- Josh Lewis
Resistance is NOT Futile – Part 4 (There’s No Place Like Home)
Updated: May 25, 2020
“Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
I recall an old joke about two Russian neighbors living in the Soviet Union that lacked in humor what is made up for in insight:
The first Russian asks his neighbor, “Comrade, if you had two million rubles, would you give me one million?” His neighbor responds, “Of course I would.” “And,” continued the first Russian, “if you had two trucks, would you allow me to use one?” His neighbor replied, “Comrade, why do you ask such things? You know we have all things in common. Of course, I would give you other truck.” Then he asks, “If you had two chickens would you give me one?”
“Because I have two chickens.”
The Soviet Union had faithfully put into practice the ultimate collectivist experiment. In accordance with Karl Marx’s philosophy, here all things would be held in common so that the people would no longer be exploited by their landlords and those who owned capital. Capitalism was decried as vulgar and greedy and a totalitarian, central authority would ensure at last that each individual would pay his fair share. And yet, the results of such an ambitious experiment were more than disappointing.
“Where are social injustices greatest?” Asked economist Milton Friedman back when communism gripped most of the world, “Social injustices are clearly greatest where you have central control…where do you have the greatest degree of inequality? In the socialist states of the world.” The old joke about the two Russians depicted the sad reality of the collectivist experiment: those living under communist rule were not less greedy and selfish. In fact, they had become more so.
Why was that? Was it because Russians were inherently greedier than their Western counterparts? Surely not. Friedman argues this is simply “ignorance and misunderstanding of the relationship between moral values and economic systems…The problem is that moral values are individual. They are not collective. Moral values have to do with what each of us separately believes and holds true. Capitalism, socialism, central planning are means, not ends. They, in and of themselves, are neither moral nor immoral, humane nor inhumane. We have to ask ‘what are their results?’ We have to look at the consequences of adopting one or another system of organization.”
The results of the Soviet experiment was starvation, mass killings, genocides, wars, and sever economic stagnation that led to the death of sixty million people during Stalin’s reign alone. I don’t want to sound like I’m cherry-picking the worse-case-scenario to illustrate the problem with collectivism, but it can be helpful to examine the most extreme cases to understand why collectivism poses a problem: because collectivism severs the individual’s affections and sense of responsibility to their community.
In fact, this is usually the most lasting damage inflicted by collectivist efforts; the very fabric of communities are so severely strained that families, neighborhoods, churches and the like may never fully recover. Much like the Russian who didn’t want to give his neighbor his chicken, those who live under collectivist rule stop looking to their neighbors, friends, and family as people deserving of their love, protection, and devotion. Why should they? That’s what the state’s for.
What About the Experts?
As we covered in Part 2, there is a proper role for the state in some collective efforts for public benefit. The state may be able to act where individual actions are unlikely to result in benefits to the whole society. What’s more, the state may be able to pool from a select group of experts with specialized skills, knowledge, and experience on a wide array of complex topics.
I am not at all unsympathetic to the view that certain individuals are better educated, equipped, or experienced to guide the masses in certain matters. It makes sense, at some level, why we might benefit from our meals being planned by an army of bureaucrats with expertise in nutrition, agriculture, economics, and distribution. While the free market provides the most cost-effective products to the consumer, the question may be asked should these cost-effective products be consumed at all?
If we advance down this line of thinking further, we might soon find justification for removing from the masses the burden of making nearly any decision on what they’re allowed to consume. How could we expect the average person to have adequate knowledge of what products are safe or environmentally-friendly or unlikely to lead to the destruction of some valuable industry?
But no matter how well-intentioned, well-educated, or gifted central planners may be, the very fact they are making plans for us on our behalf means we are less likely to reach our full potential as human beings. Humans are not cogs in a well-regulated machine. Humans are spiritual beings with a highly sophisticated need for association within a community where they may experience a sense of belonging. Absent strong ties to a community, we don’t get an opportunity to cultivate the personal responsibility or other virtues that can only come by participation within genuine community.
While central planners may be up to the task of devising the perfect scheme for ending poverty or obesity, their schemes will fall short the moment they’re taken from the sterile laboratory of social science and applied to actual human beings. Humans can’t be tricked into behaving virtuously, and virtuous behavior is all the more unlikely to occur if genuine communities—those incubators of virtue—are replaced by a passionless collective.
Exercising Those Duty and Affection Muscles
My perceived duty to society or my love for country will never exceed my affections for those within my closest associations. If there is no one—no family member, no religious or political affiliation, no God or gods—at the most local level that I feel some sense of belonging to, it would be unreasonable to expect me to manufacture some artificial sense of duty to a distant, artificial association created by strangers who claim they have my best interest in mind.
Communities provide us with roots. Collectives do not. When I paid my income taxes earlier this year I didn’t reflect on how nice it was that my tax burden was making an imperceptivity tiny contribution to a host of governmental programs designed to alleviate poverty. I might have reflected on the good my voluntary donation to a local charity would do within the community. But even then, my duty and affection muscles didn’t even break a sweat.
Where I truly had to exercise those muscles was in giving a friend a lift when his car broke down, or when a small group from our church helped someone move from their apartment into a house, or when I had to give up a busy social schedule to care for a chronically ill loved one. It was there, embedded within the communities I’ve freely chosen to associate with, that true character is develops first.
A Nation is No Greater Than the Sum of Its Communities
Without genuine, vibrant, strong communities we do not reach our full potential. We struggle with a profound sense of alienation, let alone the ability to cultivate the deeper virtues of charity, duty, prudence, and efficiency. “Men cannot exist without proper community, as Aristotle knew; and when they have been denied community of spirit, they turn unreasoningly to community of goods,” warned Russell Kirk.
The ambitious collectivist experiments of the twentieth century were not advancements of the human race, but a sort of pre-modern retreat: “It is quite true that joint ownership, by community or family, is older than private ownership of land. But this only demonstrates that private proprietorship is a part of progress.”
“Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demoniac fears and passions,” wrote sociologist Dr. Robert Nisbet. It is precisely within the confines of our closest communities where we learn first how to practice love and respect. Those affections may expand outward to meet the needs of those outside of our communities or to come together in time of national crisis; but those affections must first be rooted somewhere.
Efforts at collective projects from encouraging people to eat healthier to feeding the hungry to alleviating poverty to fighting a war are only successful if the people participating in those efforts behave virtuously, courageously, and energetically. And those virtues don’t fully develop unless individuals are free to associate with genuine, vibrant communities. Just as the whole is no greater than the sum of its parts, a nation is no greater or stronger than the tiny communities of which it is comprised.
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