Search This Blog

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Individual Versus Collective

When I was 16, I was a communist, or at least very impressed by communism (I never signed on to a communist party or organization). I still consider "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" to be the single most powerful non-religious idea of all time and it's very simple and easy to understand as well. Over time, as I observed the world, read more about economics and politics, and interacted with others who had communist leanings, I started to become disillusioned with it. In 1983, I visited Czechoslovakia and Hungary (while still communist), and my disillusionment became complete (the folks in those countries were clearly very, very miserable). Talking to socialists and seeing communism in action were great cures for any affinity I might have maintained for that ideology. It was both the utter lack of opportunity and the completely lack of freedom that I found overwhelmingly problematic. Marxist communism is a very powerful idea, but it turned out to be a powerfully bad idea.

Since then, I've been "libertarian leaning" as libertarianism directly addresses both the opportunity and freedom issues of communism. Over time, interacting with libertarians, for example at Cafe Hayek, my enthusiasm for the libertarian ideology has lessened. I've concluded that I'd probably like all of these ideologies a lot better if they didn't involve people - people just always ruin everything! :-)

Communism is a form of collectivism, where collectivism identifies the collective as the entity of primary importance and the individual having less importance and perhaps way, way, waaaaay less importance.

On the other hand, the libertarian holds the individual sacrosanct and the collective as non-existent other than a simple, but utterly unimportant, grouping of the individuals. Because of this, the State/government are considered to be necessary evils at best and more often as unnecessary evils foist upon the unsuspecting masses by corrupt and power hungry politicians and bureaucrats. From this perspective, most actions of the collective and State are held to be morally wrong. Since the individual is sacrosanct, anything he produces is his so taxation is theft or taxation is slavery. Almost all restrictions on individual behavior, for example trade, are considered abhorrent, leading to slogans like protectionism is robbery.

My flippant response to the libertarian slogans above is that if taxation is theft or slavery and protectionism is robbery, then theft, slavery and robbery must not be inherently immoral so I ought to start engaging in such practices more often. Slightly less flippant is that there's a reason we have separate words like "taxation"; trying to equate them with words whose definitions they possibly have something in common is, to me, an attempt at a sort of Orwellian double-plus-good libertarian Newspeak. I mean, okay, but just trying to redefine words isn't particularly convincing to me.

But it is partly a matter of perspective. If the individual is sacrosanct, then it does seem to lead to slogans like taxation is slavery.  Since such slogans seem absurd to me, I've concluded that the principle of the sacrosanct individual is also absurd.

My 17-year-old daughter is extremely tenderhearted - scarily so some days. For example, if she sees an ant walking across the counter, she'll catch it, bring it outside, and release it. I haven't had the heart to break it to her that an individual ant cannot survive (and certainly has no purpose) without access to its colony and by removing the ant from the ant trail it's on, it has been effectively removed from its colony and is a dead ant walking. I'm afraid if I tell her that, she'll stress out every time she sees an ant inside the house; she doesn't like bugs so she won't want to just let it be and she won't want to cause its death by removing it from its ant trail. Yup, life has many tough dilemmas.

An individual ant can't survive without its colony. Can an individual human survive without a collective? If you were dropped off in a random wilderness area with nothing (perhaps not even clothes) and you weren't allowed to interact with any other people or utilize anything made by anybody else, how long would you survive? Even if you had extensive survival training? How long until you cut yourself and the infection killed you? How long until something you drank or ate made you so sick that you died? How long until a series of storms caused hypothermia? Etc.?

Personally, I'd be dead in short order. I've done enough wilderness camping to know that even with modern gear, it's not trivial surviving for moderate to long periods of time. My guess is that maybe 1% of people could survive a year with training, maybe 1 in 1,000 could survive 10 years. Eventually, one of the many things that could go wrong would catch up to almost everybody. There's safety in numbers and there's support in numbers.

But now let's add the last wrinkle. Not only do you have to survive, but you have to have a mate and have at least two children and have the children survive until adulthood. Without any help from anybody else. Ever. All I can say is "good luck with that!"

In other words, just like an individual ant isn't really something independent, neither is an individual human. Humans evolved while being part of collectives (tribes in primitive times). Humans' ancestors evolved while being part of collectives (tribes and packs). A few humans might be able to survive as completely independent entities but it is, at best, not optimal.

Humans are more complicated than ants, and, as a result, our collectives can be much more flexible and varied than an ant colony. We can have tribes and nations and states and empires and commonwealths and subcultures and all kinds of political and economic structures and structures within structures and each individual can be part of numerous collectives and those collective can be overlapping. The possibilities are endless and dizzying. And fortunately, unlike the ant that can only belong to one specific collective, humans can, to some degree, pick and choose which collectives they wish to belong to.

We're all part of collectives. Within each of our collectives we are bound by loyalty, contract, agreement or something like that to others in the collective to some degree. By definition, we are "bound" by "bonds" and "bondage" is composed of a set of "bonds." Furthermore, "bondage" and "slavery" are very closely associated.

It's not taxation that's slavery, but rather the circumstances of human existence that requires us to be bound to others in what might actually be slavery (slavery/serfdom has been one of the most common forms of human existence for all of history and prehistory) or what in a free(ish) society might be termed co-slavery where we're bound to each other, where I own you (you have obligations to me) and you own me (I have obligations to you) though indirectly through the collective.

To me, this makes the collective primary and the individual secondary. My starting point is that the largest and most powerful collective of which we are part actually does completely own us and has the right to all of our output and the right to control each and every aspect of our behavior and lives. I'll get to why this isn't nearly as abhorrent as it sounds in a bit so please don't freak out quite yet. Well, you can freak out a little, but please keep reading. :-)

With the collective owning us, taxation is neither slavery (we're already owned by the collective) nor is it theft. In fact, what isn't taxed is basically given to us by the beneficence of the collective. Protectionism isn't robbery at all but rather some non-protected trade is allowed due to the kindness and lenience of the collective.

While I'm serious about taxation not being slavery using the logic above, I am kidding about the collective having "kindness" or other positive human attributes. A 300,000,000+ person collective cannot have human attributes such as kindness - at least not in any way that an individual human can understand.

But a collective does have one attribute that is understandable by humans - Will to Power.
Each form of life has a particular constitution, with its instincts having different strengths, such that certain conditions will favour its form of life. This brings different types of life into conflict with each other, as each wants different conditions to prevail: ‘life itself in its essence means appropriating, injuring, overpowering those who are foreign and weaker’ ... though this language suggests that such activity is immoral, when it is simply a function of being alive.
A collective is a life form, though not one comprehensible to the individuals who make up the collective (similar to a brain being incomprehensible to a neuron). Its "instincts" will push it to evolve in order to adapt so that "certain conditions will favour its form" enabling it to succeed at "overpowering those [collectives] who are ... weaker." There are some subtleties, but this is very similar to survival of the fittest applied to collectives instead of lifeforms as described by Nietzsche. In other words, collectives compete and evolve. This has certainly happened throughout history and isn't much of a surprise.

How does a collective succeed in surviving and exerting its Will to Power? How does it manage to fend off and even "overpower" competing collectives? Well, that's the rub. It depends on the collective and the environment within which the collective exists. Evolution doesn't have a direction but is really always co-evolution, with each entity evolving relative to the current state of all other entities. Even worse, except for some very small and very well defined collectives (for example, a company that operates a restaurant), the collective and the environment within which it operates has complexity far, far, far beyond the capability of human understanding.

The collective that we call the United States of America is one result of billions of years of biological evolution and tens of thousands of years of cultural and political evolution of homo sapiens in the context of uncountable events around the world and the context of its North American location. It could not have been designed by people and people could not have and can not, from a blank start, design anything better.

Given that I believe that the collective that is the United States owns us and has absolute power over us, why do we have any freedom at all? One answer is that while the collective owns us, we also own the collective and can therefore influence it. However, I don't think that's the main answer.

The main answer is simply that collectives with free(ish) individuals in today's global environment end up being the most powerful collectives. Across the globe, freedom and power per capita are closely related. Within limits, freeing individuals to do what they think best seems to allow for innovation and productivity and those two things are an important part of the basis of increasing power.

Our prosperity and our rights have evolved to this point primarily for that reason, in my opinion. Not because of some intangible moral arguments about peace and love and non-aggression and what's right and what's good. Not because the individual is sacrosanct or because of god given human rights. While there is feedback (the ideas had to come from interacting individuals) and it is a bit of a virtuous cycle, ultimately we have our rights and freedoms because they brought us power and those opposing collectives who didn't give those rights and freedoms to their members lost in the battle of Will to Power. Are there other factors? Of course, but I think this is a very important one.

For additional power and sustainability, should the collective allow more freedom or less freedom? More regulation or less regulation? More rights or fewer rights? I have my guesses but I don't really know and I think I'll leave those guesses for other posts.

21 comments:

erp said...

Bret, I must disagree that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is the single most powerful non-religious idea of all time and simple and easy to understand.

Rather than powerful and simple, it's simplistic. Who decides what each's abilities and needs are? Churchill is alleged to have said: Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head. That's clear and concise and IMO absolutely correct.

Our FF's were pretty clever guys and set up a system that doesn't require each of us to be brought before a tribunal to have ourselves sorted out. Kinda reminds me of the sorting hat in the Harry Potter books. Equality under the law allows us all to play the hand we were dealt as well as we are able.

Your post is interesting and shows you are a very compassionate, but perhaps being influenced even against your will by the prattle in the media about white privilege ...

The only way we can have the kind of equality you are looking for is for us all to be reduced to the lowest common denominator and share equally in the despair and destitution which is its ultimate result.

The answer to the question of do we own our own organs is, if the government were out of the picture, entrepreneurs could set up organ banks, so that organs could be removed from cadavers and made available for those who need transplants. Sounds morbid, put apparently a similar thing is currently being done with the effluvia of abortions and the left approves of PP making a handsome profit from the practice.

Bret said...

erp wrote: "The only way we can have the kind of equality you are looking for..."

Where did I say I was looking for equality?

I neither look for it nor expect it and I believe that inequality will always be substantial in powerful societies (collectives).

erp said...

The commie slogan is all about equality or fairness if you prefer. Ones needs and abilities are assessed and one is dealt with accordingly. What else could it mean?

Bret said...

Ah. I see.

I said it was the most powerful non-religious idea of all time. I didn't say I thought it was workable with actual humans. Not all powerful ideas are good ideas. This one happened to be a powerfully bad idea.

I'll edit the post to make that clearer.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

I think you have done quite a thoughtful post here (again).

And a pretty clear one at that. I guess Erp has been through a lot lately and did not read it quite so carefully, if she interpreted you were in favor of that Marx slogan.

Or maybe she is motivated by an impression at another level, which I share: your Libertarian impulses look to have been waning as of late, and this post is further confirmation.

As for your final questions:

---
For additional power and sustainability, should the collective allow more freedom or less freedom? More regulation or less regulation? More rights or fewer rights?
---

Were the collective to be assigned some form of cognition, being able to somehow make a 'conscious' choice between your offers above, we could say free elections have been one of the ways the collective expresses its 'choices'.

To which I offer another question: is it possible that such 'collective cognition' may go crazy, or schizophrenic, or striken by Alzheimer, now and then?

It would further imply that, good as your questions are, maybe sometimes the collective is unable to actually pursue a path to "additional power and sustainability", and elections end up expressing not its 'choices', but its erratic and deluled impulses.

The FF devised checks and balances to counter our worst instincts, to forge consensus, to stop a would-be strongman, or a madman, but could they have foreseen checks and balances against the whole population themselves going mad? And I do not mean 'mad' like the French Revolution (of which the FF took lessons), but 'mad' like mentally unstable indeed.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "...is it possible that such 'collective cognition' may go crazy, or schizophrenic, or striken by Alzheimer, now and then?"

Certainly. And many (serious) folks have written about that. For example, Demosclerosis by Jonathan Rauch. His thesis is that a relative small number of people can lobby government for huge payback to them that costs the general population a small amount each. For example, a lobbyist might spend $3,000,000 to convince the house and senate to vote for a measure that provides $30,000,000 of benefit to his client, but that $30,000,000 is only 1 penny for each man, woman and child in the country and who's gonna fight back for 1 penny. The problem is that thousands of lobbyists with numerous clients start to cost the people an awful lot and impose devastating regulations and costs on the country. This work is based on work by Mancur Olsen who was kinda the father of the branch of economics called Public Choice Theory. So that's merely one example, but one that's inherent in the system.

And of course, just as a collective of neurons that are a brain can go insane, so can a collective that happens to be a country. But I'm wondering if it's almost like a sensory deprivation tank. Our wealth has so insulated us from reality that we can no longer sense what is real and what impact reality has on us or our actions have on reality leaving us to hallucinate in our fantasy world (note I'm talking specifically about the US here, I have no idea whether this might apply to Brazil). It seems just like insanity, but it's that we get no real feedback related to pain, power or survival from our actions. So it looks like insanity and maybe it is, but it's due to disconnection from reality. If everything you do has no predictable effect, how do you decide on a course of action? Beats me.

With my divorce, I'm a bit mentally unstable anyway, so maybe I'm just projecting, but it does look like this country has become completely irrational and disconnected from reality.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] I still consider "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" to be the single most powerful non-religious idea of all time and it's very simple and easy to understand as well.

I agree, it is right up there next to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.

And they both utterly collapse under the pressure of even cursory examination.

Over time, interacting with libertarians, for example at Cafe Hayek, my enthusiasm for the libertarian ideology has lessened.

I lean libertarian, but for a long time have firmly concluded that there are a great classes of problems that doctrinaire libertarianism can't begin to address.

Communism is a form of collectivism, where collectivism identifies the collective as the entity of primary importance and the individual having less importance and perhaps way, way, waaaaay less importance.

On the other hand, the libertarian holds the individual sacrosanct and the collective as non-existent other than a simple, but utterly unimportant, grouping of the individuals.


Libertarians make a profound conceptual error. Take as read that the individual is sacrosanct. Therefore, all individuals — collectively — are sacrosanct. Inherent in the nature of mutual individual sanctity is an unavoidable element of collectivism. In contrast, collectivism has absolutely no need for individual sanctity. (Which really just reinforces what you said in your post.)

That is why doctrinaire libertarianism (taxation is theft) is so silly at its heart. Our mutual individual sanctity requires collective entities, and therefore taxes. (Novick makes that requirement clear.)

With the collective owning us, taxation is neither slavery (we're already owned by the collective) nor is it theft. In fact, what isn't taxed is basically given to us by the beneficence of the collective.

This is where I part ways with your reasoning. Taxation is not by definition slavery, but it can become slavery. In the 1970s, parts of Europe had extortionate tax rates — often nearing, and sometimes exceeding, 100% on incomes above a certain amount.

That is slavery, because that income wasn't given by the beneficence of the collective. The proof? Some people simply stopped working; others left. The collective doesn't own my choice to work.

(Out of time).

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "The collective doesn't own my choice to work."

The collective that is the US allows you the choice of whether or not to work. That's by permission. In my opinion, collectives do own your choice to work - to some extent. Most collectives throughout history forced their members to work.

By giving its members a freer rein, it seems that people work harder overall, and that makes the collective more powerful. A person who's forced to work and not allowed to enjoy at significant part of the results of his labor tends to work less hard and be a lot less innovative.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

Also, even in the US collective until 1975, it did force people to work. It was called the draft and if you were drafted you worked for the military 24/7 putting your life on the line. I can't think of a way that a collective can own you more than that!

Hey, wait. How old are you? Were you drafted?

erp said...

Bret, the U.S. isn't meant to be a collective, but a self-selected collection of people who wish to live free. Pace Harry, that aborigines and slaves didn't have a choice doesn't change the fact the those who emigrated here had (past tense) one idea and that was to join We, the People and take advantage of the challenges and opportunities available here that weren't available where they came from.

The cultural revolution of the 60's financed and led by Moscow turned us against ourselves and produced several generations of citizens who've been deliberately misinformed about our history. We've allowed ourselves to be hyphenated and catalogued and put into boxes making it easier to pit one group against the other(s).

I agree with Clovis, a first, I believe :-) that you are succumbing to the facile philosophies of being our brothers' keepers taking away individual responsibilities for ourselves and our families.

We now spend much more on healthcare bureaucracies than we do on healthcare providers. Many physicians we know who are closer to your age than ours are retiring because they can no longer afford to maintain private practices. Their stipends have been cut while the amount of ridiculous "paperwork" on now preset programs on "devices" has metastasized.

For past several months our contact with our "free" Medicare has increased and I've been there to watch good people trying to serve their patients while struggling with what bureaucrats demand of them.

Case in point: Visiting nurses have been coming to the house for the past two months to deal with a very deep (6 cm) three inch wide staph-infected wound on my roomie's nether regions. Each day the wound was unpacked, cleaned and repacked.

That process took at the most 10 minutes. The nurse then spent 20 minutes or more scrolling down page after non-relevant page of the pre-set program that allowed no deviation to enter the few pieces of info relevant to his progress.

Bret said...

erp wrote: "...the U.S. isn't meant to be a collective..."

The constitution of the United States begins: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union..."

I can't imagine how to word it with more emphasis on the collective nature of the constitution. "Union" is pretty much a synonym for collective. It's "We the people" and both "we" and "the people" are collective terms.

If it wasn't supposed to be a collective, then why didn't they word it something like the following?

"Some individuals residing here in an area of North America wish to jot down some general rules which we'll consider guidelines on how to interact with other individuals but we are by no means collectively bound by this set of guidelines..."

erp said...

A collective is not the same as a union.

Bret said...

erp, your links are for union versus collectivism, not collective. I agree that collectivism is a different thing than a union. But then, collectivism is also a different thing than a collective.

erp said...

Semantics. ��

Bret said...

Maybe. However, at thesaurus.com "community" is a synonym for both "collective" and "union" so they are pretty close in meaning.

erp said...

Will agree to disagree.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp,

---
I agree with Clovis, a first, I believe :-) that you are succumbing to the facile philosophies of being our brothers' keepers taking away individual responsibilities for ourselves and our families.
---

Gee, it is a pity the rare instance you agree with me, I can't recognize saying that you agree with :-)

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,


----
Our wealth has so insulated us from reality that we can no longer sense what is real and what impact reality has on us or our actions have on reality leaving us to hallucinate in our fantasy world (note I'm talking specifically about the US here, I have no idea whether this might apply to Brazil). [...]

With my divorce, I'm a bit mentally unstable anyway, so maybe I'm just projecting, but it does look like this country has become completely irrational and disconnected from reality.
----

I think you are onto some very deep insight there.

I would add the greater instability we've seen as of late is being catalyzed by the far greater density of virtual links and 24-hour news (fake or not) and memes cycle everyone is subjected to.

I say so because, though I am not going through divorce, I still felt myself getting mentally unstable after a period of heavy consumption of virtual grass. Last year I tried Facebook, connected to everybody I knew online and, for nearly 9 months, tried to be a modern netizen.

After feeling my mental stability was being hindered by the experiment, I deleted my online accounts and, after a couple of weeks, was feeling much, much better.

I think people are getting so used to that alternate reality when looking to a screen, that it is further insulating everyone from the 'real world' out there. I use quotation marks because, in effect, that previous reality out there is being remade on its virtual image, in one of these ironic twists destiny plays upon us.



erp said...

Clovis, I didn't look up your exact words, but that's the meaning I took from them. If any synapses click together, I'll try to find it.

You still contend my theory that what we call our universe is just a video game played by adolescent boys is not correct?

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp,

A physicist I admire, Bryce DeWitt, once said:

"Albert Einstein said, “The Lord God is subtle but He is not malicious.” I like to turn this around by saying, “The Lord God is not malicious, but He is subtle.” "

Those adolescent boys playing video games can't explain it all, male teenager are never subtle.

erp said...

Einstein is a lot more optimistic about the existence of the Lord God than I, but I'll go along with him and make it STEM girls playing video games.