“Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
Genuine community emerges locally and voluntarily.
A community may include some local political bodies, private associations, guilds, or families that enforce certain rules. A community may have members who don’t necessarily agree with every aspect of those rules yet, nevertheless, willingly submit to them out of a belief that they’re better off following rules they don’t particularly approve of than creating their own “rules” and risk alienation from the community. A child may not be particularly fond of the bedtime his parents have set for him, but that hardly means he’d willingly leave the community of his family. In a healthy, genuine community there is a strong sense of voluntary association among the members. Community—genuine community—must be two things: 1) local and 2) voluntary.
Opposite of community stands collectivism—the practice of giving a group priority over each individual within the group. Community and collectivism are both ways in which we can arrange a group of people. But while community is limited in size and must be upheld voluntarily, collectivism is—theoretically—not bound by limitations of the size of the group or the geographical disbursement of the group, and it certainly isn’t limited by the willingness of those within the group to participate in the demands of the collective.
Government may or may not be part of a community. But government is key to collectivism. In particular, a government of central authority where all power vests in a small group of overseers is highly suggestive of a collectivist spirit. A community is a group in which the uniqueness and dignity of each individual is respected and maintained. Collectivism prizes the group as a whole over the individuals within the group.
An Imperfect Dichotomy
The dichotomy between community and collectivism is similar to the difference between capitalism and socialism. Conservatives—generally speaking—support community/capitalism and oppose collectivism/socialism. Yet these are not tangible things as they only exist in some perfect form in some mythical world. There has never been a purely capitalist society; even ours has always had elements of state intervention. Nor has there ever been a purely socialist society; even the Communist countries of Asia and Eastern Europe that worked to abolish the free market could never rid itself of thriving black markets from within.
In much the same way there does not exist a group of people that perfectly embodies either the conservative concept of community or the sort of collectivism propagated by the radical Left and Right. It’s well and good to say that a community is marked by the local, voluntary participation of its members, but how far might we stretch that understanding? How local is local enough? What if part of what holds members to a community is fear of what might happen if they left? Wouldn’t that invalidate the voluntary nature of that community? And who’s to say whether we participate in the communities to which we belong purely out of a sense of love or loyalty or guilt or fear or misplaced identity? No community is perfectly voluntary.
Nor would it be fair to say that collectivism is completely involuntary, undesirable, or evil. The conservative isn’t seeking abstract perfection but practical optimization. While there are many things the conservative disdains about collectivism—which we’ll unpackage throughout this series—it should be noted there are times when collectivism is sensible and desirable. As economist Thomas Sowell explained in Basic Economics, “There are things that government can do more effectively than individuals because external costs or external benefits make individual decisions, based on individual interests, a less effective way of weighing costs and benefits to the whole society.”
Sowell uses the lowly mud flap to illustrate his point: “Even if everyone agrees that the benefits of mud flaps greatly exceed their costs, there is no feasible way of buying these benefits in a free market, since you receive no benefits from the mud flaps that you buy and put on your own car, but only from mud flaps that other people buy and put on their cars and trucks…it is possible to obtain collectively through government what cannot be obtained individually through the marketplace, simply by having laws passed requiring all cars and trucks to have mud flaps on them.”
Doubtless, ten thousand other applications of collectivism may spring to mind. We might recognize a benefit in getting the government involved in regulating the environment, since we all benefit from a clean environment, but some have an economic incentive to behave in a manner that harms the environment. We might argue that certain professions should be licensed by the government. Take my profession, for example: as a CPA I have a responsibility to the public to report fraud when I find it. Shouldn’t the state be able to delicense those who abuse that prerogative? We might see a need for the government to regulate agriculture, pharmaceuticals, construction, even soft drinks in the name of public safety or the public good. And we might suspect that certain minorities are being unfairly discriminated against and insist the government enforce our notions of equality.
And, since these ideas of community and collectivism don’t exist in an absolute sense, conservatives have recognized that reasonable arguments, based on our understanding of human nature and circumstance, can be made for governmental collectivism in a wide variety of areas. But we should always be mindful of the trade-offs and unintended consequences of collectivism. “While externalities are a serious consideration in determining the role of government, they do not simply provide a blanket justification or a magic word which automatically allows economics to be ignored and politically attractive goals to be pursued without further ado.” Sowell warns. “Both the incentives of the market and the incentives of politics must be weighed when choosing between them on any particular issue.”
The aim of the conservative then isn’t to simply oppose collectivism absolutely, but to be mindful of its harmful effects and reconcile our natural tendency to demand more collectivism when strengthening the reach of our existing communities would provide for more lasting and healthy solutions. And what are those harmful effects of collectivism? I’m going to address some of them later in the series, but, for now, let’s turn our attention back to socialism—one of the most obvious applications of collectivism.
Karl Marx, the father of communism, is credited with the famous phrase, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” What would a world that fully embraced this sentiment look like? We could only imagine. But it would doubtlessly be a better world than the one we have now. If everyone used their abilities to minister to the needs of others, we might achieve as near a heaven on earth as would be possible in this life.
And, to an extent, the marking of a healthy, vibrant community is one that boasts of those members of the community cheerfully giving to those within the community who are in need. We might think of a loving family as a sort of micro-community. The family is comprised of multiple members with varying abilities. The able-bodied adults—who are most likely in a position to earn a living wage and protect their loved ones from harm—willingly give to the rest of the family who are too young, or too old, or too handicapped to otherwise provide for themselves.
Or we might expand this scope outward into the neighborhood, or the local church, or a small town where friends graciously and charitably minister to the needs of one another. Some Christian monasteries or even entire sects abide by a from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs model of communal living as an expression of love and self-sacrifice.
But the phrase from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs—as it is understood in its modern sense—is referring to a very different kind of “community”; which is not a community at all, but a sort of forced synchronization. Socialism is the recommended remedy for all that is wrong with this world. By vesting the means of production, profits, economic output, and every other material aspect of our lives into the hands of a benevolent central authority, the state will ensure that the people are equitably distributed the collective wealth of the group. No one will go without because everyone will be provided for—just as everyone will be compelled to give all that they have.
But this form of “community” is an oxymoron, just as socialism itself is a contradictory idea; for it imagines a community without the voluntary consent of those within the community. A genuine community implies that those who belong to the community are ultimately members by choice. When a genuine community provides for the needs of those within the community, they are doing so because they freely chose to do so.
The sort of collectivism prescribed by socialism may mimic a genuine community’s generosity. But this is merely a grotesque mischaracterization of the raw deal. You can forcibly take from one person and give to another. You cannot force someone to freely give to another for if it was forced, it cannot be freely chosen. Community—genuine, vibrant, healthy, wholesome, enduring, meaningful community—cannot be forced into existence.
This is the primary failing of collectivism: it seeks to forcibly produce the sort of benefits that emerge naturally from healthy communities—generosity, affection, responsibility, protection, and a sense of belonging—without recognizing the necessity of the freedom, self-sacrifice, and hard work that is required to obtain these benefits. It seeks a shortcut to the benefits of community without having to deal with all the toil of actually building and maintaining a community. It seeks to enforce from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs by forcibly taking from those who “have” and giving to those who have been arbitrarily identified as the “have nots”.
Should We Force People to be Better People?
There’s an infinite gap between the fine sentimentality of socialism and the actual practice. We might say gee…wouldn’t the world be a better place if people were kinder? Of course it would. But that doesn’t imply it would be a better place if we had Kindness Police ready to punish anyone they caught who was petulant, irritable, or rude. The real question isn’t whether we’d be better off if people were better, but whether we’d be better off if people were forced to be better.
And even if we were to allow that forced charity is still preferable to freely chosen greed, that begs a litany of follow-up questions, such as how do we agree upon what “better off” actually means? How do we know when we’ve achieved it? Who gets to decide these things? Who gets the power to enforce preferred behavior? How do we prevent them from abusing that power? How much enforcement or confiscation of wealth is “enough”? You can’t enforce what you can’t define.
Socialism—even outright communism—has made a stunning resurgence among Millennials in particular. And it is true that many who advocate socialistic policies have laudable goals of helping those in need. But it is not laudable to suggest the enforcement of any one person’s version of what constitutes an ethical community. If people are willing to give up their personal possessions and hold all things in common, they may do so. But that is not what’s being advocated. What’s being advocated is that the people be compelled—willing or not—to give up their personal possessions so that others may decide, on their behalf, who is in need of them.
If we hold on to any utopian vision for long we must ultimately decide whether our vision is more important than extending liberty to our fellow citizens to behave in ways that are contrary to our vision. Collectivism is necessary to bend the will of the individual to the perceived good of the group. But conservatives are doubtful about our ability to reach consensus on what constitutes the group’s good and are even more skeptical of the claim the good of the group outweighs the rights of the individual.
Collectivism is a tool often used to achieve dangerously ill-defined ends. By seeking to force community, it inadvertently destroys the freedom that allows for communities to exist. But more than the community, it ultimately destroys what it means to be an individual. And that is where we’ll pick up in Part 3.