Friday, February 24, 2012

The -eriority of Collectivism

I am sometimes asked whether I think the collectivist society of the Biblical world (and even 60-70% of the world today) is "superior" to the modern individualist society we now have in America. My reply has been that both types of society have advantages and both have ways they can be abused. However, I would also add that in reality, individualism is always something of a phantom -- as the phrase goes, no man is an island -- or else expresses itself as the ultimate deviance which most of us rightly frown upon. I'll draw a lesson from my "other job" doing USDA surveys to make this point.

Right now I'm in the midst of the "biggest" agricultural survey -- one that effectively creates a financial profile of the business I visit for the last calendar year. The information in this survey is used for a lot of reasons, but among the most important are that 1) it helps set amounts set aside for federal aid for agriculture when there is a disaster; 2) it ensures that agricultural businesses are fairly represented in government; 3) it protects taxpayers from being ripped off by those who try to claim they need more financial aid than they do.

There are more than a few people though -- between 30-50% of those selected each year -- who don't want to participate in the process (which is not mandatory). Some say they have privacy concerns. Some claim they don't have time (and then will spend 10 minutes explaining to me why they don't). But some just don't care.

Here's the rub, though. Some of those who refuse to take part in the survey would be among those who would be first in line for government aid when a hurricane or tornado hits their business. Then they'll complain that the aid didn't come fast enough, or wasn't enough to suit them, and so on. Or, they'll claim they would never want the government's help -- as they 10 minutes later take their SUV out onto a highway paid for with government funds.

The lesson here is that in real sense, even most individualists are still collectivists to some extent. The only pure individualist is the guy who goes and lives in the woods alone. (And I'll admit -- that might have been my option had I lived in the first century.) Everyone else is still to some degree collectivist. The guy who whines sharing his "private" information with the government doesn't seem to mind using what the government provides for him -- roads, mail service, and even perhaps schools. When he uses those things, he's a collectivist. Yet ask him to provide information that will make those services better, not just for him but for everyone, and he becomes a hardcore individualist.

I was amazed by one farm owner who declared that the taking of surveys was "communism." This was ironic in part because some time later, I was chosen to represent my field answering questions from Russian government officials who were using US surveys as models for what they wanted their agricultural department to do -- and were told that no such surveys had been conducted in Russia since before the Communist revolution! It's also ironic because it isn't communism (with all its associated principles of the proletariat, etc) but an expression of collectivism. It's the same mistake fundy atheists make when they claim the Bible is "communist".

Just recently another farmer declared to me that he didn't think a survey of his operation would be "beneficial" and gave me a litany of reasons why he thought this was so. I answered each of them -- and in the end, he merely returned to the first objection on his list. (Yep -- like arguing with a fundy atheist, too.) What became clear was that what he meant was, "It wouldn't do me any good."

In the end, many people who refuse to do these surveys I work with are saying, "I don't care about my fellow farmers. I care only about myself. I don't care about making the system better for everyone. My fears/privacy/etc are far more important than the common welfare." Of course, one could argue about the efficacy of such instruments in terms of aiding the common good, but that's another matter. And I'm far from saying that system is perfect.

However, it does demonstrate this much: Living as a group is still, in a very real way, what our priorities and necessities reflect. And Christianity, when it demands that we care for the common good (agape), is also on the right track.


  1. JP, is there not a risk of straw-manning individualism here?

    If individualism were articulated (and as you're aware, it's mostly a presuppostion westerners work with) it would surely not be the claim that "co-operation is wrong, or unnecessary" but rather that "each person is a substantially unique self, wholly individual". That is, it's a claim that identity/self-hood is not dependent on community, but lies interior to each person. Persons can hold this view while still thinking that mutual co-operation between individuals is important. Of course, we might not think this individualism is very conducive to such co-operation, but that's a different matter to saying that it is, by definition, contrary to it.

    Seems to me that your post confuses "independence" more broadly, with individualism as a view, or family of views, about the independence of identity and self-hood particularly.

  2. There's always a risk, though it proabably won't come from me. :) At the same time, my stubborn ag people would say only "cooperation is unnecessary for maintaining my business" -- they might well agree with cooperation as essential in other areas, but I doubt they'd take the time to think about their own inconsistencies; bottom line is they just don't care enough to understand why their input is important.

    I don't see how you get that confusion from the post, but it seems to me independence is a second-order "symptom" of individualism. And these ag people aren't being "independent" since they freely interact with other businesses to get their supplies, broker their products, etc.