Tibor R. Machan
William H. Gass is one of the cheerleaders of American statism and he has done his fair share of work in support of the near total state (having done stints at the White House, if memory serves me right). His latest efforts are in the November 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine, in a pretty hostile article about George Orwell who is perhaps most famous for his book 1984 and short story Animal Farm, both warnings about the love many intellectuals have for powerful government engineering. Here is how he concludes his piece:
“We need to see society as an extension of ourselves, an invisible part of our anatomy that assists us every day without dominating us and that, like our own arms and legs, we tend when injured, and whose welfare reconsider at all times. The relation resembles that of a violinist to his instrument–useful but more than something useful, cared for like an esteemed friend. If such a part of us fails, we do not discard it for a peg leg, nor are we fired from our job because we cannot play hopscotch. We may be a disposable member of the symphony, but our violin is us to us. The relation is somethings–oh dear–called love.” William H. Gass, “Double Vision,” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2012, p. 78.
This theme of collectivism spells out Karl Marx’s claim, made in his posthumously published book, Grundrisse (Penguin, 1973) that humanity is an organic whole (or body), a total negation of American individualism wherein you and I and the rest of human beings are understood to be sovereign, independent agents with unalienable rights to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Instead, we get the vision of human beings as cells in the body of society or humanity. (The best little book in modern times laying out the case for this is Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell [New York, Viking Press, 1974].)
The individualist idea rest on the recognition of the fact that human beings have the capacity to govern themselves, to think for themselves and act from their thinking. Of course, individualism doesn’t contradict the plain fact that we all draw on advice and information we receive from other people, starting with members of our family. But individualist have learned that such learning must itself be initiated by human agents who will draw on it as fuel for their living. Individualism also affirms the capacity we have for free choice. (I fine little book defending this is Theodosius Dobzhansky’s The Biological Basis of Human Freedom [Columbia University Press, 1956].)
In point of fact the collectivist position is, just as Gass notes, the reactionary kind, going all the way back to Socrates and before when people found it of great advantage to unite into groups so as to have a better chance at survival and flourishing. Indeed, uniting into groups has always been a prudent move for people unless the group in question, e.g., Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, happens to be the enemy of the members of the group.
Individualist have always had to fight off the distortions evident in positions such as the one laid out by Mr. Gass. These views are dangerous because in the name of the collective it is usually a number of “leaders” who offer their own agendas as the state’s business, agendas that are coercively imposed on society. Such leaders are not willing to use peaceful means by which to recruit support for their visions and thus they mostly champion what amounts to a police state. Everyone must be made to conform to the collective vision they insist is the one size that fits us all.
The right approach is, of course, one that acknowledges that human beings are a species and have a common nature up to a point. But it also acknowledges that a distinctive aspect of the human being is its individuality! It is confirmed every minute within human communities, of course, as millions present ideas of their own by which to carry on their living. (Even Mr. Gass testifies to this by presenting his own particular take on the collectivist idea!)
Sadly Mr. Gass’s position is widely shared among intellectuals at some of the most prominent educational institutions. (It animates the thought of Mr. Obama, for example, who is very weak in his endorsement of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, on the economic front and enthusiastic about mandates.)