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Beehives and Anthills

I’ve been mulling over a few things since posting about price gouging the other day. First, there was an excellent comment by one of this Blog’s star contributors, Kyle Bennett. Here’s an advertisement to get you to go read the whole thing:

But collectivism is based on a fundamental contradiction – the idea that people can as a group
have ideas, thoughts, interests, etc. Individualism is a simple fact of
nature. Human minds cannot share concepts, and thus cannot, through any
gymnastics of thought, create a group that has the same attributes as an
individual.

In order to maintain the ideology of collectivism, then, one must
go to increasing lengths of fallacious logic in an attempt to reconcile
the root contradiction. Since that contradiction is irreconcilable,
these attempts are also contradictory. So then those new contradictions
have to be resolved, and so on and so on.

The result is that businessmen have to be evil because it is
impossible to reconcile the root contradiction if businessmen are good.
But then that contradiction has to be reconciled, and so we find that
the nature of money and trade must be redefined, then the nature of law
and government must be redefined. Then when that redefinition of law
and government is found to be incompatible with the US’s founding
ideals, those ideals must be redefined, history must be rewritten to
eliminate the facts that reveal this contradiction. The founding
fathers must be cast as demons in an attempt to negate their ideals.

Greg Swann added his comments as well, via an entry in his own blog. I guess that even my parenthetical mention of the social utility of price gouging was too much for Greg, but that’s just fine.

What Smith said, in essence, was, "Should the king choose to set us
free, it will be better for everyone, including the king." This is
morally and ontologically retarded. If the king can regulate your
freedom, then you actually have no freedom, merely license, which
license can be revoked at any time. And whether or not freedom promotes
any sort of supposed economic good, for everyone or for anyone, is
irrelevant. Liberty is the only condition in which human beings can
thrive as human beings. What Smith — and every alleged "freedom-loving" utilitarian economist ever since — is saying is, "I have no moral argument to offer against cannibalism, but it is normally impractical." Now that’s a powerful argument for human liberty!

This may seem like a quibble, but it’s not. As Kyle Bennett points out
in the comments to Richard’s post, the battle is always individualism
versus collectivism. (Kyle gets the ontology of this wrong and it leads
him badly astray; if I get time, I’d like to address that.) All
of economics, not just the Communist half, is a branch of collectivism.
Even the Austrians slip again and again into defending an alleged
"utilitarian collective interest." Until we as libertarians learn that
we must always carry the debate back to individualism–no matter how many points we seem to be scoring with collectivist arguments–the game will always be theirs and we will always be fighting a rear-guard action.

In response to a personal query from Kyle, Greg expounds in an email copied to me, the gist of which is the notion that collectivism is the foundational human behavior expressed in culture, and individualism is the exception. It’s an interesting idea.

It is wrong to speak of any human behavior as being natural, since all purposive human behavior is an artifact. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to argue that collectivism — Abel — is the ground state for human cultures and individualism — Cain — the radical exception.

There’s more: Missy Rand gave Ellsworth Toohey a wonderful speech when he was doing his last dance with Peter Keating. Something like, but for the contributions of as few as a dozen men down through history, we’d all still be living in caves. Some one brilliant man had the individualist idea. He treasured it and propagated it well enough that other unknown geniuses were able to improve upon it. Some of those who learned it valued it enough that they protected it and preserved it through dark ages. There are other ideas that Rand was talking about, as well, but the idea of individualism is the fountainhead of all ideas. The man who abstracted that idea — we can call him Cain because we don’t know his name — that man is the greatest benefactor in all of human history. Without him, none of the rest might ever have happened. The wheel was invented once, copied thereafter. The impeller, Archimedes’ screw, was invented once, copied thereafter. There are around 250 known human cultures on the earth and all of them, save this one, are the kind of bad imitations of animal behavior I discuss in Curing the Incuriosity of the East. Might the flame of individualism have sparked in another, later mind, had it ever been fully extinguished?

It’s possible. But the odds from experience are 250 to 1 against…

You know, you can strip it all away, and it all comes down to values and production of same. Human beings, collectively, are net producers of values. That is, we as a species produce more than we consume, and that excess value production generally equates to growth or wealth.

But individually, we don’t, do we? In fact, isn’t it the fact that there are individuals who won’t or who do not want to perform at the norm of the species that gives rise to collectivism? Isn’t it a desire to lift up the "less capable" and "compassionately" make excuses for the lazy that makes us irresistibly turn to collectivism? Isn’t that the bottom line?

No, it’s not. Look at natural collectivism, best expressed by a beehive or an anthill. Each entity is individually a net producer of values for the collective. They don’t complain about it or rebel, because this is their perfectly natural state. Each individual has a role, and that role is all about the collective as a whole.

So, then, what is it? What is it that so urges our societies and cultures to attempt to model themselves after beehives and anthills?

Isn’t it really about making sure that no one (except the Queen) is better off than anyone else? Isn’t that really the core "value" — the eternal struggle — and what every culture on Earth has been geared to "achieve," save this one? Is that not the relentless catechism of the left in America? While the rhetoric certainly talks about uplifting the "downtrodden," isn’t the focus, really, more about toppling the "privileged?" Do they even do a good job of hiding it? Do they not play upon the unearned greed and larceny of the heart of the lazy and envious, transforming them into the "victims" of who, in reality are their greatest benefactors and the "benefactors" of who, in reality, are their greatest enemies?

So collectivism has always been around. It has perhaps been the modus operandi of human beings since the dawn of civilization. Communism was merely a more naked and brutal form of it, but the goals have essentially always been the same.

But the more important point is that this is a philosophical battle; a battle entirely of ideas. There’s no way around it. You can talk economic efficiencies all day long, and where you’re going to find yourself is essentially arguing how a beehive or an anthill is efficient. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any ways they could be more efficient.

…Unfortunately, the most effective propagator of ideas in history, religion, has been asleep at the switch, usually preaching their own form of collectivism (one for all and all for God). Of course, that’s an artifact of the historical inability to distinguish the church from the state. Well, here’s free advice from an atheist to Christians: mold the story of Jesus into one of individualism. You do know why he was killed, don’t you? No, it wasn’t for your "sins." He was killed because he challenged the power of the omnipotent collective in the form of the state. Take it. Run with it.

Update: Greg Swann wraps things up here, and here. Enjoy.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

8 Comments

  1. Rich on September 21, 2005 at 15:01

    Doug:

    Well spoken, save for one premise:

    But that wasn't a premise. It was a rhetorical question that I answer in the first sentence of the next paragraph with "No, it's not."

    With respect to your observations with regard to farming and such, you are conflating collectivism and division of labor.

    Your next nit pick is the same as above: rhetorical question that I answer with "no."

    The individuals you are (or should be) railing against are those that reap the benefits of a collective, but do not likewise contribute.

    They are just thieves–not that important in the grand scheme of things

    The difficulty isn't in the notion of "a collective"… but in being coerced (by a government) to be part of a collective that you have no desire to be a member of. (This is the essential, damning flaw of communism.)

    What is it that you believe gives rise to government coercion? Doug, it always comes back to ideas, to premises. It is the notion that we do not have the moral right to exist as individuals that gives rise to the notion of collectivism as a moral ideal which leads to coercion in order to force submission.

    Kyle can answer the stuff related to him.

    Rail all you wish against being forced into a collective that you want no part in… but recognize that collectives form to begin with because they are sometimes (key word there: sometimes) more efficient than individuals at meeting a group of individuals common needs.

    Even if that's true, so?

    Again, you really need to get clear the ifference between collectivism and division of labor. You're confusing them.

  2. Kyle Bennett on September 21, 2005 at 15:43

    we had to use the inefficient method of translating concepts to words, transmitting the words, and translating back to concepts

    Exactly.

  3. Kyle Bennett on September 21, 2005 at 16:35

    what's the difference between "collectivism" and "division of labor"?

    Collectivism is one way of doing division of labor. Division of labor simply means that people specialize, that they produce more of the thing they are particularly good at producing than they use themeselves, and then somehow get what they need of something they are not so good at producing.

    Collectivism implements this through common ownership and common goals (not always coercively). Individualism acheives it with independent goals and voluntary trade.

    Division of labor in itself does not imply either one. It is the only way for anyone to live above subsistence level, but individualism vs collectivism does not come into play until you go about distributing the surplus.

  4. Doug Wolf on September 21, 2005 at 14:08

    Rich,

    Well spoken, save for one premise:

    In fact, isn't it the fact that there are individuals who won't or who do not want to perform at the norm of the species that gives rise to collectivism?

    When societies form… absolutely not. Collectivism arises from the acknowledgement of the observable fact that some actions neccesary for survival are most efficiently performed by a group. It is far easier for 10 people to run one large farm than it is for 10 people to run 10 individual farms. (Which is why the private farmer in the midwest is getting his ass handed to him by the large farming corporations. These corporations (which is another name for a collective) formed because they realized they could be far, far more efficient than "the little guy".

    This applies to farming, defense, medical research… I could go on.

    Isn't it a desire to lift up the "less capable" and "compassionately" make excuses for the lazy that makes us irresistibly turn to collectivism?

    Nope. It is my desire for *me* not to starve, for *me* not to be invaded by a foreign army, for *me* to acrue the benefits of technological advance, that makes me willing to be a part of the collective.

    This seems like I'm picking nits again… but I'm not.

    The individuals you are (or should be) railing against are those that reap the benefits of a collective, but do not likewise contribute. The difficulty isn't in the notion of "a collective"… but in being coerced (by a government) to be part of a collective that you have no desire to be a member of. (This is the essential, damning flaw of communism.)

    Football teams are collectives: each member must perform his part of the plan as flawlessly as possible. If the individual members decide to act as *they* think best, that team will consistently lose.

    I also take exception to Kyle's statement: Human minds cannot share concepts…

    Poppycock.

    A single example: I have a fairly good grasp of Relativity… which involves some pretty complex concepts. I didn't come up with the theory of General Relativity on my own… hell, it would simply have never occured to me!

    It was communicated to me, shared by the authors of several books. Sure, the concepts we're telepathically transmitted to my mind… we had to use the inefficient method of translating concepts to words, transmitting the words, and translating back to concepts…. but the end result is that I now have a concrete grasp on a number of concepts that has previously been utterly unknown to me.

    Go ahead… build an army of individuals, each allowed to fight as he see's fit and in his own best interest.

    An organized cohesive enemy unit (i.e., a collective) less than a third the size of your army will roll over your forces as if they weren't there.

    Rail all you wish against being forced into a collective that you want no part in… but recognize that collectives form to begin with because they are sometimes (key word there: sometimes) more efficient than individuals at meeting a group of individuals common needs.

    — DW

  5. Doug Wolf on September 21, 2005 at 16:12

    Rich,

    Arguing with you is always an education. 🙂

    So… if you have time… what's the difference between "collectivism" and "division of labor"? I double checked myself against Wikipedia, and it pretty much agrees with my assesment that "division of labor" is something that occurs within a collective. (For instance, in a kibbutz, some people are responsible for planting, some for weeding, some for tilling, etc.)

    I can't think of a better example of a beneficial, voluntary collective than a modern corporation. (Assuming of course that said corporation is meeting their goals!)

    I said:

    …collectives form to begin with because they are sometimes (key word there: sometimes) more efficient than individuals at meeting a group of individuals common needs.

    You responded:

    Even if that's true, so?

    Grant, for just a moment, that what I said was accurate, and let me answer the "so?".

    "So, I get to live, and you don't. I get to survive the onslaught of the Mongol horde, and you don't. I get to have enough food to make it through the winter, and you don't."

    People don't form collectives for the hell of it… they form collectives because they derive some benefit from it that they could not as easily (or not at all) derive as individuals.

    The point that I'm trying to argue is your assertion that collectives form (and/or are formed by) the theives of the world so that they can leech from the producers of the world. That assertion is not (usually) true.

    You said one thing that is inarguably true:

    It is the notion that we do not have the moral right to exist as individuals that gives rise to the notion of collectivism as a moral ideal which leads to coercion in order to force submission.

    — DW

  6. Mike on September 23, 2005 at 14:38

    All,
    Thanks for a great read.

  7. Adam on September 24, 2005 at 08:10

    I wouldn't agree that all economics is communist. Just because something studies humanity as a whole doesn't mean it's inherently collectivist. There's nothing wrong with being concerned about the welfare of others.

  8. Richard Nikoley on September 25, 2005 at 13:06

    Concern for the welfare of others isn't necessarily collectivist. Econ is collectivist because it treats individuals as cogs in a machine.

    Granted there are degrees of that, but it's all collectivist at root.

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