TCS Daily

The Collectivist Feeling

By Arnold Kling - June 7, 2005 12:00 AM

"Thinking (T)
When I make a decision, I like to find the basic truth or principle to be applied, regardless of the specific situation involved. I like to analyze pros and cons, and then be consistent and logical in deciding. I try to be impersonal, so I wont let my personal wishes -- or other peoples wishes -- influence me...


Feeling (F)
I believe I can make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation. I am concerned with values and what is the best for the people involved. I like to do whatever will establish or maintain harmony. In my relationships, I appear caring, warm, and tactful."

-- The Myers and Briggs Foundation, adapted from Charles R. Martin, Looking at Type: The Fundamentals


In my experience, libertarians and collectivists often talk past one another. Libertarians believe that collectivists are not thinking, while collectivists believe that libertarians are not feeling.


I view economics as training in thinking. That does not mean that you lose your empathy with people. It means, however, that you pay attention to the consequences of policies, regardless of their motives. Or, as Alan Blinder put it, economists have Hard Heads, Soft Hearts.


Although many people remember President Clinton as saying "I feel your pain," many economists recall policies of his Administration (in which Blinder played a role) that were based on thinking. Support for NAFTA, fiscal restraint, and welfare reform all ran counter to the "feeling" wing, which holds sway over the Democratic Party today.


I believe that the Republican Party also is dominated at the moment by its "feeling" wing, which puts issues like the Schiavo case on the front burner. Each party's feeling wing believes so firmly in its own rectitude that it is intolerant of those who disagree. To a skeptic, these wings appear to be anything but "warm" or "tactful."


The Collectivist Feeling


In an important essay called The People's Romance, Daniel Klein asks,


"Why do people who claim to be concerned for the poor so often support or go along with policies that are obviously and predictably bad for society and especially the poor? Why do they support government schooling, antidevelopment land-use policies, rail transit projects, and policies to discourage the use of the private automobile?... atrocious policies such as the war on drugs can be enacted and cheered and can persist. Even though Republicans supposedly care about freedom and Democrats supposedly care about the little guy, the politicians do nothing to abate the policy."


Klein says that part of the answer is that "we fancy the notion of communing with the whole." This desire to feel part of a single large clan or tribe is what Klein refers to as The People's Romance. Klein suggests that collectivist policies such as Social Security or public schools serve the same function as ritual tribal dances. By the same token, following Thomas Szasz, he suggests that the war on drugs serves the same function as tribal scapegoating. I would add that crusades against tobacco, fast food, or Wal-mart also can be seen in terms of tribal scapegoating.


The Right to Health Care?


Those with the collectivist feeling often speak of a "right" to health care. But in The New Libertarian, Bruce McQuain points out, "you have no moral right to demand that a doctor, nurse, or other health care worker provide their time or talents to you without their permission or at their expense."


I believe that a collectivist would argue that the right to health care does not impose such untoward obligations on health care providers. Rather, it is the obligation of "all of us" to provide resources to anyone who needs health care.


As a thinker, however, I can raise some questions about this. Suppose that Bill Gates would rather spend his money improving the health of Africans than on adding to poor Americans' already extravagant health care spending. From a collectivist feeling perspective, however, he could be viewed as violating Americans' right to health care.


Here is another example. I have never had heart trouble. My lipid profile is good. My EKG's have always been normal. I can exercise as much as I want without untoward shortness of breath. But suppose that I decide that I would like to see a cardiologist, "just because." Do I have a right to do so?


In a capitalist society, I have every right to see a cardiologist, and either spend my own money or try to convince my health insurance company to pay for it. But from a collectivist perspective, my "right" to demand that "all of us" pay for the cardiologist would seem more problematic.


The collectivist feelers base their appeal for a right to health care on the presumption that health care is necessary. However, as I have learned by reading the work of economists such as John Wennberg -- and as I have pointed out here and here -- much health care is in fact discretionary. By that I do not mean unnecessary, but still above and beyond the sort of acute care or basic services which are called to mind when the phrase "right to health care" is invoked.


In fact, if a "right to health care" were defined solely in terms of necessary care, enforcing the right to health care would mean dramatically scaling back government health care for all Americans, including the poor and the uninsured. In practice, it would instead become a political piggy bank, with everyone from plastic surgeons to massage therapists to witch doctors insisting that their services be incorporated into the "right to health care."


Pessimism or Optimism?


Will the collectivist feeling lead to the inevitable enlargement of the state and a loss of the dynamism and individual rights that libertarians cherish? I can offer one big reason for pessimism and one big reason for optimism.


My biggest reason for pessimism is the state of our educational establishment. To put it simply, too many educators see their mission as teaching young people to feel, not to think. How are young people supposed to learn to think, if the opposite behavior is what is being modeled in primary school, secondary school, and college?


When I was in college, there were not nearly as many "feeling" courses as there are today. Courses in literature, social science, and science were analytical, not moralistic. Today, the catalogs for my daughters' colleges are filled with courses designed to indoctrinate rather than to enlighten. A young person could be forgiven for getting the impression that going to college means spending four years at a propaganda camp. Even more depressing is the thought that a young person could also be forgiven for going through four years of college without even realizing that it is little more than a propaganda camp.


My biggest reason for optimism is the rise of the Internet. As Warren Meyer put it,


"in some sense the Internet and blogging are not only useful tools for us libertarians, but in and of themselves are inherently libertarian vehicles. Certainly libertarian hero F. A. Hayek would recognize the chaos of the Internet and the blogosphere immediately. For a good libertarian, chaos is beautiful, and certainly the blogosphere qualifies as chaotic. The Internet today is perhaps the single most libertarian institution on the planet. It is utterly without hierarchy, being essentially just one layer deep and a billion URL's wide. Even those who try to impose order, such as Google, do so with no mandate beyond their utility to individual users."


I always felt that Howard Dean's Internet campaign was an oxymoron: a libertarian means to collectivist ends. I think that this fundamental contradiction never got resolved, as the internal conflict between the net-heads and the traditionalists dogged the campaign.


If Marshall McLuhan was right when he said "The Medium is the Message," then surely the message of the Internet is libertarian. The Internet's engineering architecture is designed to minimize the number of decisions made centrally and to maximize the flexibility of individual users. Given the current architecture, no equivalent of the "broadcast flag" regulation that the FCC attempted to issue to all manufacturers of digital television sets could be promulgated to the Internet.


The government structure of the Internet, too, is highly libertarian. Most of the critical work consists of defining standards, and these are hammered out by ad hoc engineering task forces on a "just-in-time" basis. When I first heard Vint Cerf proselytize about the Internet in 1993, what sold me was not the network structure. It was the political structure. I remember thinking to myself, "My goodness, this is how government really ought to work. When a problem comes up, a task force gets together and proposes a solution. When the solution is adopted, the task force dissolves. How refreshing!"


To me, it seemed that and other manifestations of collectivist politics on the Internet never transcended preaching-to-the-converted rhetoric. To this day, I still find the Left predominantly concerned with manipulating voters rather than making a reasoned case. The notion that a Berkeley linguistics professor, George Lakoff, has the keys to unlocking the hearts and minds of the population, surely must be one of the most laughable delusions in modern political history.


In fact, populist resentment of elites, while a volatile force, is another potential reason for optimism. Even in Europe, the recent winds have been blowing against the sort of elitism that George Lakoff represents. It appears that European populism incorporates an attachment to collectivist benefits combined with hostility toward capitalism and free trade. Nonetheless, there is something vaguely comforting about the fact that French and Dutch are no more trusting than I am in the self-assured bureaucratic managers and intellectuals.


In an essay on the history of conservative philanthropy, James Piereson wrote,


"Hayek insisted that socialism and statism were products not of economic forces beyond anyone's control but of erroneous and destructive ideas... collectivist doctrines had captured the imagination of intellectuals. In another essay, "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (1949), Hayek mapped out a broad, long-term strategy for combating this challenge...


Hayek envisioned a movement operating at the level of principles and theory and aloof from electoral and legislative agendas or the immediate controversies of political life. He proposed, in other words, a true war of ideas, one that might appeal to the best and most adventuresome minds of the age but that might take a generation or more to bear fruit."


The Internet lowers the cost of entering a dispute over ideas. Because of the lack of central authority, the Internet is more conducive to a fair contest than to an indoctrination camp. Those of us who lean toward the libertarian side are not afraid of the ideas of the collectivists, only the consequences of those ideas. The collectivists, on the other hand -- particularly those who believe in teaching people to feel rather than to think -- are threatened by ideas, even the judicious, thoughtful speculation of the President of Harvard University.


The collectivist feeling runs strong and deep. But libertarian thinking is alive and well, and the Internet provides an ideal medium in which our ideas can thrive. Mere access to the Internet is sufficient to provide a platform for our ideas. This contrasts with government, schools, or mass media, where those who control the institutions have an inherent advantage. So perhaps over the next generation we will see libertarian thinking gain relative to collectivist feeling.



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