Bryan Caplan  

The Lone Collectivist

A Lesson in Rhetoric... Stone Age Economics...
When you're a normal member of your society, the appeal of collectivism is easy to understand.  Most people believe what you believe and enjoy what you enjoy.  So wouldn't it be great if society as a whole continuously celebrated your worldview and lifestyle?  When you fit in, walking on eggshells to spare minority sensibilities is most tiresome.

If you're weird, in contrast, the appeal of individualism is easy to understand.  Most people neither believe what you believe nor enjoy what you enjoy.  You already feel isolated and alone.  Public celebrations of popular values add insult to injury - especially when these celebrations are infused by the presumption that "These are the values that we as a society hold in common."

Strangely, though, weird people often hail collectivism and scoff at individualism.  Marxists do it.  Greens do it.  And reactionaries do it.  They're totally out of sync with their societies, but they nevertheless lament their societies' lack of community spirit and common purpose.  "A country shouldn't just be a bunch of people living next to each other" is a typical lament.  But weird collectivists rarely ask themselves, "What would happen if I couldn't live next to anyone who didn't share my identity?"  The unwelcome answer, of course, is that Marxists, Greens, and reactionaries would have to recant or relocate.

I'm tempted to say that this is just another mark against the claim that self-interest drives political views.  But I sense more sinister motives.  Namely: Weird collectivists have a three-step daydream. 

Step 1: Seize power. 

Step 2: Use that power to tendentiously claim to "speak for society." 

Step 3: Force their worldview/lifestyle on their recalcitrant societies in society's name

Think of these three steps as the revolutionary version of "Society, stop hitting yourself.  Stop hitting yourself.  Stop hitting yourself."

Perhaps this is overly negative.  But what else could the lone collectivist be thinking?  His true feelings about the community in which he resides must be, at best, mixed.  In a thousand ways, the lone collectivist's community keeps telling him, "You... don't... fit... in."  If he isn't fantasizing about a world where he can authoritatively speak in society's name, why else would the lone collectivist openly yearn for cohesive community?  Stockholm Syndrome?

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Kevin Erdmann writes:

This reminds me of calls for corporate social responsibility. Then, when corporations try to be moral - like Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-a, they get boycotted. The social responsibility activists are dismayed that the corporations motivated to project their morals don't necessarily share the activists' morals.
They don't want corporations to be moral. They want the corporations to be subordinated to them. Of course they see no problem with this. Their definition of being moral is to act as they would have you act. Progressivism in power is sectarianism.

Cole writes:

Couple things I'd point out:

1. Maybe you know a different set of collectivist then I do, but I've tended to observe people with collectivists ideologies engaging in plenty of social activities. The caveat is that it is often with other collectivists.

2. They explain away other people's disagreement with their collectivist ideals as a result of the corrupting influence of their chosen scapegoats like Capitalism / Corporations / Foreigners / Governments. They honestly hate the corrupting influence, and honestly think they are saving people from it. This would make them at least well intentioned even if they badly misunderstand both the corrupting influence or the people they claim to be saving. To anyone that disagrees with them this would also look exactly the same as steps 1, 2, and 3 that you outlined.

3. Not all people (or hardly any people) value intellectual consistency. Its not hard to find earnestly religious biologists, openly gay Christians, or politically involved anarchists. As a matter of fact I don't think I know anyone other than professors that have to explain illogical divergences of separately held beliefs. The different belief systems could be used to signal different things and as long as the signalling is generally consistent, how likely are people to notice the logical inconsistencies?

Hazel Meade writes:

why else would the lone collectivist openly yearn for cohesive community?

I think this is a little unfair here. Why wouldn't a lone collectivist yearn for cohesive community? If your a collectivist, and you don't have a cohesive community around you, you're going to yearn for one. It's part of the nature of being a collectivist.

Also, I don't think the left's desire for more "community" around them is entirely wrong. I just think their approach to the issue is deeply misguided. It's not that hard to find and create local community. i think the problem many on the left have is that they really aren't as collectivist as they like to think.

For instance, I would argue that a conservative Christian who goes to church every Sunday has more community, and is more of a collectivist, than the average progressive. By contrast, most progressives want to challenge cultural norms and promote diversity. But promoting diversity is almost always not good for social cohesion. You can see this all the time, it is a huge reason why leftist movements like Occupy fall apart.

Libertarianism, by comparison, has no problem with diversity, because it doesn't seek collective action at all. There is no need or desire to get everyone in the community together to agree on anything.

And as for conservatives, well I can point to the Tea Party for how effective that is at organizing collectively, because they actually are more collectivist in personality.

Seb Nickel writes:

My own best guess is that their daydream usually also involves persuading just about everyone of their ideology. This also seems like a kinder interpretation than the one in which they want to force their views on a generally unwilling population.

Gorgasal writes:

+1 to Seb Nickel. I'm a proud reactionary, but my daydreams don't involve forcing anyone to share my beliefs so I can wallow in my collectivism. Instead, I'd like everyone to first share my beliefs because people finally saw the light, and then I'd be happy to be among like-minded people. No force involved, and only two steps instead of the three you propose; so it seems like Ockham's Razor would favor my explanation.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Note that both Greens, reactionaries and some Marxists subscribe to a curious mixture of collectivism and individualism (an "individualism" more derived from the Romanticism than from the Enlightenment) - Greens and reactionaries for one side criticize the selfishness of "modern society", but for other they are also very critical of the "mass society", "uniformity", etc. (the Greens from a counter-cultural Left "celebrate diversity" point of view, the reactionaries from an "organic and hierarchical society where everybody has his specifical place" point of view).

These could seem contraditory of we think only in a dicothomy individualism vs. collectivism; but I think that usually nor Greens neither reactionaries think in this way - they are more prone to think in a dichotomy "organic vs. mechanic" (like I said, much derived from Romanticism): in one side, societies where the cohesion is mantained by feelings and direct personal relationships; in the other, societies where the cohesion is mantained by obeyence to formal, abstract, rules. And it is possible to criticize "mechanical societies" both by the loss of social solidarity and by the "uniformity" and "conformism" (the old "lonely crowd" argument). Look, for example, for the Romantic criticism of industrial society - who is criticised by the "selfishness", the "greed", the "materialism", etc. and, at the same time, by the "lack of creativity of the work", the "alienation", the "transformation of people in mechanical drones",etc.

About the Marxist, it is a bit more complex, because, really, there are two kinds of Marxists: the working-class Marxists, connected to the big-C Communist Parties, and the academic/intellectual Marxists, supporting heterodox views. About the first, there is not really a contradiction, because usually they live in neighborhoods or towns (the famous "red belts" of many European cities) where they are the majority; about the second type of Marxists (I suppose that these type is dominant in the USA), they are very similar to the Greens (the same enphasis in social liberalism; the same tendency to consider that the problem of capitalism is less the workers being exploited and more being "alienated", in other words, having a boring and monotonous job, etc.), then could be said of them exactly the same thing that I wrote about the Greens.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Note that I suppose that nothing that I wrote above applies to the mainstream american liberals/european social-democrats, Rawlsian philosophs, or Keynesian economists - not only because they are not "lone" (they are very in the mainstream, indeed), but also because they are not particulary "communitarian" also - their defense of State intervention is usually made with purely individualistic arguments ("it will be better for the majority of the individuals"), sometimes openly saying that one of the advantages of welfare state is, exactly, turning the individuals less dependent of family, church or local community.

Shane L writes:

Incidentally Oscar Wilde wrote a strange, utopian essay in support of socialism in 1891 on the grounds that: "Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism".

Wilde assumed that socialism would liberate the poor from their desperate struggle for survival, allowing them to release their "latent" individualism, all their potential as scientists and poets and artists. He worships the romantic idea of the individual human heart, certain that only the collective ownership of property could liberate it. Strange stuff.

"It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation."

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Incidentally Oscar Wilde wrote a strange, utopian essay (...) Strange stuff."

This is not "strange" (at least, from a statistical definition of "strange") - this is largely the socialist mainstream (in this point, there is not even much difference in Marxists and anarcho-socialists), that the "liberal-burgeois individualism" is a "fake" and purely "formal" individualism, and that the "true" individualism requeires the liberation of "economic oppression" - in general, both Marxists and ansocs claim that in their societies, individuals will be much more creative than in capitalism.

Btw, perhaps a thing the Bryan wrote could have some relevance for this issue:

"If you're a non-conformist who hopes to succeed in our conformist world, my favorite strategies will probably work well for you, too. (...)

"9. Most bureaucrats are deeply conformist, but bureaucratic (lack of) incentives are great for non-conformists. Think job security."

Perhaps when some strange people are in favour of a combination of economic igualitarianism and lifestyle diversity (and I think that Greens, ansocs and heterodox/academic Marxists usually defend some variant of this), they are defending exactly the mix better for their self-interst (of course, can be argued that it is difficult or impossible to combine "economic equality" and "lifestyle liberty", but I think this is not the point - what matters is if their ideas are internal consistent, not if they are right)

AS writes:

Sounds like Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead. Seize power, then dupe the masses into your worldview.

Dave writes:

I find that the weird collectivists more often than not just want free things from the government -- big social safety net, free health care, etc.

They are often socially liberal in the classically liberal sense in that they want the freedom to be weird in public and not be arrested, but economically they are very collectivist (possibly because it's harder to get rich as a weird/unique individual with ideas others don't agree with).

sam writes:

This holds only if you believe that collectivism and individualism are environmentally determined.

If, on the other hand, you believe that some people have greater predisposition to collectivism, the behavior of the isolated yet tyrannical collectivist is simple to understand.

Consider your typical upper-middle-class leftist. Due to the nature of her upbringing, she believes herself superior to others and deserving of every participation trophy.

Yet, in the two great pursuits of the human species, acquisition and mating, she is likely to be less capable and successful than those she grew up with. Her position does not reflect her self-concept.

The solution for her then is to gain social and emotive power and force everyone else to conform to, validate, and respect her.

awp writes:

As an Urban Economist in Houston...

I have noticed that almost everyone who argues for zoning implicitly (if not explicitly) assumes that the zoning board would agree with them about the proper use of whatever parcel is causing the current controversy.

libertaer writes:

But the libertarian "leave everybody alone" is also a demand for your community to conform to your expectations. If you really don't care at all, you should be indifferent to whatever the community you live in demands. Be an opportunist. Forcing people to leave you and everybody else alone is just a different form of collectivism.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think Miguel Madeira has it about right.
People on the left yearn for a kind of romantic ideal of community spirit, one which has all the aspects of belonging and cooperative labor, but none of the nastier downsides of social conformity and intolerance which generally characterize actually existing collectivist societies.

It's not necessarily bad to want such a community, but I think the key flaw in their approach is in thinking that it can be acheived on a national scale, instead of in small-group communities (which they are perfectly free to form right now). If you think about it realistically, the idea of having one national collectivist community would necessarily have to entail a horrific degree of social conformity and intolerance towards dissent. Even if you could get 60% of the population to agree to it, the other 40% in a population of hundreds of millions would means a hundred million people who are totally capable of banding together to oppose you and engage in whatever civil disobedience or secessionism necessary to defect for your great collective.

Miguel Madeira writes:

I suspect that part of the mistery is that we are conflating (at least) two different things over the label "collectivism":

- "collectivism" in the sense of thinking that the "common good" should be above "personal self-interest"

- "collectivism" in the sense of thinking that society should have strong common values

[when Bryan Caplan writes about "society as a whole continuously [celebrating] your worldview and lifestyle" and "[p]ublic celebrations of popular values", he seems to be thinking specially of "collectivism" in the second meaning]

These two possible senses of "collectivism" are different (look to the "n" movies with the story "solitary hero that fights for [some variant of common good] against the established powers"), even if probably not totally independent.

If we accept that these two "collectivisms" are different things, even if sometimes designated by the same name, there is no mistery with the "lone Marxist" or with the "lone Green" - they are "collectivists" in the first meaning, but not necessarly in the second meaning (the reactionary is a more difficult case, because I think they are indeed in favour of "collectivism" in the second meaning)

Daublin writes:

That certainly matches what I see in small-scale governance.

When people are playing basketball together and having a good time, they don't spend much time flipping through the bylaws of their club. They probably don't even have bylaws at all.

It's when people are sore and isolated that they start angling to create rules to use on each other. You'll then see offices and elections and written bylaws and frequent points of order being raised.

HH writes:

The most generous interpretation is the same I apply to meddling parents: "If only you believed the same things I did, you'd be so much happier." The idea is that we're deluded about what really makes us happy (or rich, or whatever), and if we could only be shown the error of our ways, we'd come around. The fact that in the short term we have to order you to do some things you find unpleasant is unfortunate but temporary. You'll come around soon enough.

The "weird" collectivists usually find a corner where they do fit in. They then try to help that corner take over. Sometimes they even succeed.

Pajser writes:

Bit late here. As Marxist communist I think I'm quite good collectivist.

But I already live in collectivist society in which I do not fit in - it is capitalism. The capitalism is based on collective decision that private property is respected. Numerous small, individual decisions happen inside that big collectivist frame.

I do not dream about society in which I, Pajser, make decisions. I dream about society which makes - according to my opinion - more moral and more rational collective decisions. Is there any self-interest in that? I don't see it. I simply advocate my ideas. Girls like far leftists. Today it doesn't matter much for me, but maybe that was some self-interest in my formative years. One cannot be sure.

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