Pragmatic Collectivism

Does Government Deserve a Prominent Economic and Social Role?

Do we individualists exaggerate when we condemn our ideological opponents as collectivists? That word isn’t merely a term of abuse. It is a spot-on label for the political philosophy of those who would give government a prominent economic and social role. The philosophy holds that society (or some other group) is superior to the expendable individuals who comprise it and that government should act on its behalf. Government carries out the social will, which has little or nothing to do with the will of persons, since that only reflects narrow self-interest.

Collectivism can be detected in certain views on property and wealth. While much variation is possible, today’s pragmatic collectivists are willing to permit a semblance of private property, until it clashes with their lofty aspirations. Few people today favor outright and total collectivization of the means of production. But all collectivists are ready to summon the constabulary when a nominal property owner does something they don’t like. Ultimately, all property belongs to the collective.

You can spot a good collectivist by his choice of words. Recently, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the quintessential pragmatic collectivist, was defending President Clinton against his critics who favor impeachment or resignation. Cuomo said that although Clinton had done wrong, he’s doing a good job as president. “The job of the president is to run the United States of America,” Cuomo said. Not just the government, mind you. The whole United States.

A few minutes later he pressed his point: Who cares that we can’t believe the President on a certain personal matter? The important thing is that “we do believe he knows what to do with the wealth of this country.”

That’s collectivism.

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There is no longer a legal entitlement to welfare, and almost everyone now acknowledges that America’s long experience with handouts for the poor was a failure. James Payne explains why the $5 trillion war on poverty had no chance of success.

State and local governments spend a significant amount of cash trying to get doctors to set up practices in rural areas. Is this a good idea? William Pike says it’s not only unnecessary, it’s especially bad for the residents of those areas.

The government’s offensive against tobacco is well known. But as Aaron Lukas reminds us, the feds for over 30 years have waged a war against one particular kind of tobacco: the kind grown and rolled into cigars in Cuba.

Can the arts flourish under capitalism when writers, painters, and composers have to worry about mundane things like making a living? Critics of the market have long answered no. A new book by economist Tyler Cowen, excerpted herein, says the arts can and do flourish in such circumstances.

A new move is afoot to amend the U.S. Constitution to permit prohibition of the burning of the American flag. Andrew Cohen surveys the standard arguments pro and con before asking the overlooked question: whose flag is it?

Advocates of quotas, set-asides, and other government-mandated discrimination don’t seem to realize that those measures assume that the targeted groups can’t succeed on their own in the free market. Burton Folsom says history disputes that assumption and offers two cases of entrepreneurial determination to prove his point.

When the government required air bags in all automobiles some years ago, the regulators and “consumer advocates” said the mandate would save lives. They didn’t say it would also take lives—but that’s what happened. Loren Lomasky takes a philosophical look at this episode of Government Knows Best.

The publication in Japanese of Libertarianism: A Primer gave David Boaz the opportunity to contemplate the universality of liberty in a new introduction to that edition of his book. We are pleased to reprint it here.

There are two ways to provide goods: the market (consent) and the government (coercion). Hugh Macaulay compares the two methods in his mission to discover which is superior.

For many years the Swiss had no rivals among watchmakers. Then along came the quartz revolution in timekeeping. The entrepreneurial Swiss were down, but they didn’t give up. Anthony Young has the story.

Government is often petitioned to compensate individuals and groups for injuries inflicted at the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. But as Karen Selick points out, whenever a victim is compensated, a whole new set of victims is created.

In this month’s columns, Lawrence Reed sets the record straight on America’s “overconsumption,” Doug Bandow sees hope for education in the growing private scholarship movement, Dwight Lee argues that laws against profiteering during natural disasters are a form of censorship, Mark Skousen takes a look at financial markets, and Walter Williams takes a fresh look at the War Between the States. To Robert Kuttner’s complaint that the world economy suffers from “market worship,” Russell Roberts says, It Just Ain’t So!

Our reviewers dissect books on John D. Rockefeller, radical legal philosophy, natural law, democracy, environmental entrepreneurship, and the twentieth-century battle between capitalism and socialism.

—Sheldon Richman

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