Thursday, April 16, 2009

The false allure of collective action

"In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations." -- Barack Obama, 1995
President Obama is fond of making frequent appeals to our collective spirit. During his campaign his rallies were marked by chants of "yes we can" and statements such as "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Indeed, "we" is perhaps his favorite word. At his speech on the economy this week he said at one point:

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.
Today, meanwhile, he unveiled his plan for a series of high speed rail corridors, declaring that "There’s no reason why we can’t do this."

In fairness as the President of the country it is unsurprising that he should frequently invoke the collective. I think that this, however, combined with his earlier statements about the need for collective action warrants considerable wariness.

The attraction towards calls for unity and collective action is easy to understand. It evokes feelings of community and working towards something greater than ourselves. It appeals to selflessness instead of greed.

It is -- at least as commonly used by politicians -- utterly false.

Let us remember that government is coercion. I don't think that is a particularly controversial statement. If you disobey government you risk various types of punishment. Therefore when government demands certain action be taken it usually isn't a spontaneous sense of civic duty that prompts us to comply but a fear of the consequences for not doing say. Exhibit A would be paying taxes.

Often times this is a good thing. I am glad that punishments await those people who would destroy my property or harm my person. Oftentimes, however, they are not and we should be wary of government's expansion. Remember, wherever government encroaches liberty must yield.

Also remember that government is not decision making by committee. We don't all get a say. We elect people who then pass laws that govern our lives, they are the ones with the real power. The leverage posed by a single vote is trivial. The reality of government-led collective action is that a relatively small number of people get to decide what actions the rest of us must take.

True collective action is when people band together of their own free will and without coercion to accomplish a task. This goes on around us every day, be it people who volunteer their time and money for various social causes or those who band together at our country's businesses to provide various products and services.

The ipod is the result of voluntary collective action involving literally thousands of people from all over the world. The DMV is the product of government collective action. The automobile is the product of voluntary collective action. The tax code is the product of government collective action.

Everytime Barack Obama -- or any other politician -- speaks of the need for collective action and institutions what they mean to say is that they want more opportunities to run your life.

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