Collective Effort versus Collectivism

I have been reading the new George Kennan bio, which is reminding me of the horrors of the communist/Nazi varieties of collectivism. On the other side, I am just reading about “crowd funding” where small investors support artistic endeavors. I understood that we often operate under a false paradigm of individual v collective effort. We are implicitly accepting the flawed concepts of 19th century economists who really didn’t know what they were talking about and/or analysis should have been left in its historical context.

I don't need to describe the horrors that communism, Nazism and other collectivist theories brought to the 20th Century. The people who used these benighted concepts to oppress vast populations hid behind the idea of collectivism. They claimed they would use this to create a better society, something approaching heaven on earth with prosperity and justice for all "the people," properly defined and purged of their undesirable elements. Of course, to get to this heaven, leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao need to pull the people through hell.

We Americans fought hot and cold wars against these guy and defeated both of them. We were also infected by less virulent forms of both diseases, which created conflicts within the U.S. One of the collateral victims of this was the concept of collective effort. It came to be identified with the left side of the argument and came to be defined in an erroneous way. Collective behavior came to be seen - on both left and right - as the kind of thing practiced by the collectivists in communist/nazi places, i.e. organized from top-down and usually in some sort of "struggle," most commonly a kind of class struggle in the Marxist sense. This obscured the truth.

The truth is that the free market, people working in voluntary association, is the most effective way devised by mankind to engage in collective effort. A firm channels the collective efforts of many people with diverse skills and interest into a common end. The market mechanism organizes the efforts of people who may have never met or even know of each other's existence into cooperative supply chains so subtle and sublime that no planner of group of planners could ever imagine, much less organize.

Collectivism as practiced by the planners was a sickly and anemic shadow of the effective organization done by the free market. An ordinary swing manager at McDonald's was more skilled and had access to better sources of information than the head of the Soviet planning groups. He could use the collective knowledge, skills and functioning supply chains to produce hamburgers hot, fresh, inexpensive and on schedule, and he could do it day after day -something no Soviet planner ever succeeded in achieving. The magnitude of this discrepancy was so great and so shocking that we just missed it. I suppose it is like the person on the airplane traveling hundreds of miles an hour who just doesn't feel the movement.

It has been nearly sixty year since the fall of the Nazi's and more than twenty years since the collapse of communism. In consequence, we have the advantages and disadvantages of looking from a distance. Some have forgotten or rationalized the horrors of communism. What we should remember is that their style of collectivism was not only immoral, but also hopelessly inefficient.

This makes sense if you stop to think about it. Collective effort is effective to the extent that it employs the imaginations and aspirations of the individual participants. If you just make people do things with the threat of force, they do as much as they need to in order to placate their masters, but no more. It is not a collective activity. It is a collectivist activity. The people have been collected and used until they are used up.

Being connected with Internet makes voluntary collective activity much easier. It also makes the functioning of dispersed effort and intelligence more transparent. In the recent past, we knew that markets worked, but the mechanisms were a mystery. Today we can chart networks of connections that can show the movements of information.

For a long time most of us have assumed that the scope of government would increase as countries developed. As our societies became more crowded and complex, the idea went, we would need more government to sort out the relationships and resources. This seemed to go with an increasing centralization of firms. They were getting bigger. We had big government, big business, big labor and big coordination problems. This began to change in the 1970s and accelerated ever since.

As communications improved, the advantages of centralization decreased. Henry Ford owned or controlled many factors of production. He controlled forests and mines to produce the raw material. His plants fashioned these things into cars. It was integrated. Today a business doesn't need or want to control all aspects of the production chain. It is much more efficient to coordinate with others through networks. The command and control has been replaced by voluntary associations that can change rapidly. It is much MORE a collective effort than before, but it is not controlled by a single plan, sometimes really by no plan at all. The factors of production do not receive instructions. Instead they get market signals, incentives that move them to supply goods or services for people they have not met or may not know even exist.

Our ideas of government have not caught up with this innovative and networked world. Government is not especially relaxed about innovation but is exceedingly comfortable with hierarchy. Government, after all, is hierarchical by nature because its main function is to determine who is in charge with the power to set priories and limit options. If you don't believe me, think of why we have laws, rules and regulations and what institution is the final legitimate authority in creating and enforcing them.

In the past, we needed big government to balance big business and big labor. We also needed it to manage many of the interactions among people and organizations. As modern communications allow us more and more to become self-organizing, we might have to think of new and different roles for government. IMO, this will lead to LESS government, although I hope it is better targeted and more effective.

We conservatives should stop defining ourselves as against government and start thinking of ourselves as FOR more effective and better targeted government. If government says "no" to peripheral tasks, it can be more effective on those it says "yes." We need to reform government to adapt to the networked world.

In some ways this is back to the future. The pre-industrial age was a more networked and less standardized place. It was backward and inefficient because of the primitive level of technology. (By technology, BTW, I mean more than physical tech. There are technologies of the mind (such as calculus, statistics or economic analysis) that were unavailable to people 300 years ago as well as technologies of organization. These are less obviously apparent, but perhaps more important.) But it was human scale and human run. The industrial age brought standardizing and "mass" everything. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were both producers and products of this. Individuals mattered not at all to them. But now we have the chance to reclaim some of the humanity we may have lost and at the same time keep and expand the prosperity we got from industrialization. An interesting world indeed.


PS - Few people believe in Marx anymore, but Marxist analysis still pervades our thinking. Marx was an idiot/savant. If we understand that, we can more easily deal with his legacy. He was a savant with his flashed of genius, especially in the poetic sense of creating images. He was an idiot when it came to assembling these into a coherent social-economic theory. We should appreciate him as a literary figure and reject him as an economist or social theorist. Unfortunately, his followers usually did the opposite.

Posted by Christine & John at May 1, 2012 9:32 PM
Comment #343213

I think the problem is, some people identify collective in Marxist terms, with ANYTHING collective, anything where somebody else but individuals acting on pure reason and self-interest are concerned. Ayn Rand, who unfortunately successfully pushed this idea, more or less thought of anything collective as problematic, but she was just as unrealistic as Marx, in her own way.

There are things that are best done through more centralized planning or rulemaking. And there are other things that are not. Practice and results, though, should be the guide of what we do, rather than the continual use of abstract theory alone to do the job.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 2, 2012 5:51 PM
Comment #343214

The free market as our savior, but from what C&J? We should remember the corporations that run the “free market” are top down central planning collectivist just like Franco and Marx. The free market has the same problems with “big” as government does, power and money is concentrated into the hands of a few. The constitution protects us from the government but not corporations however.

Making widgets versus governing is an apples and oranges comparison isn’t it? Trying to make an economic system such as capitalism into a system of governing just doesn’t seem to work.

Posted by: j2t2 at May 2, 2012 7:23 PM
Comment #343215

So very well said, j2t2. Moderation in all things, etc. ‘One World Trade Center’. Is that an address or the next great ‘dream act’?

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at May 2, 2012 8:36 PM
Comment #343222

It’s getting rather sad on WB. Obama is using the killing of Bin Laden for reelection politics. All of his departments are falling apart and look embarrassing, i.e. GSA, SS, EPA, and Justice. Several commentators have said Obama will lose by a landslide and I believe it. I think the American people are sick and tired of the lying SOB. He is an embarrassment to the nation. How about all you libs who supported the OWS; still support them? Haven’t heard Obama and the dems supporting them lately. What we are seeing is the demise of the controlling left wing of the Democratic Party. It was just a matter of time; most of the state governments have already gone Republican.

Posted by: Billinflorida at May 2, 2012 9:46 PM
Comment #343227

I recall President Bush went into the night with much the same sentiments voiced by the people. PING, PONG.

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at May 2, 2012 10:01 PM
Comment #343230

and if I post something will a spam msg follow?

Posted by: Roy Ellis at May 2, 2012 10:04 PM
Comment #343235
It’s getting rather sad on WB. Obama is using the killing of Bin Laden for reelection politics.

2 words Bill, “Mission Accomplished”.

He is an embarrassment to the nation.

Only in conservative mythology Bill. Although the compassionate conservative set the bar low Obama hasn’t come close to the level we can expect from conservative leaders. Look at the idiot Boehner and the daily embarrassments he spouts. Or for that matter Romney and his misinformation, half truths and outright lies.

How about all you libs who supported the OWS still support them?

Yep just sent another $25 to support OWS. How about you Bill, still supporting the Fascist West down there in FLA?

Posted by: j2t2 at May 2, 2012 10:50 PM
Comment #343325


“I think the problem is, some people identify collective in Marxist terms, with ANYTHING collective” I agree. I wrote this post to oppose that idea. But we need to recognize that the concept has a history. Communists for decades used front organizations and fellow travelers. They would foment revolution with wonderful sounding phrases and then when in power liquidate opposition, usually starting with people who had gone along for those reasons. This is what those evil dictators such as Lenin, Hitler, Castro and Pol Pot did. So they used words in this nefarious way until the words lost their meaning and became what we see today.

Communism/Nazism is dead in the virulent form that caused so much death and destruction in the 20th Century. That means the reason we were suspicious of such ideas as collectivism has gone. We are still defining the world in 20th century terms. Time to update.

What I am mostly against is the top down planning, especially those that use coercion. I gave the example of Henry Ford. He was a “capitalist” but that sort of planning is no longer useful. The same goes for the government planning.

We have a wonderful system of dispersed and interactive planning, which works much better than the central variety in almost all circumstances. The best leaders try to show the direction, but let others work out the particulars. The result is usually not exactly what the leader had in mind; it is often better.

I don’t know what to call this process. It most closely resembles a free market, which is its largest subset. But it works in other respects too. You can see this with wikis and crowd sourcing. The problem with non-market varieties is that it has trouble getting people to put “skin in the game”. It is easy to talk and give preferences. But to make people serious, you have to make sure they have something to gain or lose in the endeavor. I wrote earlier about commitment and involvement, using the pigs and chicken analogy. People committed tend to pay more attention and they should often get more weight.

Re “mission accomplished” you would think that presidents would learn from the mistakes of others, but they don’t. The game is never over.

Posted by: C&J at May 3, 2012 7:27 AM
Comment #343328

Dispearsed and interactive planning? Isn’t that like Federal state and local government? Seems to me “free market” advocates have taken credit for this dynamic breakthrough that is in fact old hat.

The difference between GWB and Obama is the mission was accomplished before Obama took credit, Bin Laden is still dead,, which I would venture to say is a lesson learned.

Posted by: j2t2 at May 3, 2012 9:05 AM
Comment #343342

First, I find it much better for politician to tout their successes, and point out where their opponent’s doubts and opposition were in the wrong, than to make their entire campaign about naysaying and contrarianism regardless of positive results.

Romney, who was at a firehouse with Rudolph Giuliani, exposed quite a bit of his hypocrisy on the matter before he even said a word. I mean, exactly what event was he trying to milk for political benefit? At least Bush was commander in chief at the time. Romney decried Obama trying to reap benefit from avenging us on the leader who inflicted 9/11 on us, while he basked in the reflected glow of first responder heroes, and another man who tried to build his reputation on his leadership during that crisis.

It’s only okay if you’re a Republican, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re a right-doer, it only matters if you’re a right-thinker.

But thinking isn’t good enough. We can think anything we want is right, but reality will be the filter on all our best intentions, determining where our thinking is off-base, and where it is not.

Republicans have enshrined thinking, not doing right as the critical thing. They are right to believe that behavior comes from thought, and that bad ideas can lead to bad actions, but they fail to consider one critical possibility in enough depth: that theirs is the thinking and belief that could be wrong.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 3, 2012 11:10 AM
Comment #343343

Which commentators predict a Romney landslide? I only know of one, Limbaugh, and he says he is a “lone wolf,” and no one else believes it. Limbaugh makes the claim without any supporting facts or evidence or data, just a fervent wish that independents would vote conservative. All the evidence and data indicates a big Obama victors:

TPM composite polling results for the electoral college:
Obama 341
Romney 197

States showing 5% lead or more:
Obama 273
Romney 180

It takes 270 to win. This kind of information can be broken down many, many ways, but the conclusion is inescapable: A blowout is in the works.

Posted by: phx8 at May 3, 2012 11:22 AM
Comment #343344

In order to ‘be competitive’ Delta airlines is looking to buy an oil refinery. Others would like too but don’t have the cash. And so goes monopoly/conglomeration. The taxpayer might ask what an oil refinery has to do with airline service. I would think the airlines write off the cost of fuel or, are subsidized in some way by the taxpayer.

Election time can’t be far off. Medicare fraud in the news. $452M by 107 individuals. W/o proof, I dare say the tip of the iceberg, etc.

Yes, even the smallest corps engage in the game of beating up on taxpayers, and the 545 say, Amen.

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at May 3, 2012 11:54 AM
Comment #343345

What is obama’s signature proposal for his second term? He has revealed no visible new agenda for the next four years much less a “big” proposal.

obama’s top adviser David Axelrod said on a recent Sunday political show…”The president has to be reelected because we can’t afford to stay on our current course.”

I guess Axelrod missed the last 3 and 1/2 years. obama’s biggest proposal seems to be the “Buffet Rule”. The deficit last year was $1.3 trillion. With the Buffet Rule in place it would have been $1.295 trillion.

Some believe obama can win by nitpicking Romney. Winners give reasons to vote for them…not reasons to vote against the other guy. obama’s rallying cry seems to be that Romney is hostile to women and cruel to dogs. Is that enough? Most women don’t believe that and dogs don’t define fun as being cruel.

Posted by: Royal Flush at May 3, 2012 2:09 PM
Comment #343346

Royal Flush,
When incumbents run for re-election, they go with ‘feel-good’ messages. For Reagan in 1984, it was “morning in America.” The economy had recovered from the deep 1982 recession, and that was that. Clinton’s re-election in 1996 was similar. They’re able to go with those kinds of messages if the economic trend is improving. It doesn’t matter from what number to what- just that improvement is there. Bush #41 lost his re-election bid because the economy was deteriorating. The Lesser Bush won re-election even though the economy was not very good. Virtually the only positive was the increase in home ownership, which we now know laid the groundwork for the Great Recession. As a result, Bush resorted to negative campaigning, Swiftboating. It worked- just barely- with 150,000 votes in Ohio being the margin of victory.

The truism is that a president governs the way he campaigns. That seems true in the cases of recent presidents. So far, Romney has relied on negative campaigning on the airwaves to demolish weak opponents. That won’t work in the general election, partly because Obama has already been defined in the mind of the electorate, and partly because the negative campaigning in the primaries left Romney with a very unfavorable impression with voters.

Obama nitpicking at Romney? That’s not really a strategy. Romney does have a huge problem with demographics: women, blacks, latinos, and gays. I don’t think Romney is hostile to women’s health issues, such as reproductive rights, abortion rights, equal pay in the workplace, and preventative programs through Planned Parenthood; but the GOP is profoundly hostile to the women’s health issues mentioned above. A sustained legislative assault continues at the state level, and Romney is having trouble running fast enough to get out from under it, and get in front. The War on Women is killing Romney, but the conservative base demands it be waged.

Romney’s best hope is with latinos… If he bucks the base and takes stands more sympathetic to immigrants and, yes, even illegal immigrants. Otherwise, he’s toast. He’s probably toast anyway, but that’ no reason no to try, especially when the outcome of the presidential vote has such a strong effect on downticket races.

Posted by: phx8 at May 3, 2012 3:05 PM
Comment #343347

Which commentators predict a Romney landslide? I only know of one, Limbaugh, and he says he is a “lone wolf,” and no one else believes it. Limbaugh makes the claim without any supporting facts or evidence or data, just a fervent wish that independents would vote conservative. All the evidence and data indicates a big Obama victors:”

phx8, don’t know about Limbaugh; but Dick Morris (a Clinton man)thinks so. In fact he believes Obama’s numbers, in the 40’s, will lead to a massive loss.

Posted by: Billinflorda at May 3, 2012 3:23 PM
Comment #343348

Dick Morris? Ah. Ok. That makes sense, that Morris would predict a Romney landslide. Morris’s track record over the past five years has not been very good. He predicted Hillary would beat Obama in the primaries and run against Condi Rice; that Trump would run, then beat Obama; that Hillary would primary Obama; and that Obama would not run for re-election. !

Anyway, according to your link, Morris believes Romney can win despite a gender gap, because previous GOP candidates have won despite it. That’s true. But part of the problem is the size of the gap. Morris uses the lowest available poll number, a 12% gap according to Rasmussen. Other polls show a much larger gap, about the 18 - 19% range.

It’s still possible to win with a gap that size- difficult, but not impossible- and to do it, Romney would have to bring in another demographic to counter it. Bush succeeded by bringing in a significant hispanic vote (I think it was 44%). It wasn’t a majority of hispanics, but it was large, enough to push him over the top. To date, Romney has horrific poll numbers among latinos, only 20 -25%. Combined with the gender gap, and the already given loss of black and gay voters, and that low number among latinos is fatal.

Posted by: phx8 at May 3, 2012 3:49 PM
Comment #343349

Have obama policies been great for blacks and hispanics? Are they thriving under the dems? Are women better off with the dems? Who exactly is better off under obama, reid and pelosi?

I ask again, where is obama’s big program? What’s his grand idea for our future?

Posted by: Royal Flush at May 3, 2012 4:00 PM
Comment #343350

Royal Flush-
You seem to miss that the contrast doesn’t have to be between excellent and good, it can be between good and completely horrible. The last four years of race-baiting has probably not discouraged African American from voting for Obama. The Republican’s radical push on immigration has been so bad that even Obama’s high tempo of deportations hasn’t dampened his advantage. And women? Looking at what Republicans have done and said over the past few years, especially recently, women haven’t become big fans of them.

As for whether people are better off or not? I think the Republicans are making it increasingly clear that however bad things are now, they would have likely been worse if your people had been in charge. Even in this time of crisis, the party leadership has been so selfish as to make the defeat of one politician a priority over dozens of more pressing issues.

As for your questiona bout big programs and grand ideas for the future?

What you fail to understand is that a record at this point is as important as plans, and one advantage Obama has is that he can tell you what he’s actually done, not just talk about what he will do. Your people can only tell people about what you would do, if you had all the political cards in your hand.

In the meantime, though, your people have succeeded in making the Do-Nothing Congress of the Truman era look like hard-workers. You realize that after they were done, the Republicans didn’t get re-elected to a full majority for almost half a century.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 3, 2012 5:40 PM
Comment #343351


I am in favor of local and state autonomy too. The states are the laboratories of democracy.

As I wrote to you above, I am not sure what we should call the system. I refer to it as a market because I can think of no better term. We talk about marketplaces of ideas or marketplaces of innovation. If you can think of a better name or have heard of one, let’s talk about it.

Re Mission accomplished – Obama rightfully could be proud of Obama being killed. A wiser man would have stuck with the original formulation and not tried to add to it now. I would also point out that in days past such covert operations would not be ballyhooed at all. Killing the bad guy was good. It might have been better to do it w/o talking so much.


Please see above. It is simply bad form for political leaders to crow too much about what our dedicated armed forces do. Remember how Roosevelt handled the Doolittle Raid? There was a better man.


We are drifting from the subject. That is okay. I guess it means that we generally agree that a dispersed and decentralized decision making mechanism is desirable, as long as we don’t call it a market.

Posted by: C&J at May 3, 2012 5:41 PM
Comment #343353

“What you fail to understand is that a record at this point is as important as plans, and one advantage Obama has is that he can tell you what he’s actually done, not just talk about what he will do…

In the meantime, though, your people have succeeded in making the Do-Nothing Congress of the Truman era look like hard-workers. You realize that after they were done, the Republicans didn’t get re-elected to a full majority for almost half a century.”

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 3, 2012 5:40 PM

Two really ignorant statements:

First, Obama is not talking about any of the crap he has accomplished, except for making himself the hero of killing Bin Laden; which seems to be backfiring on him. Of course he did use the justice department to put guns in the hands of the Mexican drug cartel, file law suits against Arizona’s immigration laws, and of course he gave us obamacare. Then we have the GSA and Secret Service scandal, and the latest China debacle. It’s just not fair is it?

Secondly, the last time I checked, the democrats control half of the Congress and the half they control is under the leadership of the useless POS Reid. If there was ever a do nothing, it’s Reid.

The liberals suffered a whooping in 2010 (SD was one who became depressed and was silent for several days after the election results) and here we are coming up on another November election. Things don’t look good for Obama and company. I’m sure that SD and the rest of the lefties will be in depression for a few days, and then they will be back to their old game of attacking the new president and controlling congress.

Posted by: Frank at May 3, 2012 8:21 PM
Comment #343360

I’m not sure this market based thing will work out over the long term. One has to wonder what Bin Laden thought of the North American Union where folks could just walk around, country to country, checking things out.

And, folks are getting tired of cutting each others grass and are looking for some real jobs. Where is that going?

We really can’t see what the real system will look like until the middle class worker is degraded to a level where we can really complete in the globalised/market based world. The 545 are still working hard on that one — trillions whizzed away on stimulus and wasteful spending. Big job - - leveling the playing field for the entire world.

Current example:

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at May 3, 2012 9:17 PM
Comment #343459

Since our representatives are bought and sold at election time and lobbied with campaign funding at key voting times perhaps “market” is the most descriptive term C&J but “free market” is a bit of a stretch IMHO. If you recall capitalism or any economic system isn’t mentioned in the constitution and any attempt to brand corporate America as our salvation causes me to think the right name for your system is the tried and true “Fascism”. The collusion of capitalist efficiency and government power that is the essence of conservatism is not really, in the end, different from Nazism and Marxism is it ?

Posted by: j2t2 at May 4, 2012 9:22 AM
Comment #343464


So you distrust government more than I do. Why do you advocate more of it?

BTW - I never mentioned corporate America or even capitalism. I believe that robust, decentralized and dispersed decision making is a good idea, made more functional by recent changes in communications technology.

Big government, big labor and big business should all be diminished by these developments. Freedom should be enhanced.

Posted by: C&J at May 4, 2012 10:18 AM
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