Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life under Collectivism

Dennis Prager has a column on how collectivism (or, in his word, “socialism”) destroys greatness, not of a people but of each person:

The state sucks out creativity and dynamism just as much as secularism does. Why do anything for yourself when the state will do it for you? Why take care of others when the state will do it for you? Why have ambition when the state is there to ensure that few or no individuals are rewarded more than others? America has been the center of energy and creativity in almost every area of life because it has remained far more religious than any other industrialized Western democracy and because it has rejected the welfare state social model.

This is a theme that has been bouncing around in recent years. In a speech I like, Charles Murray describes the attitude of Europeans raised in the welfare state thusly:

What’s happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize “spreading.” I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that’s the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that’s the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble—and, after all, what good are they, really? If that’s the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that’s the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe’s military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

Collectivism is dispiriting for at least three reasons. First, life is in a collectivist society irretrievably zero-sum. The reason the poor don’t have enough is because the rich have too much. The reason Chrysler workers are in danger of losing their jobs is because bondholders are asking for too much. The European model, or the German labor model (with unions getting a seat on the board of directors in many large companies) or the stakeholder model (where a corporation is run through consensus among “stakeholders”) it's all about forcing people to consensus, even when agreement may not be the best solution from the point of view of society as a whole. (It is often from irreconcilable differences within the established order that the greatest ideas spring.)

Imagine collectivism as the government bringing all the groups it deems as worthy of having a say in how society, a publicly owned or publicly chartered firm, the health-care system, or whatnot should be run into a single closed room. The government wants consensus to be reached in an atmosphere of amicability, and so the room is nicely furnished -- it is in the White House, even. It is assumed that what will happen is that all of the groups will bring angry disagreements to the table, but sitting around a table will force them to resolve them.

But of course staying in the room isn't, and shouldn't be, the only option. It should be possible to leave the room and start your own business, or to stay out of it entirely -- to elect to have the government leave you alone in your choices of schooling, e.g. But collectivism says that the leader picks the guests, and whatever solution the guests come up with is binding on everyone. (This framework ignores the very real problems that seats at the table may be acquired through bribing the leader, or that the meeting in the room may be camouflage for the leader brutally imposing his own proposed solution on everyone, or even doing so in pursuit of his mere political success. But my example is collectivism taken on its own terms.)

And so collectivist societies are those in which the existing set of interest groups congeals, never to change. And all social disagreement is to be resolved through zero-sum conflict within the room, instead of through the dynamism made possible when free men are allowed to exit it, or to barge into it on the merit of their own achievements. Collectivism is the same old pressure groups doing less and less producing and more and more arguing, meaning that what your enemy is getting becomes the most important datum in evaluating social change. (Anyone who was ever worked in an environment with collective bargaining knows this to be true.)

Second, as Prager and Murray note, the collectivist society is one in which individual greatness no longer matters. Fairness in the distribution of the fruits of toil, and not the permanence and magnitude of those fruits, is the only interesting question. We do not dare to be great, because life is only about momentary pleasure and fairness. Why go to Mars, or take the risk on that revolution in human transportation, or on a potential cure for cancer, when our six weeks of vacation are coming up, or when we’re 55 and it's time to put that dreary job behind us? Perhaps the most important effect of the spread of globalization to the vast seas of humanity in India and China is the inculcation of the belief that individual achievement and greatness matter, that individual glory is to be had in solving human problems. These concerns will be nowhere to be found in our collectivist conference room.

Third, collectivist life is simply less interesting. The economist Edmund Phelps had a piece a few years back in the Wall Street Journal, which included these remarks:

I would, however, stress a benefit of dynamism that I believe to be far more important. Instituting a high level of dynamism, so that the economy is fired by the new ideas of entrepreneurs, serves to transform the workplace--in the firms developing an innovation and also in the firms dealing with the innovations. The challenges that arise in developing a new idea and in gaining its acceptance in the marketplace provide the workforce with high levels of mental stimulation, problem-solving, employee-engagement and, thus, personal growth.

If the meeting in the conference room is being chaired by the president of France, and the people in it are all the CEOs of France's leading national champions, that is not a meeting I want to be in. More particularly, those are not companies I want to work for. The collectivist expresses grand enthusiasm about solving problems, but the problems he is interested in solving are so small in the grand scheme of things -- extending 2009-quality health care to more people, managing the status quo of slow decline, saving today's jobs for a few of today's workers. Work that is truly worthy of human ingenuity -- figuring out why the existing way of doing things is so unsatisfactory, trying to persuade people that your solution is the best one in a manner that forces you to really have a stake in the outcome, creating new technologies and trying to find out if they are worth to society what you think they are, these are problems that people in dynamic societies have to solve all the time, often by quitting their current employment and boldly embarking on their own. Collectivism saps that spirit, which has consequences not just for individual greatness but for human happiness as well. Perhaps large numbers of people agitating for more time away from work, even as they simultaneously agitate for complete protection from dismissal from it, is the sign that the decline of collectivism has permanently taken hold. That moment appears to have long since arrived in Europe, and is now knocking at the door here.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home