All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1984

The Collectivist Fallacy

Dr. Carson specializes in American intellectual history. He has written a number of books, including Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union in America, and The Colonial Experience, the first in a 5-volume series, A Basic History of the United States.

A class to which I belong is either going or has gone out of existence. If the class had a formal title, I never heard it, but it could be described this way. It was comprised of those who suffered property damage as the result of a brief voltage reduction which occurred in the early morning hours on a certain day in April of 1983. It was a local phenomenon, restricted mostly to a portion of the county in which I live.

Here is how I came to be a member of this particular group or class. My older daughter awakened the household around 5:30 of the said early morning with the announcement that we had a power “brownout.” I got up to check, and sure enough the lights were dim, and there were indications that the situation was general. My first thought was that we should turn off the heat pump lest it be damaged. That done, my daughter called the electric company. The person who answered the phone said that they were aware of the condition and were working to correct it. Within 30 or 40 minutes, the power came up to full voltage, and that should have been that. Except, it wasn’t.

Our refrigerator began to develop strange clicking noises, and my amateur investigation disclosed that while the air was circulating through it, it was cool air, not cold. Moreover, the air soon developed that unmistakable fetid odor characteristic of refrigerators when they are not refrigerating. There was nothing for it but to get help from some person familiar with the innards of refrigerating devices. Late in the afternoon, the service man arrived to check the refrigerator. His findings were not encouraging. The compressor had locked, he declared. Well, I asked, what do you have to do to unlock it? You don’t, he replied, you replace the compressor. So, he carted off the refrigerator to the repair shop, and several days later it was returned and worked as well as before.

My pocketbook was lightened of its burden by some $250 to pay for the restoration, of course. Evidence began to accumulate that there was a connection between the power reduction and compressor failures. Mine was no isolated case. The refrigerator business I had used was kept busy for weeks repairing and replacing refrigerators, food freezers, and the like. The man who owned the business had got up at about the time the brownout occurred, investigated, and discovered that the voltage was exactly one-half normal strength. He recommended to his customers that they seek relief from the power company. I filed a written claim; some of the others went in person to assert their claims.

The efforts were to no avail; I never received a reply to my letter, but I heard that the power company was denying its responsibility. Spokesmen for the company talked vaguely about acts of God and other mishaps beyond their control. If the Deity actually acts by way of the wind and weather, He was especially quiet on the night in question. The wind was calm; it was clear; not a single bolt of lightning had been seen nor clap of thunder heard. My insurance man explained that if the voltage reduction had been the result of an act of God, the insurance companies would pay the claims.

Loath as I am to take collective action, I had just about worked myself into a sufficient lather to instigate a class action suit, when I got a call one night from a man who lives in a nearby community. He said an attorney had been found who would undertake such a suit for a portion of the proceeds and asked if I wanted to make a claim. I assured him that I did and told him the amount of my claim.

Many months went by without any word of proceedings or lawsuit before there came another call from the man who had contacted me in the first place. He said that the power company was going to pay the claims and that to get mine I would have to go by the attorney’s office and make a formal statement of mine. The next time I was in the vicinity of the lawyer’s office I went by, filled in the amount of the claim, and signed the paper. More weeks or months elapsed before I got a call from a local lawyer who must have been associated in the case some way. He said he had a check for me, and I could come by and pick it up or he would mail it to me. I picked up the check, was satisfied with the amount, and my membership in the class which had brought (or threatened) the suit was at an end.

These rather trivial incidents probably have no particular significance in themselves. I have related them in some detail, however, because of the light they may shed upon collectivism and what I believe to be the central collectivist fallacy. But before applying them in that way, some observations about collectivism and what I conceive to be the collectivist fallacy are in order.

First, some observations about collectivism. I take it that the main thrust for change in the way we do things in America over the past half century has been collectivism. That is, it has come from what I once called, a “collectivist curvature of the mind,” the bent to organize and solve problems collectively rather than to do so individually. This bent has been expressed forcefully by the increasing use of government to manage and control the lives and activities of people.

This governmental control is also sometimes described as socialism and the tendency in that direction socialistic. But collectivism is much the better word for describing and thinking about the method of the action; it does not have to be encumbered with the intellectual baggage of ideological socialism. Socialism, after all, may be nothing more than a figment of the fertile imaginations of intellectuals. Collectivism, on the other hand, is quite real. It is as real as all the governmentally organized or supported organizations which rule today in so many areas of our lives: as real as the Department of Agriculture, of Health and Human Services, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the AFL-CIO, the AEA, the Food and Drug Administration, and so on and on.

A Preference for Collective Action

Collectivism can be defined as the preference for the collective over the individual. In practice, it is the preference for government-directed action over private, individual, and independent ways of doing things. It is the preference for collective over individual responsibility, for government-guaranteed security over free enterprise, for control over liberty. The collective acts through government, according to the dominant contemporary democratic theories. The electorate votes and, by so doing, grants its support to the collectivizing activities of government.

Undergirding this thrust to collectivism is the view not only that collective action is preferable to that of individuals but also a conception of the nature of man that mandates collectivism as the solution to our problems. Man is a part rather than a whole, an incomplete being on his own, inadequate to the task of life. The individual following his own way is sundered from the organism of which he is a part.

This aspect of collectivism, which I consider central to it, was brought home to me recently by correspondence which I had with a reader of one of my books. In Organized Against Whom? I quoted from the decision of a New York court in 1835 in the case of The People v. Fisher. The judge ruled that combinations of men, as in a labor union, had no right to set the prices at which others might sell their goods or labor. He reasoned that “If one individual does not possess such a right over the conduct of another, no number of individuals can possess such a right.”

My reader indicated “that while the court reasoned fallaciously in my opinion, its conclusion was correct.” The example the “court cited did not ‘logically’ support its conclusion.” More specifically, he claims that in the sentence from the court quoted above the court was guilty of “the fallacy of composition.” The fallacy of composition, he explains, “occurs when one reasons fallaciously from the attributes of the parts of a whole to the attributes of the whole itself.” Thus, “Regarding The People vs. Fisher, the court reasoned from the attributes of the parts of a whole (i.e., individual members of a union) to attributes of the whole itself (i.e., the union). I submit that this was fallacious reasoning.”

Parts and Wholes

On the contrary, I think that the judge not only reached a sound conclusion but also reasoned correctly on his way to it. I doubt very much that he was guilty of a fallacy of composition, but it is entirely possible that my correspondent has, perhaps unwittingly, fallen under the sway of what I am here calling the fallacy of collectivism. In any case, the difficulty, and the difference, is ontological, not logical. That is, it has to do with the nature and character of being, not with some weakness in reasoning conclusions from his premises.

Given his premises, so far as I understand them, the judge was rigorously logical in arriving at his conclusion. Here is a recap of his reasoning as I understand it. If a union has the right to impose its will upon others it must have obtained the right either from its members or from other sources. He had surveyed the state law on the subject and found in it no authority for such union activity. In the absence of positive law to the contrary, he looked for the right in the only place it could reside, in the rights of individuals. On his showing, individuals had no right to set prices for others. Therefore, he concluded that no number of individuals by combining could confer on an organization rights which they did not themselves possess.

The question with which my reader is dealing goes beyond the logical; it is, as I said, ontological. It has to be answered in the realm of being. Are men partial beings? And, are labor unions, and other organizations, whole beings? If we answer these two questions in the affirmative, the judge might indeed have made the fallacy of composition, but it would still be only a formality as my reader suggests, since we would still be missing a source for the alleged rights of the union. But there is much more than a mere formality involved in affirming that men are partial beings and that groups, classes, and organizations are whole beings. That is to affirm the basic premise of collectivism. That is to commit the fallacy of collectivism, i.e., to hold that individuals are but partial beings who attain such fruition as they do in wholeness as parts of groups, classes, or other organizations.

Groups and Organizations Tend to Be Temporary Arrangements

It seems to me that the bulk of the evidence points in the opposite direction from the collectivist position. That is, it points toward the conclusion that man is the whole being and that organizations can at most only simulate the wholeness of a man. Groups and organizations are by their nature usually temporary, ephemeral, occasional, and short-time arrangements. Ordinarily, the people who are thought of as members or belonging to them commit only a portion of themselves to the group.

With these things in mind, let us return to an examination of the opening account of my membership, if it should be called that, in the class of persons who suffered property damage due to a voltage reduction in the electricity. Clearly, this was a temporary class or group of people, arising from the occasion of property damage from a common source. Many of the people in the class did not, and do not, know one another. The only person belonging to it that I know is my mail carrier. No general meeting of members was ever called or held, no social functions, rallies, or other gatherings. It lasted less than a year, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances under which the class or group would ever come back into being. None of us gave much of ourselves to the class; even the lawyer who was appointed to present our claims probably gave no more than a few hours to the task over a period of six or eight months. Obviously, the class was ephemeral and, by comparison with the solidity and relative permanence of the individual person, of little account.

Granted, as organizations go, this example was not very impressive. Even so, it is appropriate, because it exemplifies the essence and nature of organizations more vividly than do complex and more enduring ones. Its singularity of purpose, its limited claim on the involvement of members, and its short duration highlight the essence of groups. Groups vary, of course, from the shifting groups at a social gathering, which form for only a few moments and whose members may be linked only in the most casual way by some circumstance to those that may exercise some claim for the whole of one’s life, such as being members of a family. But all share a common trait of dependence upon the loyalty and involvement of individual members. Even the law is a slender thread when it prescribes or compels membership.

Distinctive Individuals

Although we speak of being members of or belonging to groups, the language is more figurative than literal. People are not members of groups in the sense that an arm or leg is a member or part of a body. An arm or a leg severed from a body no longer has significant existence; it is no longer even a part of a whole. A severed leg can no longer walk, nor an arm perform its function. They are neither whole nor parts of a whole, and the body from which they have been severed is no longer physically whole.

None of this is literally true of the relationship of members to organizations. A man who withdraws from an organization is still a whole being literally, as whole as he was within the organization. He is separable from and retains his full being without “belonging” to any organization. He may, of course, feel a sense of psychic or spiritual loss, but, then again, the act could fill him with a sense of his wholeness which he had lost sight of in the organization. In any case, these are moods, which are most noted for being transient and ephemeral, having little to do with the state of being of creatures.

The wholeness of a normal human who achieved anything in the vicinity of his potential evinces itself in numerous integrated and independent acts. Man is self-starting, can originate acts of his own, is largely self-contained, is mobile and separable from other beings. He can walk, talk, sing, whistle, draw, write, calculate, bend, stand erect, flex his muscles, listen, smell, taste, produce, build, and operate things. It is true that he requires sustenance from outside himself from time to time. He must breathe, drink, and eat, and he may require other aids to survival, such as warmth and shelter, from time to time. But these needs do not so much detract from his wholeness as a being as provide challenges to his energy and ingenuity in providing them which tend to fulfill his potentiality.

None of this is intended to denigrate associations, groups, or organizations as such. They are often valuable, beneficial, and sometimes essential adjuncts to man. An infant cannot ordinarily survive for long without aid from adults. Man is a sociable being and often gets pleasure from the company of others. Even grown persons often need the help of others. All of us benefit from the division of labor, some of which is most effective when it is organized. Nor is it my intention to suggest that all social relationships are simply for the convenience of the individual and dissolvable at will. On the contrary, such associations as those involved in marriage and family, citizenship, and church membership may be of an enduring character and are certainly fraught with greater significance than some casual grouping.

Groups Are Lesser Beings

In any case, my purpose is not to unknit the bonds of society but to put in ontological perspective the difference between individual persons and associations. The distinction I am making is this. Individual persons are a higher order of being than groups, classes, and organiza tions. They are potentially complete, as beings, on their own, separable and independent. Groups are lesser beings, dependent upon the wills of individuals, and contingent in character. Far from man having existence as part of some organization; groups have their existence from some (usually) partial attachment of men to them.

Collectivism attempts to reverse this order of being, to stand it on its head, so to speak. It accords a superior reality to classes and tends to view men as extensions of them. Such notions might be of concern mainly to philosophers and grist for the debates of sophists except for one overweening consideration. Collectivists are hardly content with merely asserting their perverse views or practicing them in voluntary organizations. They have long since thrust to bring others under the power of this idea by empowering groups. Indeed, the very idea—the collectivist fallacy—is so contrary to reality that any general adherence to it is possible only by using government power to maintain it.

These aspects of collectivism can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in Marxism. There should be no doubt that Marx attributed a superior reality of classes to that of individuals. According to his scheme, the class to which one belongs determines his ideas, beliefs, the content of the laws, and whether he can prosper or fail. Even his religion is foisted upon him by the ruling class for class purposes. Thus, the individual man is in his being simply an extension of the class to which he belongs.

Marx envisioned a series of coming revolutions in which the power of class would finally be broken, and man would be freed from the hold of class in a classless society. But the instrument that would bring all this about was to be the proletariat class when it would seize power. Marxism in power—Communism—creates a facade of rule by the proletariat by proclaiming the empowerment of the workers. In practice, Communists establish tyrannical dictatorships because the alleged working class does not possess the solidity required for revolutionary purposes. No class does or can; that is the collectivist fallacy that they could or do possess such solidity. One- man rule is a reflex of the collectivist fallacy.

But all collectivists are more or less under the sway of the collectivist fallacy that the collective is of a superior reality to that of individuals. Generally, too, collectivists attribute moral superiority to some one or more of their choice collectives. They are the groups or classes which are supposed to find special favor with government and to be empowered by it. Usually, it is some class or classes which are alleged to have been wronged in times past. Their having been wronged is supposed somehow to have purified them and made them superior. For the communists, it is the working class or proletariat. For the Nazis, it was the German race. For laborites, it is industrial workers organized into unions. For democratic socialists, it may be described as “the people,” by which we may understand the poor people, the working people, the minorities, and so on. Indeed, any classification of people that can work up into an historical wrong some real or imagined grievance can at least lay claim to empowerment by the government dominated by the collectivist fallacy.

In my opinion, the court did not err in the case of The People v. Fisher, because it considered each individual as a whole. And, when wholes are added one to another, there has only been an increase in quantity, not a change in quality. If, as the judge said, one individual does not have the right to use force on another to make him observe some set price, then neither does a group of individuals. A group is not superior to an individual in either being or right. Granted, a group acting in a concerted fashion may intimidate or overpower individuals on their own. But that does not make them right unless might makes right. In the upside down world of collectivism, of course, might is believed to make right. That is the grotesque reality toward which the collectivist fallacy points.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.