Beware the totalitarian instincts of ‘the collective’

The conflation of state and individual has long been popular among those who crave power over others

Michel Kelly-GagnonLast spring, Trent University Professor Christopher Dummitt took us all to task for our insufficient dedication to the collective – which, he worries, leaves those who “call for national sacrifice” on behalf of “the collective will” in a bind, bereft of the obedience they deserve.

Dummitt’s alleged “collective action problem” betrays a fundamentally illiberal misunderstanding of the social contract on which Canadian society is based. In short, we do not scamper about in the shadow of a Leviathan that stands apart and above us demanding obedience and “national sacrifice” like some sort of angry God.

Rather, and for centuries now, our social contract is based on voluntary association in freedom and harmony, with mutual respect and mutual tolerance, which also extends to people Dummitt (or I) may find genuinely offensive.

We do not live under this Leviathan because, in a liberal social order, the collective “we” is made, precisely, of us. When we are joyous, “the collective we” is joyous. When we thrive, it thrives. When we hurt, alas, we feel our pain. The collective is not separate from us, spontaneously generating a separate brain with separate goals. It is us. It derives its form, its strength, its power, and most of all, its legitimacy from the individuals who make it up.

This may seem quite obvious. Alas, the conflation of state and individual, of a separate “we” standing above the real “we,” has long been popular among those who crave power over others. Mussolini distilled it as: “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.” The individual still serves a very important function, of course, as the raw material – the cannon fodder, if you will – on which the collective paints the future.

Click here to downloadA distinction between voluntary rules organically decided, such as politeness or etiquette, and regulation imposed through the state apparatus, ultimately backed by the use of force, is precisely the point of disagreement from those who think there is too much government control, not too little.

There is a world of difference between asking a favour and demanding it at gunpoint, and blithely conflating both as something “the collective” wants utterly misses the point. Failing to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary cooperation can take one to a very dark place of effectively endorsing totalitarianism in deed where one would never do so in word.

The state can potentially be a helpful servant when controlled by proper institutions and traditions but can also be a terrible master. We believe that we must always remain vigilant to the lessons that history has written in florid crimson about the risks of serving a “collective” that stands apart and above us.

The rest of Dummitt’s essay lays out specific harmful consequences of his alleged “collective action problem.” A hedonistic turning away from prudence and self-denial, the declining prestige of and deference paid to experts and parents, the denial of a national culture and “trampled” institutions and traditions have left people with a “hollowed out” sense of belonging.

A classical liberal might argue that all of these ill effects, and many more, are not due to our insufficient obedience to the state but rather to our turning too much over to the state. We have shifted from a bottom-up society of individuals interacting voluntarily to a society governed by an army of remote bureaucrats only tangentially, even perfunctorily, connected to the people they allegedly serve but more often rule.

Instead, classical liberals dream of a society where families can educate their children as they see fit – perhaps, for instance, emphasizing character over fealty to political fads. And they dream of a society where they can attend church or social events, seek their livelihood and calling, and yes, maintain their cherished traditions without an army of bureaucrats using cutting-edge studies imported from U.S. universities as a battering ram against the family and against the voluntary associations that sustain the liberal order.

The simple fact is that when we use words to refer to groups of individuals, whether as a society, a community, a market, or a “collective,” they do not erase the individuals themselves. They do not subsume them into some Borg-like energy ball as a plaything for our masters to use for good or ill. And so, rather than a society of masters and servants, we dream of a community of free association, free consent, and mutual tolerance that goes both ways. Yes, certain communities or regions can have discernable characteristics of their own – Iceland tends to generate a lot of poets, while the Dominican Republic raises amazing bachata dancers. But this changes absolutely nothing about the fact that communities are composed of individuals, not some sort of abstract Uber Volk.

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And so, while we can agree with Dummitt’s praise for prudence and personal responsibility, friends of liberty would insist, in the strongest possible terms, that it must be voluntary. After all, sacrifice that is voluntary is noble, while sacrifice demanded at gunpoint is the source of humanity’s greatest tragedies.

After we have lost so much to COVID-19, it would be a cruel stroke indeed if the pandemic were used as an excuse to upset the relative harmony and social peace under which we, in the Western world, have lived for centuries, and ardently hope to sustain and even to expand.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.

Michel is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


This commentary was submitted by the Montreal Economic Institute, an independent public policy think tank based in Montreal. MEI is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

Through its publications and media appearances, the MEI stimulates debate on public policies across Canada by proposing reforms based on market principles and entrepreneurship.

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