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.
In 2007, Gary Kasparov published How Life Imitates Chess, a book drawing parallels between success on the chessboard and success in the boardroom. I’ve gotten glimpses of how he operates in both realms.
In 1999, Kasparov played an online chess match titled “Kasparov versus the World.” The game provided a great opportunity to observe a creative individual battling against the wisdom of the crowd (in this case, with a panel of experts on their side). As you might expect, the world played a very safe and sound game. Kasparov employed just enough subtlety and surprise to score a victory. He understood who he was up against and fine-tuned his strategy for a very smart but ultimately predictable opponent.
The contest reminded me of the difference between a standards committee and an inventor. A standards committee is good for dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. But if you want to do something that has never been done before, you need imagination and daring.
I had my next encounter with Kasparov ten years later. In 2009, my son entered the U.S. Chess Federation SuperNationals chess tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. Kasparov was the keynote speaker at the opening ceremony. But first, we had to listen (for what seemed an eternity) to USCF dignitaries thanking the many people who put the event together. Finally, Gary Kasparov was introduced, and his words immediately resonated with the predominantly young audience. He talked about how, during his youth, he hated opening ceremonies because of the boring speeches—he couldn’t wait to start competing. The audience roared with delight.
There is much wisdom in How Life Imitates Chess. My favorite line is “Better decision-making can’t be taught, but it can be self-taught.” Modern educators either don’t believe it or won’t admit it, but most learning is an individual activity.
Many of us welcomed the World Wide Web as a liberating technology. The Web promised to perfect the capitalist system: from now on, all markets would be global and all transactions would occur at the speed of light. Consumers would have instant access to information on any subject. No government would be able to stem the free flow of facts and opinions. With anonymous but verifiable digital cash, even oppressive taxes could be circumvented.
It turned out we were just a tad too optimistic.
It’s not acknowledged as often as it should be, but a falsehood travels as fast as the truth on the Internet. Breaking news stories often contain inaccuracies that spread quickly across the Web—even after the original report has been corrected. There is much good information on Wikipedia, but there is also some bad information. You should not always believe what you read—whether it’s in a book or on the Web.
My wakeup call came about ten years ago when online activists began promoting “direct democracy.” The activists claimed that the United States was established as a representative democracy primarily because at that time there was no simple and timely way to poll a geographically scattered population on the issues as they came up. Thanks to the Internet, it was now possible to directly poll the people, so we could do away with elected representatives. I knew that wasn’t the real reason we are a representative republic and that “direct democracy” was simply mob rule in new clothing.
On balance, it still seemed that the Internet was a liberating technology. A falsehood could spread quickly, but the truth would never be far behind. Though some people were calling for government regulation of the Internet, most users understood the Internet succeeded because it was self-regulated. Besides, no single entity could really control the Internet. There is no central point of control; on the Internet, most of the power resides at the edges. Getting on the Internet is easy and inexpensive for content publishers. And digital technology makes it easy to operate anonymously—beyond the reach of censors.
Still, one point continued to nag me. During the 20th century, several writers warned that if we weren’t careful technology would be used to pacify, manipulate, and even oppress us. Their books, films, and television programs depicted several different dystopian futures. The warnings were particularly hard to ignore because some of what they predicted was already happening.
Patrick McGoohan’s television series The Prisoner, Aldus Huxley’s book Brave New World, and George Orwell’s novel 1984 are three important examples.
In The Prisoner, McGoohan plays a secret agent who resigns only to be abducted and brought to a place called The Village. Both wardens and prisoners are addressed only by their assigned numbers. A variety of high-tech psychological techniques are used in a relentless effort to get Number Six (McGoohan) to disclose why he resigned. The Prisoner foreshadows the Web in that individuals are known by numbers (analogous to IP addresses) and elaborate schemes are used in order to extract private information (analogous to phishing attacks).
Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a futuristic, class-based society in which people are created in test tubes and trained from infancy to serve defined roles. Technology is used to keep everyone happy—and somewhat numb to reality. Huxley also believed that in the future people would be controlled through subliminal suggestion. In retrospect, the most worrisome thing about Brave New World is how willingly people give up their individual sovereignty for hedonistic pleasures. Though some Internet users still worry about privacy, many more seem comfortable trading their privacy for perks such as free email (example: Gmail).
Orwell’s novel 1984 graphically depicts how brutal leaders might use technology to brainwash, control, and spy on citizens. Big Brother’s primary tool for controlling the upper and middle classes is the “telescreen”—a combination television and surveillance camera. That was a pretty good guess—given that Orwell wrote his book in the late 1940s. Even today, most users probably don’t realize how much information they reveal about themselves when they use search engines, social networks, and cloud computing. A video camera can see your body; a Web access device is a window into your soul.
Do we really have something to worry about? A handful of online companies—most notably Google but also companies such as Facebook—have the ability to gather data on hundreds of millions of users day in and day out. Most of us can hardly begin to imagine what that information reveals about the behavior of individuals, groups, and humanity as a whole. Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving rapidly towards Crony Capitalism, a system in which leading politicians and powerful government agencies forge special relationships with a few large corporations. And there are many examples of how the Web is being used to mislead us—from altering digital photographs to manipulating search results.