Column on the Collectivist Trick

The Collectivist Trick

Tibor R. Machan

There is an unforgettable scene in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), starring Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and a host of others. At one point one of Sellers’ characters, the mad scientists with the heavy German accent, is making a presentation and while doing so his right arm and hand engage in movements, as if these were not part of Sellers at all but had an independent will. The arm keeps shooting out to give the Heil Hitler sign and it needs to be restrained by the other arm. The character is clearly internally conflicted and the arm is damaged.

This scene comes to my mind a lot when I encounter not only popular politicians but also sophisticated political theorists who insist that we all belong to some collective being–the nation, state, culture, ethnic group, humanity, or the people. That’s because when one thinks of human individuals in this collectivist fashion, their own conduct–the actions they take on their own independent initiative–are seen by such collectivists as out of line, just the way the Sellers character’s arm was out of line. And when that happens, individuals must be put in their place as servants of the collective just as Sellers’ arm had to be!

For many centuries the battle between individualism and collectivism has underpinned the more particular political controversies evident everywhere around the globe. Do you own your own life–do you have an unalienable right to to as it states in the Declaration of Independence, following the ideas of John Locke and some other classical liberals (although not all that many)? Or do you belong to the group–family, neighborhood, community, nation, etc., as for example was enthusiastically argued by the father of sociology, the French Auguste Comte and is being argued today by such communitarians as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, among many others?

Why bring this up now? Because the dominant political thinking in America and indeed many other places has pretty much given up on the quintessentially American idea that you and I and the rest of us have an unalienable right to our lives. President Obama, for example, is an avid supporter of the ideas of his former Chicago Law School colleague, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, in championing what is known as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, in opposition to the Founders’ original bill which is draw from the Declaration.

 

In that original bill the rights all citizens, indeed all human beings, are supposed to possess are prohibitions on other people who may wish to intrude on one’s life without one’s permission. That is what the right life is, a prohibition of murder. And the right to liberty, a prohibition of assault, battery, kidnapping, rape, etc. And the right to property, a prohibition of robbery, burglary, trespass, and other kinds of takings without the owners’ permission.

The Second Bill of Rights, in contrast, lists rights to other people’s works, time and belongings, such as, say, the right to health care or a minimum wage or a paid vacation. All these, often called "entitlements" (even while of course that begs the central question), would treat citizens as part of a group with unalienable obligations to the rest of the group. And since this is a fantasy if taken literally, the thesis amounts to claiming that some people, allegedly speaking for the various groups to which we are supposed to belong–which have prior claims on us, prior to ourselves–get to call the shots as to how we ought to live our lives, what and who we must work for, support, feed, etc.

Now if individualism is even remotely right, these so called entitlements or new rights turn out to be fraudulent, tricks by which to promote involuntary servitude, period. But if collectivism is correct, in any of its forms, then the claims made upon our lives, work, time, property, and so forth can all be treated as dues we owe! (Even then, of course, it doesn’t follow that anyone is authorized to enforce those duties, but never mind that for now.)

 

And that is why the individualism versus collectivism dispute is so vital and remains the most important one, disguised only with some difficulty as being about loving one’s country, humanity, family, other people, the poor, etc. No. Those are all pseudo issues. The real one is to whom does the individual human being belong?

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