The Collectivist Mentality

[This article appeared in Huffington Post, Nov. 9, 2015:  http://huff.to/1RINNZY]

China’s mandatory limit on the number of children a couple may have, which the communist government recently announced is being changed from one to two, attracts little support in the West. Apart from the most ardent environmentalists, people generally recognize the evil of such a policy.

But do they understand what, at root, makes it so abhorrent? Or do they tolerate, even embrace, variants of the same idea in other areas? Consider, for example, the following three positions and ask yourself whether there is a common belief underlying all of them:

  • The communist’s prohibition against having more than one (or two) children.
  • The conservative’s demand that assisted suicide be banned.
  • The liberal’s campaign against income inequality.

These seemingly diverse views are actually products of the same mindset: a collectivist mentality.

Under the collectivist philosophy, the individual has no independent existence or value. He is merely one of many indistinguishable, disposable cells within the “social organism.” It is the group that has primacy. Consequently, all important decisions must be made, not by the individual, but by society — i.e., by the state.

When it comes to child-bearing, on this view, everything you give your child — every morsel of food, every drop of water, every inch of space — represents a resource taken away from society. All acts of consumption become acts of expropriation. You therefore need public approval before having a child. You must be given permission to use up society’s scarce resources. And what about your rights? You have none, according to the doctrine of collectivism. The demands of the group, not the rights of the individual, set the standard for social policy.

Similarly, those who oppose assisted suicide believe that your life is not really your own. You are a fragment of society, they say, not an independent human being. The decision to terminate your life, no matter what agonies you may be suffering, cannot be made by you or by those who choose to assist you. Rather, it must be made by the collective. As one legal brief, written for a Supreme Court case, put it: “[Suicide] is an intensely social act . . . amenable to social control, since it has a dramatic impact on others.” It is an act “requiring the assent of society as a whole.” (And even those who oppose suicide on strictly religious grounds share the collectivist’s basic premise: the presence of some “higher power” to which the individual must subordinate himself.)

This point is articulated more starkly in an 1802 handbook of English law (cited approvingly in the aforementioned brief): “The law regards [suicide] as an heinous offence . . . for as the public have a right to every man’s assistance, he who voluntarily kills himself is with respect to the public as criminal as one who kills another.”

In other words, suicide and murder are equally objectionable since both diminish the human resources available to society. We are all supposed to accept the role of rightless serfs, serving as fodder for some “greater good.”

The same philosophy underlies the crusade for income equality. “Why should the top 1 percent own close to 50 percent of the wealth in America?” the crusaders ask. Or, looking at the issue more globally, “Why should the U.S., with under 5 percent of the world’s population, have more than 20 percent of the world’s GDP?” If your life is not yours, neither is your money. Instead it supposedly belongs to the collective, which then determines how much you should be allowed to have.

But don’t the rich have more because they have produced more? Doesn’t a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett or a Sam Walton create his wealth through his own efforts? No, says the collectivist emphatically — no one does. This view holds not just that your money may be seized at will by society, but that you never earned it in the first place. It’s the view that your income is a collective product.

“It takes a village to raise a billionaire,” according to the organization Responsible Wealth. “You didn’t build that,” according to President Obama — society did. To the collectivist, wealth is never an individual achievement. Rather, it materializes, causelessly and anonymously, from the social organism. And since we’re all just interchangeable cells of that organism, why should any single cell receive a bigger paycheck than any other? Why shouldn’t we all be “equal”?

Exercising our rights over our lives — from keeping our own money, to bearing children, to choosing suicide — depends on a moral code of individualism. Every attack on our freedom stems from the notion that the individual must be sacrificed to the collective. These attacks will not end until the individual is upheld as an end in himself, rather than merely a means to the ends of others.♦♦

Unsoaking the Rich

The most distressing aspect of soak-the-rich schemes is not that the left keeps pushing them-but that the right regularly fails to offers a convincing refutation.

When Democrats declare that the rich are not paying their “fair share” of taxes, the Republicans’ typical response is: Oh yes, they are; look at how much more they pay, in both absolute dollars and percentage of income, than those in lower brackets. Besides–Republicans usually add–refraining from imposing higher taxes on the rich helps “society as a whole,” because of all the jobs produced through their investment capital.

But this type of response does not address the core question. The nature of that question, as well as the absence of a compelling answer, is hinted at by James Taranto, writer of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Best of the Web” column, in his examination of a recent New York Times article. . . .

[For the full article, see “The Correct Answer to All the Soak-the-Rich Tax Schemes” at RealClearMarkets.]

How Not To Fight Environmentalism

Environmentalists succeed largely because they are able to pretend that their goal is to protect nature for man, while the truth is that they want to protect nature from man. They regularly oppose projects that demonstrably benefit human beings, on the grounds that nature—fish, turtles, owls, trees, wetlands—will be damaged.

While at first environmentalists made some nominal claims about how people would ultimately be harmed, such claims have now become largely unnecessary. The environmentalists’ “package-deal,” which blurs the distinction between effects on nature and effects on man, has become entrenched in people’s minds. Consequently, many people now regard the value of preserving the “environment” as a given.

Even professed opponents of environmentalism accept this premise. Consider the campaign currently being waged by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a generally good, pro-capitalist organization. It is opposing the policies that are exacerbating, and perpetuating, the effects of California’s drought. Or rather, it is trying to oppose them.

The headline in its latest newsletter says: “PLF Fights government ‘Green’ Policies That Help Turn California Brown.” In order to protect the Delta smelt—a fish on the official endangered-species list—the government there has been diverting water away from reservoirs. But instead of categorically stating that human life is the source of our values, and that man has rights while fish, and the “environment,” do not, PLF is accepting the environmentalists’ main premise.

“We litigate for the urgent needs—human and environmental—that the feds ignore,” PLF declares. It complains that “the water cutoffs for the smelt hurt other species (along with millions of human beings).” Government bureaucrats, PLF says, must be “made to recognize that their responsibility extends to all species affected by their decisions—including human beings.”

To say that we should be concerned with both human and environmental needs, is to concede everything. It’s like saying that the reason to clean your house is that it is both good for you and good for your house. Which means that we have to “protect” the house from being dirtied, irrespective of any effect on you. But there is no intrinsic value to cleanliness as such, nor to a house as such, nor to nature as such, when divorced from its value to human beings.

And underlying the environmentalist ideology is the ethics of self-sacrifice. This is the ethics under which you have no moral right to your self-interest, but rather must subordinate it to the needs of any non-you—including the Delta smelt. 

With respect to environmentalist assertions, therefore, about the need to keep endangered species and free-flowing rivers and swampland unaffected by man, the proper response is threefold: first, an insistence that the life of rational, productive man be taken as the standard of value; second, an insistence that only after there is objective evidence of harm to human beings can any discussion even begin; and third, an insistence that the individual has no moral duty to sacrifice his well-being to that of animals and plants. (For more on the meaning of this ethics, see the chapter “The Goal of Self-Sacrifice” in my book, In Defense of Selfishness amzn.to/1sd2EQP).♦♦