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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Individualism vs. Collectivism III

The individual liberty that is implicit in decentralized systems not only fosters more options for both the suppliers and consumers of goods and services, but in so doing, generates individual responsibility. In selecting from numerous alternatives available to them, parents must engage in a more critical assessment of the curricula and teaching methods of schools, become more aware of the developmental stages of their children, formulate expectations they have of schools, and create a sense of mutuality of purpose and respect for their children. In the case of alternative health practices, individuals become more active in identifying and communicating symptoms to doctors or other practitioners, and seeking out alternative explanations and/or treatments for their ailments, instead of being passive recipients of standardized evaluations and treatments. In matters of a spiritual nature, individuals seek alternative forms of expression that appeal to their inner, spiritual sense, rather than wrenching and conditioning themselves in an effort to conform to externally derived dogmas and rituals. With an environment of liberty allowing individuals to control their lives and property in furtherance of their chosen options, each becomes an unrestrained free agent, rather than a fungible subject of a captive audience.
The sharp contrast in responsibility between privately- and state-owned property is nowhere better illustrated than in comparing the care and maintenance of a private amusement park, such as Disneyland, and almost any city-owned park. Disneyland is immaculate in its cleanliness; no youth gangs run loose to annoy people; and crime is virtually nonexistent, thus permitting families to wander freely without fear of being molested or attacked. By contrast, many city parks are overrun with trash, graffiti, unsavory characters, and muggers. No responsible parent would dream of taking his or her family to such a park for an evening of enjoyment. Or, compare the upkeep of a private school with that of all too many government school buildings with their broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, and prisonlike steel fences. Nor can we forget the lessons learned from the erstwhile Iron Curtain countries: privately owned farms were much more productive than collective farms, just one of the many liberalizing influences that helped to dismantle the system of state ownership in such countries.
There are a number of motivational factors that cause privately-owned facilities to be better managed and more productive than those that are owned collectively. Where property is owned privately, there is a direct correlation, to the owner, between the costs and the benefits associated with the use of such property. Because I will reap the benefits of doing so, I have a greater incentive to incur the expenses of repairing a building that I own than I have to contribute to the repair of the city hall. We can recall Robert Ardrey’s observation that among animals, personal territory carries with it a sense of energy sufficient to provide an owner with the capacity to repel trespasses even by stronger attackers.
Collective ownership, by contrast, fosters both the “tragedy of the commons” and “free rider” problems, wherein individuals are neither motivated to ration the use of a collective good or service, nor to incur the cost of providing such a good or service that they are able to enjoy without doing so. Still, politicized minds would rather use coercion to compel participation in state-owned activities than to rethink their assumptions by privatizing collective activities. As a result, we witness the inevitable increase in state coercion that accompanies rejections of private ownership and control of property. It is no coincidence that the bloodiest police-states in recent history (i.e., the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, China) practiced collective ownership and/or control of property.
Such examples should remind us, once again, that whatever is said to be owned by everyone is owned by no one. It should also remind us of the earlier point that blurring the boundaries of our information systems—be it language, knowledge, or property—helps to generate the social disorder that is essential to the interests of the state. Wartime slaughter, genocides, and other forms of state tyranny have, like the atrocities committed by other organized mobs, been produced by the illusion that we can collectively pursue ends for which none of us need be personally responsible. Few of us would have the stomach to personally confront a neighbor, or even a total stranger, and do to him what we thoughtlessly approve of government officials routinely doing to millions of others through their collective authority.
By identifying both ourselves and others with any abstraction, we externalize our sense of reality. Inquiries into “the good, the true, and the beautiful” produce standardized responses that conform to the interests of those entities with which we associate ourselves. We think of ourselves as being in a world that is “out there,” beyond us, a world that operates on the basis of “objective” principles that we learn to substitute for our inner, intuitive sense.
The collectivist mindset has depended upon a belief in objective values, particularly in economic matters. The presumption is that the price for which a product sells in the marketplace, which price is objective, correlates with the value of such product to market participants. In fact, the exchange value of a product will never equate with its price. Because we are motivated to act only out of an intention to be better off afterward than we would be had we not acted, any transaction between a buyer and seller is premised upon each anticipating a net gain. This means that the seller will subjectively value the item less than the money the buyer is willing to pay for it, while the buyer will value the product more than he will the money he is prepared to exchange for it. But subjectivity necessarily implies individualized decision-making and a multiplicity of preferences and actions, a condition that would be fatal to all collective systems. This process by which subjective values get translated into objective prices is what makes the study of economics particularly microeconomics—such a fascinating window into human behavior.
Believing that economic values have an objective quality to them, has led to the popular belief that any price received by a seller in excess of this “value” constitutes “exploitation.” One sees this attitude expressed following a natural disaster, when retailers are able to sell scarce commodities at higher prices than usual. The mindset also surfaces in eminent domain cases, when the state pays a supposed “fair market value” for property taken from an unwilling owner. A “market price” for anything can be determined only when an owner’s claim is voluntarily transferred.
Were this idea simply confined to the economic analysis within a system of thought that has proven itself unviable in human affairs, it might make for only a footnote here. But the underlying sentiment persists beyond the realm of economics and permeates much of our social thinking. We hear it commonly expressed in the idea that there must be a “winner” and a “loser” in every transaction.
I confront this notion quite frequently in my classes. My response has been to ask the student uttering such beliefs if he or she has ever purchased an automobile from a dealer. I usually get a “yes” answer to my inquiry. The student will then go on to recite another article of faith in this view, namely, that the businessman, by virtue of his more abundant resources, enjoys an “unequal bargaining power” over the buyer, enabling him to “exploit” the buyer. One such discussion continued as follows:
“Are you aware of this ‘unfair advantage’ before entering into the transaction?,” I ask.
“Yes,” the student proclaims.
“So that, before agreeing to purchase the car, you know that you are going to be taken advantage of by the seller and, further, that you will ‘lose’ (i.e., be worse off afterward) in this transaction?”
“Yes,” the student responds.
“Then why would you enter into such an agreement in the first place?,” I ask. “If you have voluntarily entered into an economic transaction, knowing that you were going to be exploited, what would have motivated you to do so?”
“Because I have no choice,” he or she answers.16
This is the kind of muddled thinking produced by collectivist thought, a confusion that feeds the interconnected strands of personal irresponsibility and popular demands for political remedies for imagined “wrongs.” Such thinking conflates the exploitation that does exist in the world—such as acquiring the property of another through acts of theft, fraud, eminent domain, taxation, embezzlement, etc.—with one’s failure to anticipate the consequences of his or her voluntary acts.
For the collectivists to denounce, as “exploitation,” transactions in which individual property owners freely make decisions with one another, is not only to condemn life processes, but to fail to distinguish peaceful from violent behavior. The exploitation that derives from violence (e.g., an act of theft) constitutes a violation of the property principle. A voluntary act of exchange by an owner, on the other hand, represents not only the very essence of ownership, but is a real world expression of what it means to be a free, independent individual. If a worker’s property interest in his or her work is “exploited” by the worker choosing to be employed by the businessman, under what circumstances will the collectivist acknowledge said worker to be free to make such a choice? When, in other words, does the worker acquire an existential authority over his or her own labor? Such is a moot question, of course, for such independence is precisely what no collectivist can abide.
The socialist, of course, will argue that the worker is not paid adequate compensation for his or her work—as though economic values have an objectively defined quality to them. It is also contended that the employee has no real “choice” in working for “exploitative” wages. From the perspective of the worker, however, such employment is the best of the available options. When collectivists endeavor to prevent the importation of goods manufactured in Third World countries by workers who are paid lower wages than are paid in America, for example, such efforts—when successful—deprive the foreign workers of employment options, thus worsening their lot.
Socialistic thinking, grounded in notions of “alienation” of workers from their work has, ironically, contributed to the disconnectedness many people have as a result of not being able to influence, through negotiation, their relationships with others. Collectivism requires the mindset that the individual is helplessly caught up in a presumed mass of humanity, the powerful forces of which he can neither comprehend nor deal. A.E. Housman’s lament, “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made,”17 provides a lyric to the sense of personal inadequacy and vulnerability upon which all political systems depend. Only within a powerful group, it is believed, can one’s interests be effectively pursued. We see, herein, yet another example of the problems that can arise from divisive, dualistic thinking that fails to respect the inviolability of individual decision making. In teaching us to think of voluntarily transacted and compensated work as a form of “exploitation,” employees have increasingly allowed the state to preempt their authority to contract for themselves. Even worse, such dogmas—to the degree they are believed—weaken the listener and generate a sense of helplessness, the very mindset necessary for collective rule.
The same thinking has metastasized into other sectors of human activity. Landlord and tenant agreements, product standards, sales and employment practices, and the relationships of family members to one another, are further examples of the collectivist premise that the state should superintend our dealings with one another. Even the most personal of matters—including what food and drugs people may consume, their weight levels, and how they treat their pets—are now considered appropriate subjects for political/legal decision-making. As we saw earlier, personal behavior that was once confined to the domain of “manners” to be addressed by social pressures, has provided an ever-expanding list of public offenses to which the state is expected, by many, to respond. It is difficult to imagine any facet of human activity that, in today’s politicized climate, could be said to be safely reserved to individuals and beyond the reach of state power. We have become so passive in the management of our own affairs that we regard it as an accusation to want to “take the law into our own hands,” something we do whenever we freely negotiate with one another for the rules, i.e., a contract, that will govern our mutual relationships. In a free society, one supposedly grounded in a “social contract”, in whose hands should “the law” reside? What sense of personal alienation is engendered by the state presuming, contrary to our will, to act for our alleged benefit?
Because collectivist thinking, with its insistence upon objectively-defined values, has come to dominate the material dimensions of our lives, even non-material values (e.g., aesthetics, morality, religious and political principles) have been co-opted by “objective” thinking. That notions of “good” and “evil,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” and the like, are steeped in subjective preferences, has not discouraged many people from selfrighteously imposing their standards upon others.
Having already been taught the importance of security and the dangers of uncertainty, and believing that the state is capable of planning for and managing society for beneficial ends, we eagerly embrace the political structuring and regulation of our lives and property interests. Like dogs who carry their own leashes in their mouths, we readily subject ourselves to the rigid discipline of institutional authorities and channel our energies in ways that serve their ends.
Long before humanity embarked upon the Industrial Revolution, the life process had discovered the evolutionary and survival benefits of a system of exchange for mutual advantage. Might such arrangements in nature suggest to us that the roots of marketplace economics go much deeper than abstract, ideological preferences? Might a system of laissez faire be an expression of the need for life to be spontaneous and autonomous if it is to remain creative and thrive?
As we learn to think of our world more holographically, the divisive exploitation theories upon which all collectivist systems depend, begin to evaporate. At the same time, such a shift in consciousness may likely cause us to see how our well-being, as humans, is dependent upon the well-being of other life forms. It is not just the loss of individual species that should concern us, but the loss of the interactions among various species that could have produced a multiplicity of strategies for survival. It is out of this symbiotic dance, whose complexities, as the study of chaos tells us, are far too numerous to be prescribed or predicted, that biological diversity is strengthened.
To think of the world holographically, we must see through the dualistic processes by which our minds have created divisions in our lives. Nowhere is this more necessary than in our social relationships. We separate our individual and collective well-being, not recognizing that our mutual interests lie in preserving our individual liberty and property interests. The dichotomy into which we have been conditioned works to the benefit of institutions—most particularly the state—that promise to regulate our conduct so as to “balance” our allegedly “competing” interests. But this separation is wholly an artifact of our thinking. Were we to understand that what we have in common is a need to respect and protect the inviolability of one another’s lives and property, this false division would end. As long as we think of our individual interests as opposed to one another and seek wholeness within collectives, we end up institutionalizing the collective, turning it into an end in itself, the result of which is to produce the kind of rigidly ossified, coercive structures that destroy civilizations.
Because of the divisiveness generated by traditional thinking, we find it plausible to believe that our interests are fundamentally incompatible with one another. The twentieth century, alone, should have disabused us of the destructive and demeaning illusion that social order requires the subordination of the individual to some fanciful collective good. A holographic model of society does not imply collectivism dressed up in new costumes: quite the contrary. The holographic premise ends the divisive thinking that sees individual and social interests as being inherently in conflict.
Our acceptance of collectivist thinking has been the major contributor to the debasement of our lives. Being premised upon the subservience of individuals to institutional purposes, collectivism is unavoidably a system, in varying degrees, of human sacrifice. The degradation of the individual implicit in such thinking finds clear expression in the motion picture, Casablanca, when Rick declares: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”18 In a society whose members respected the inviolate, self-serving purpose of each person, such a statement would be met with contempt. It would be generally recognized that there is nothing “noble” in the sacrifice of even one person in furtherance of political adventures.
Through playing out the conflicts and contradictions inherent in the collectivist doctrine, we have turned human society into the dystopia that Hobbes 19 envisioned arising from the absence of systems brought about through such thinking. Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, and other fascistic and socialistic nightmare societies with their slave labor, death camps, wars, genocides, and other calculated cruelties, uniformly attest to the monstrous consequences of forcibly herding human beings. The fate of the Soviet Union, alone, a system in which so many well-intended persons had invested their intellectual energies, ought to be a warning as to how the exaltation of collectives ends up destroying the opportunities for individuals to realize their mutual interests through genuine cooperation and, in so doing, diminishes civilization, itself, as a viable, creative system.
From the works of a number of historians, we may induce an inverse relationship between a condition of liberty and the collapse of civilizations. If liberty is thought of as life pursuing what it chooses to pursue in order to produce the values upon which its viability depends; and if the structuring of life processes frustrates those ends, we may wish to consider that life has a dynamic of such a compelling nature that it will eventually bring about the collapse of structures that impede its expression.
We need to put aside the political and ideological myths that we continue to recycle as received wisdom and become aware of the dynamics that either produce or destroy a healthy society. The creative richness of a civilization derives from the behavior of individuals, not from some imagined collective genius. The creative process depends upon men and women being free to experiment; to generate and pursue any of a variety of options; to be mistaken; and to offend the habits, tastes, sensibilities, prejudices, or established interests of others. As we experience in “brainstorming” sessions, it is the interplay of individual insights and responses that gives birth to the new; a process that presumes the liberty of people to act upon the world.
The vibrancy of any system depends upon its capacity and willingness to both generate and respond to change. Neither individuals nor civilizations can remain creative unless people are free to direct their own energies and to convert some portion of the material world to their self-interested purposes. The death of civilizations, on the other hand, is facilitated by a movement from individualized to collective patterns of thinking and conduct. Fear mobilizes mass-mindedness which, in turn, produces the state’s deadliest expressions: wars and genocides. Nuclear and neutron bombs, with their capacities for killing hundreds of thousands of people in one strike, are the logical technological consequence of herding individuals into collectives. The indiscriminate slaughter of people and the massive destruction of cities, factories, transportation systems, and other forms of material wealth, are inconsistent with the creative processes of civilization. History reminds us that civilizations are created and sustained by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives.
Whether this civilization collapses from its accumulated entropy, or is able to transform itself into a more resilient system, will depend upon whether we are able to reform our organizational thinking and systems so as to enhance life-sustaining practices. Such fundamental alterations, however, must occur within each of us rejecting the collectivist premise that the interests of organizational entities have priority over those of individuals. If we are to transform our civilization, there must be a profound shift in both the thinking and practices that now threaten it, including our insistence upon identifying ourselves through collective “ego-boundary” attachments. We must begin by acknowledging that “life” belongs to the living, not to venerated abstractions or institutions; that human society exists for the mutual benefit of individuals pursuing their own purposes and meanings in life, rather than for the aggrandizement of institutional collectives. We need to discover new principles and systems within which we can freely cooperate with one another to achieve personal and mutual ends. We need to learn from the experience of the tens of millions who have suffered under various forms of collectivism that becoming attached to a collective is both a material and a spiritual dead end, for one has no capacity to direct its course to their purposes. Systems premised upon a decentralized, holographic model of organization may provide the best means of generating social behavior capable of protecting both individual liberty and cooperative undertakings; thus ending the divisiveness that inheres in institutionalism. We must liberate ourselves from the albatross of collectivism.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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