A place for new ideas to settle.

21 August 2013

Collectivism vs. liberty?

Katrina Haffner, president of WWU's libertarian club and a fellow fan of liberty, declares herself a "collectivist" in this post:
 I have been called a "collectivist" by some libertarians, as if it was a derogatory word. I will admit: I am a collectivist.

So many times have I seen libertarians bashing collectivism and embracing individualism - identifying with being a part of a group is "bad" (hmmm, how about libertarianism?). Why is that? How is being a part of a group a bad thing? And why do libertarians place an emphasis on the individual?
That's sure to rankle most libertarians, who may have a different definition of the word than she does.

Take the Wikipedian definition of collectivism, which seems related to sociology and anthropology (at least it's filed under sociology): Collectivism is any philosophic, political, religious, economic, or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human.

Katrina's not as alone in the liberty-movement wilderness as I thought. From Judith Ayers at PolicyMic, in a post entitled What Would Libertarianism Look Like, If It Wasn't Just White People?:
 A true, ideological, libertarian renaissance can, and will only, happen if we learn to listen to those who have lived under government occupation: those who live in poverty, are isolated, and lack access to resources; those who don’t have health insurance; those who have suffered in solitary confinement; those who have undergone the destruction of their families, identity, and culture; those of different sexual identities; those who are victims of the drug war, political prisoners, sex workers, domestic workers, or undocumented persons. Libertarians need to talk, and listen to, the survivors, the “others,” the voiceless and the ignored.
Now contrast that with a right-libertarian nightmare of collectivism, courtesy of Ron Paul:
Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans only as members of groups and never as individuals. Racists believe that all individual who share superficial physical characteristics are alike; as collectivists, racists think only in terms of groups. By encouraging Americans to adopt a group mentality, the advocates of so-called "diversity" actually perpetuate racism. Their intense focus on race is inherently racist, because it views individuals only as members of racial groups.
Conservatives and libertarians should fight back and challenge the myth that collectivist liberals care more about racism. Modern liberalism, however well intentioned, is a byproduct of the same collectivist thinking that characterizes racism. The continued insistence on group thinking only inflames racial tensions.
The first two sentences are quite accurate, if not particularly insightful. Racism is at base the creation of fancy labels for "favored" and "unfavored" people, and then shoehorning everyone into one category or the other with faulty (and malleable) logic. It's a classic example of post hoc rationalization, trotted out to assuage guilts or fears about cheating or some other unfairness.

Yet as Matthew Yglesias points out, it's not helpful to discard the notions of collectives altogether, because you miss certain very important sets. For example, certain low-income families have a greater exposure to lead, and their children will go on to develop lower than average IQs, among other mental defects. The upshot is an upswing in crime; conversely, the best explanation of the decrease in crime is the decrease in airborne lead brought on by unleaded gasoline.

Moreover, it's supremely unhelpful (and ignorant—here's a good time to invoke the idea of privilege) to blithely assert that "focus[ing] on race is inherently racist" and "continued insistence on group thinking only inflames racial tensions." While it's not true that ethnic background contributes too much to an individual's behavior or nature, it is true that racial identities (good or bad) have been imposed on groups from above, as it were—it's enough that people have a sense of what it means "to be black in America," and that this includes some rather unsavory generalizations.

At the same time, you have the so-called "social justice warriors" of Tumblr and elsewhere (and sometimes in real life, because there aren't enough political annoyances yet) who seem to insist that group identity really is the thing, and that generalizations are precise descriptions. All problems are because of racism, or patriarchy; all white people are racist, and no people of color can be racist; all men are rapists, or at least "Schroedinger's rapist"; ah hell, just look at these definitions and marvel.

So there's a right way and a wrong way to view individuals and groups. If you've taken a bit of mathematics, thinking of groups as sets of individuals might be a good way to avoid wrongness and leaky generalizations.