Pragmatic Collectivism

By Richman, Sheldon | Freeman, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Pragmatic Collectivism


Richman, Sheldon, Freeman


Do we individualists exaggerate when we condemn our ideological opponents as collectivists? That word isn't merely a term of abuse. It is a spot-on label for the political philosophy of those who would give government a prominent economic and social role. The philosophy holds that society (or some other group) is superior to the expendable individuals who comprise it and that government should act on its behalf. Government carries out the social will, which has little or nothing to do with the will of persons, since that only reflects narrow self-interest.

Collectivism can be detected in certain views on property and wealth. While much variation is possible, today's pragmatic collectivists are willing to permit a semblance of private property, until it clashes with their lofty aspirations. Few people today favor outright and total collectivization of the means of production. But all collectivists are ready to summon the constabulary when a nominal property owner does something they don't like. Ultimately, all property belongs to the collective.

You can spot a good collectivist by his choice of words. Recently, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the quintessential pragmatic collectivist, was defending President Clinton against his critics who favor impeachment or resignation. Cuomo said that although Clinton had done wrong, he's doing a good job as president. "The job of the president is to run the United States of America," Cuomo said. Not just the government, mind you. The whole United States.

A few minutes later he pressed his point: Who cares that we can't believe the President on a certain personal matter? The important thing is that "we do believe he knows what to do with the wealth of this country."

That's collectivism.

There is no longer a legal entitlement to welfare, and almost everyone now acknowledges that America's long experience with handouts for the poor was a failure. James Payne explains why the $5 trillion war on poverty had no chance of success.

State and local governments spend a significant amount of cash trying to get doctors to set up practices in rural areas. Is this a good idea? William Pike says it's not only unnecessary, it's especially bad for the residents of those areas.

The government's offensive against tobacco is well known. But as Aaron Lukas reminds us, the feds for over 30 years have waged a war against one particular kind of tobacco: the kind grown and rolled into cigars in Cuba.

Can the arts flourish under capitalism when writers, painters, and composers have to worry about mundane things like making a living? …

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