Ridge, Waco , and in Iraq would have fared better if the agents of the state accepted individual responsibility for their actions, and the citizens of the state had demanded individual responsibility of them. The state, with its collective responsibility, has always been the greatest violator of rights and freedoms. History teaches us that states that have emphasized collective responsibility over individual responsibility have always been the worst at human rights abuses. As America moves away from an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility mindset, we see the same abuses happening here.
The problem with America today is that its people have abandoned their heritage of individualism and individual responsibility, which are key elements of freedom. Americans, like most other people, have succumbed to the siren call of the collectivist state with its false collectivist promises of freedom, peace, prosperity, and security. People need to realize the state will never be able to deliver on its promises, that the state's collective responsibility is actually irresponsibility, and is an enemy of freedom. People are better served by rejecting the collectivist state, and embracing individualism and individual responsibility, which lead to freedom.