Collectivists have been with us since the beginning of recorded history, and will probably be with us for as long as the human race exists. But the popularity of collectivism ebbs and flows.
My theory is that the more prosperous a civilization becomes, the more its idle rich (and just plain idle) are able to indulge in Utopian dreams of a more egalitarian (and necessarily regimented) society. It’s only after the dead bodies are counted that most people recoil from collectivism.
Sadly, we seem to be experiencing another rising tide of collectivism. We are confronted at every turn by exhortations to be good team players, to serve others, and to “give back to the community.” We are asked, as individuals, to make sacrifices to save the planet, reduce the cost of health care, and support an ever-expanding roster of government programs. If you act in your own self-interest, you are bad. If you serve the faceless crowd, you are good.
But questions continue to nag me. If it is better to give than to receive, shouldn’t we do more to ensure that only those truly in need receive? With so much giving going on, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t a great deal of illicit receiving. Personally, I wonder about politicians whose wealth cannot be explained by their comfortable (but hardly extravagant) salaries.
One of the most important indicators of the success of a false ideology is how people frame the issues. You know you are in trouble when the ideology’s language and assumptions are built into almost every discussion. False ideologies are often draped in “fairness” and “the common good,” while anyone who disagrees is labeled “greedy” or “an extremist.”
It never ceases to amaze me how collectivists invent new theories, lexica, and excuses whenever they need them. During the 1930s, it was the workers versus the bosses. During the 1960s, it was the students versus The Establishment. Now it is members of the community versus anyone who believes in limited government.
You know it’s time to worry when collectivists start rewriting (or worse, inventing) history to prop up their ideas. In fact, I was prompted to write this post by Matt Ridley’s essay in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal: Humans: Why They Triumphed.
Ridley claims the reason humans have been so successful (compared to other species) is “collective intelligence.” That phrase is no doubt music to the ears of collectivists. To individualists, however, it is (like “the wisdom of crowds”) an oxymoron. Worse, it leads Ridley to conclude that “innovation is a collective enterprise.”
Ridley conflates the accumulation and exchange of knowledge with collective action. Here is my illustration of how this gets it all wrong. Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted noticed in 1820 that a compass needle was deflected when an electric current in a nearby wire was switched on or off. British experimenter Michael Faraday followed up that finding and made a series of discoveries of his own about electromagnetism. While it’s fair to say that Faraday built on Oersted’s work, it would be quite a stretch to say they were engaged in collaborative research.
When you boil it all down, Ridley claims that printing, communicating, trading, and even specialization all show that innovation is a group activity. He’s right when he asserts that most of today’s products—whether a computer or a simple pencil—are too complex to be made by an individual. (Sure, manufacturing is generally a group activity.) But he appears blind to the fact that most products result from innovations made by individuals—often in the face of collective resistance.