Arnold Kling  

Government as a Schelling Point

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Daniel Klein writes,


When people think of society at large as the group to which they belong--when they think of having “citizenship,” whether it be in a town, a county, or a country--the logic of coordination leads directly to government as the focal point. Unparalleled in power, permanence, and pervasiveness, the government is prominent, conspicuous, unique, focal. Moreover, as people look to government as the focal point, it increasingly draws them into thinking of its dominion as the boundaries that define the group.

The title of his essay is The People's Romance, by which he means the romantic attachment that people have for collectivist ideas. He is optimistic that what he calls TPR may dissipate.

I believe that technological developments in communications and transportation have diminished the power of TPR, and I expect the trend to continue. We do not belong to a single well-defined group but rather, increasingly, to many loosely defined groups, and those groups are increasingly of our own choosing. The structures we experience are less organizational and more networked and spontaneous.

Via John Tierney, with thanks to Lynne Kiesling for the pointer.

For Discussion. Do you agree that in our more networked, globalized age that the romance with collectivism will wane?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
James writes:

Romance with collectivism wane? Ha! Collectivism will die when the immediate cost of taking people's things exceeds their value.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I don't think it will wane. I do think it will find other mechanisms besides the blunt force government control of industries. While Social Security seems destined for changes -- even my mostly Democrat circle of friends recognizes that the current system is a raw deal for people my age -- other collectivist action is on the rise. I'm a member of 2 class action lawsuits this month over product defects. It is a giant PITA to opt out of a class action, and probably stupid too. The vitriol of one -- over "plastic" intake manifolds in Ford Mustang GTs -- just blows me away. Non-engineers on message boards questioning what anyone was thinking when designing that... Well, how about HP/weight ratio for one, gas mileage for another... You hear about this being a problem, but at the rate things are going, I will need a secretary to keep track of all my class action lawsuits in 5 years!

P.S. Very cool linking to Klein's essay. This is a guy who has "gotten" that economics isn't just charts and equations for a long time.

Randy writes:

Trust and loyalty are about connections. I do feel an obligation to help out the people I am connected to. But the people I am connected to are not the people next door. I have more in common with my company's US and Canadian customers and eastern european engineers, the people in Nicaragua who make my clothes, the people in Connecticut who bottle my "mountain spring water", and for that matter the people on this blog, than I do with my next door neighbors. My family is spread across the country. I've lived in several different states and countries. Home is where I'm at, not where I was born. Romance with collectivism? The idea is absurd to me. I don't even know these people and they seem to think I owe them.

Certainly collectivism will wane. It already has. The question is, is this good or bad?

Fazal Majid writes:

Before being a welfare provider, the state is the basic political unit holding a monopoly on the organized use of force. Bigger states can muster more troops and resources for war, which is why Greek-style city-states are a thing of the past. The upper bound on the size of a state is set by the fact large states have a tendency to split in civil wars. Given human nature, it is unlikely the occasional need for the exercise of force, or the collective monopoly on violence, will be abolished anytime soon.

lyn writes:

Try David Brin's

Earth
for a fascinating description of a society organized by "interest groups" - meaning things you are interested in.
I know only a few of my neighbors, but much more about people I meet on-line. This trend is accelerating. By the way, I assume that the civic entities at the local level will be more prone to "wither away". This could be accelerated by allowing individuals to contract for utilities and services provided by local and state governments on a competitive basis much as we shop online now.

There seems to me to be less support for serious collectivism in the younger generations (ie. those who didn't come of age in the 60's and 70's). And the working class has moved to the centre, so once the leftist media loses its power, collectivism will struggle.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Poor Daniel does not see the Forest for the Trees. He must not of read the Science Fiction of Fredrick Pohl. The Corporate Model lives, and is growing quite well.

The need for the Collective never wanes, and one form is simply supplanted by another. lgl

Boonton writes:
Before being a welfare provider, the state is the basic political unit holding a monopoly on the organized use of force. Bigger states can muster more troops and resources for war, which is why Greek-style city-states are a thing of the past. The upper bound on the size of a state is set by the fact large states have a tendency to split in civil wars. Given human nature, it is unlikely the occasional need for the exercise of force, or the collective monopoly on violence, will be abolished anytime soon.

This doesn't seem to hold historically? Today we can look at the US, China and India (I'll exclude Aust. and Russia because while they do have lots of land mass they don't have nearly as many people). Three nations that are very large but do not appear to be on the verge of Civil War anytime soon. The US did have a Civil War, once, but it was when it was much smaller and, ironically, with a much weaker gov't.

Over in Europe the trend appears to be towards a larger European nation yet it is more stable now than it has ever been. Is there any evidence that there really is an 'upper limit' on how big a national gov't can be?

Randy writes:

I don't think it is the physical size of the state that is the limiting factor, but rather the effective range of communication, command, and control. A key factor of which is the degree to which the inhabitants feel a connection with one another.

What I see developing is a sort of superstate made up of international players, which is rapidly pushing the old style states into an almost subservient role. E.g., Saudi Arabia. The players in the US don't deal with the "nation" of Saudi Arabia, but rather with the house of Saud which controls the oil. The players have a much greater connection to each other than to the majority of the inhabitants of either "nation". And in both cases, the players are manipulating, if not outright controlling, the political leaders of their respective nations. I do not intend this as a condemnation of our political leaders. Just an example of a changing world.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Klein talks about the romance of collectivism, but what about the romance of "protecting our culture" or "protecting our way of life" or "protecting marriage" or "protecting our kids" that comes from the US right wing?

There is a lot of romance of collective action to go around, it isn't just from the left wing.

jigga writes:
Do you agree that in our more networked, globalized age that the romance with collectivism will wane?

I believe so, absolutely. As a close reader of political rhetoric, I believe it already has. Certain types of collectivist clap-trap--e.g., certain presumptuous, inaccurate uses of the monolithic "we"--no longer have the hold that they once did.

As both ideas and individuals travel faster and more, people will become less provincial, more cosmopolitan. People understand that there are different ways of living and that theirs may not be the best one. Allegiances loosen and ultimately crumble.

And this is all to the good. Increasingly, pluralism shall flourish--not as a party plank that was won after some election. But people will just start doing it, e.g., living in different ways.

As politicians can say less and less about "their people," as constituencies fracture, as diversity of voices makes itself heard, politicians would struggle in vain to find the common ground upon which their largest, most ambitious programs would need to be rested.

So politics takes up an ever smaller part of life. Government is on C-SPAN; the rest of us are watching one of the other 500 channels. Only dimly do we remember the days when gavel-to-gavel coverage of political party conventions took up a whole week of summer time tv.

It's the amazing shrinking politics of the future. And it's a promising trend for liberty.

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