Thinking Out Loud: Collectivism and Control

Poor Karl Marx. The man’s ideas were all the rage in the twentieth century, but he had long since been deceased by the time the proletariat revolt he dreamed of occurred in nation after nation the world over. Between Russia and China and their respective spheres of power, it is estimated that, at communism’s high-water mark, nearly one-third of the world lived under such a regime. And despite communism’s clear failures – the paradises of Cuba and North Korea are not exactly testaments to its genius – currently there is a lot of movement back towards this form of government, as is evident in the rise of “social democratic” regimes in Europe (and growing interest in this form of government among Americans thanks in large part to Bernie Sanders).

Of course communism and socialism are not quite the same things (as all my liberal friends remind me when I blithely equate the two), but they are both grounded upon the principle of highly-centralized control. Communism may target the means of production, while socialism may simply commandeer the products themselves; but in the end the result is that the state takes possession of much of the property and resources within its territory, and it makes many choices on behalf of the collective population within its bounds as to how to utilize and dispose of that property and those resources. To avoid a hair-splitting dispute, I will use the term collectivism – which I think is a fair descriptor for both systems – to refer to these sorts of sociopolitical/economic models.

Assuming finite resources and the internalization of the costs of externalities – that is, assuming that there are only so many resources to go around, and costs incurred in the utilization and disposition of those resources cannot be outsourced to another outside the collective – collectivism inevitably suffers from the tragedy of the commons. Because no one has anymore rights to the resources over against anyone else, there is no way to limit access, which leads to exploitation. Exploitation is unsustainable, but there is no easy way to coordinate conduct to avoid it because that would require unanimity. In the absence of inequality – i.e., where no one has more (and, ipso facto, no one has less) rights than any other to the collective property – it only takes one dissenter to upend any proposals to avoid exploitation. For this reason, autonomous collectives do not fare well or last long in the real world.

And therein lies the rub when it comes to collectivism. Because all resources are equally owned by all, but unanimity is impossible and exploiters would be able to collapse the system absent comprehensive coordination, collectivism requires robust centralized control. And the problem with robust centralized control is that it concentrates power, making it the target of lobbying by special interests, subsequently resulting in its capture by those forces. And once that happens, the central government is no longer making decisions on behalf of the collective, but on behalf of those interests who have successfully captured the central government.

Democratic accountability – the silver bullet for liberals who want to handwave away these sorts of concerns (you know, those who like to say in response to criticisms of the political order, “if you don’t like it, just throw the bums out”) – proves to be feckless and toothless in the face of political ignorance, which is itself inevitable given the high cost and low benefit to the average person of obtaining the political knowledge necessary to actively participate in a highly-centralized system (i.e., it is rationally irrational). This results in a system where:

  • Everybody within the bounds of the state is dependent on the state for the allocation and disposition of a significant amount of resources therein
  • Because this decision-making is highly-centralized – and, ipso facto, out of the control of most individuals within the state – most individuals therein are by-and-large politically ignorant (in the technical sense of the term, meaning they do not have a good grasp of how the system operates because there is no point for them to learn about it when they can do nothing to change it in any case)
  • Political ignorance results in lack of awareness at the same time as powerful sub-groups within the collective work to lobby, and ultimately capture, the centralized government
  • Once this capture is sensed, agitation increases as people realize that the system is functioning in an inherently unequal manner despite the promise of equality
  • Agitation leads to crisis, which begets either reform or repression, depending on how vulnerable the sub-group controlling the government is
  • Even assuming reform, the fundamental elements of this system are usually left intact, with superficial fixes being patched onto the existing regime (e.g., new oversight entities), inevitably leading to the same agitation, crisis, and crossroad
  • The longer this cycle continues, the wiser those in power get to the game, allowing them to further shore up their vulnerabilities and inoculate themselves against this cycle

Thus, collective systems trend towards autocracy – or at least some form of centralized dictatorial rule – invariably. As alluded to above, this process can be delayed or avoided where resources are abundant or where costs are successfully externalized. In those cases, the collective can delay this devolution on account of frequent new inputs that assuage those otherwise prone to agitation. But this process cannot be staved off forever, as resources are finite. At some point, either Lockean or Hobbesian reforms must be implemented to resolve the tragedy of the commons. And given humanity’s apparent predisposition, the latter seems to usually occur, resulting in the absence of those very things modern liberal nations presume to seek out and allow for (or provide for) their citizens; to wit, the right to life, liberty, and the free pursuit of happiness for all.

Just ask any Venezuelan.

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