Collectivism-individualism, big government-small government, state control-free markets, socialism-capitalism. All of these are expressions of a fault line which divides us at every scale; individuals, families, communities, countries and global blocs. It has been the casus belli of most modern-era conflicts.
When we are young, we generally favour more collectivist (Left) governments, most likely because they offer the same wrap-around care we enjoyed, to varying extents, as children. Striking out alone into the big wide world is an anxious time- during which a state acting in loco parentis has attractions. And, at first sight, organising society like a big family seems like a good idea- "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs".
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Cradle to grave care, and why not? Our lives only have meaning in relation to other people, and we need help and support just to survive- from which it's a short step to acknowledging that we owe others our support. People are differently abled and can be lucky or unlucky in their choice of parents- and in their life experiences. We have no control over many of these inequalities, so a world in which they're balanced out, seems not only fair, but a way for everyone to contribute what they can.
So why have all large-scale attempts at collectivism (variously called communism or socialism) ended in tyranny, oppression, poverty and death? Imposing communism on reluctant populations killed more than 100million people in the 20th century; directly by Stalin and Mao, but also in WW2, Korea and Vietnam; wars which were fought, in large part, to stop it's further spread - and probably cheap at the price.
And why, knowing all this, are so many people in the world still enamoured of the Left and trying to coerce us into trying it all again?
Socialism, Like Dracula, Rises Again from the Grave
The first question is easy to answer; collectivism fails because it doesn't run on the programs that evolution's selection processes have installed in us. For example, our sense of injustice is triggered when we believe we're receiving less rewards than we deserve. Competent and hard-working people can't stop themselves resenting freeloaders. In collectivist societies this resentment is expressed by slacking, or even deliberate sabotage- and such countries soon fall behind (North Korea for example). Convincing arguments as to why we should selflessly dedicate our lives to the common good make no difference, most of us are just not made that way, and cannot be, short of gene level re-programming.
On the other side of the ledger, we are also inclined to take what help and support is offered even when we don't really need or deserve it- and then convince ourselves that it's our due. Here's an illustration:
Our favourite dog, Tui, a border collie, comes to visit occasionally. Tui has been well brought up, does what she's told most of the time, and accepts being sent out to her kennel when it's sleeping time. Being a soft touch for furry animals, one cold night I allowed her to sleep beside the fire (she took over the cat's basket, so they withdrew up their personal staircase to the cylinder cupboard). Tui's gratitude overflowed, but after a few days there was a noticeable attitude change. When the night's warmed up a bit, no way was she going out: a sense of entitlement had set in.
Benjamin Franklin identified this behaviour in humans 250 years ago, and I'm sure he wasn't the first.
I am for doing good to the poor.
The second question, is much harder to answer; why so many people fervently believe that collectivism (communism, socialism) is the answer- when the butchers bill to date shows it to be most brutal system of government ever tried? Partly it's because rising generations in the West (as compared to Russians and Chinese) have no personal memories of the horrors of imposed collectivism, and only faint echoes from earlier generations- which they disregard anyway. But mainly it's like for Christianity; those who want to believe it's the answer, maintain that the systems themselves are perfect, but sinful men (and women?) subvert them. Personally, I think governments (and faiths) need to work for us as we are, not as we "should" be. But there is, in my view, a reasonable argument that while pure collectivism is a catastrophe (Venezuela for a current example), a synthesis of the free market with elements of collectivism might shape a world that could work well. This is pretty much the definition of Social Democracy as practiced in Northern Europe; private ownership of businesses combined, with high taxes to support extensive social support.
But even social democracies have problems: Entitlement creep is one: Like Tui, when people first enjoy access to extensive social support they are responsible- not taking more than they need, and grateful for what they receive. But over time, an increasing proportion come to regard support as an entitlement, and learn to 'work the system' for the easiest life with the least effort. This tendency is exacerbated in representative democracies by the bloc vote of those who receive more from the state than they contribute: Beneficiaries of course, but also state employees, who use their vote to claim better pay and working conditions than private businesses (who's taxes are paying their wages) can match. When state employees and beneficiaries reach 30% or so of the voting population, cutting back becomes nearly impossible and their numbers then tend to increase inexorably. No social democratic system collecting tax at much above 50% has yet been shown to be sustainable. Another problem is how to stop people who work hard and are good at their jobs from departing to places where they're rewarded just as well but taxed less. Ditto for successful businesses. The traditional Leftist solution is to build a wall and shoot people who try to leave- but this is currently out of favour. Culturally homogenous communities have less of this problem because people with the same language, values, and history are comfortable with more of their hard-earned going to help neighbours. In culturally fractured countries, there is much less support for transfer payments - and administrative costs (policing, tax collection, even litter control) are higher because there is less sense of community. Unfortunately, this runs counter to the Left's current romance with multi-culturalism and open borders, which is an own goal- although it benefits them in the short term because new migrant cultures vote Left, for obvious reasons.
But there is a way forward if we can put aside our entrenched ideologies and make some hard choices:
The Right is increasingly anti-immigrant; they should not be. Successful countries can be picky and immigrants already self-select as the best of the populations they come from. Reversion to the norm does moderate this for subsequent generations, but what Americans would now send all Irish-origin citizens back to the bogs- even though, 100 years ago, they were as reviled as many immigrant communities are today? All evidence I've seen shows that even at up to 1% of the population per year, immigrants are worth having, contributing fresh energy and new perspectives as they adapt and assimilate. But to the Left, assimilation is a dirty word, and migrants 'should be allowed to keep their own cultures, languages and even laws' (multiculturalism). This makes no sense because the general reason people migrate is for a life that their home country could not provide- and we're not seeing Europeans piling up in North Africa, nor Americans along the Rio Grande. For all its faults, Western culture with its work ethic, merit-based rewards, equality in law, and minimal corruption, provides prosperity, life expectancy and individual freedoms that no other culture has come close to matching. That the Left endlessly denigrates Western values while, for example, supporting cultures that subjugate women, is inexcusable. Western countries should require commitment to the essential elements of their culture as a condition of entry for migrants- and enforce this with a probationary period. With this greater cohesiveness, a higher level of transfer payments would be sustained, and this, to my view is optimal government; as much social support as can be maintained without harming the economy.
PETER LYNN, ASHBURTON, AUGUST 1 '18