Monday, October 20, 2008

Collectivism and Causality

I hate collectivism. I hate almost everything about the mindset that
would sacrifice individual initiative and liberty for the sake of some
group. I believe quite strongly that individuals should make their
own choices and shape their own lives.

But I also hate hero-worship and scapegoating. Rather than finding
one person to praise or blame for any event, I prefer to look for
scientific, technical, institutional, or systemic causes. I believe
that most events and situations are not the direct result of human
intention, but are instead caused by the chaotic combination of a lot
of different, and often random, events.*

How can this be reconciled? It would seem that one part of my mind is
embracing collective causality and responsibility even as another part
rejects it. But I believe that my two beliefs are a sensible, and
indeed inevitable, combination.

First, there is an important distinction to be made between the source
of value and the explanation of events. Collectivists believe that
the group is the source of value; I believe that any group is simply a
sum of individuals and that individuals are the true source of value.
This is completely compatible with a belief that the events in the
world are caused by the sum of actions of millions of individuals, and
not merely the will of one person or a small group.

It is also important to note that hero-worship and scapegoating are
not actually about the individuals. They are about the needs of the
group. People who blindly follow charismatic leaders are not judging
the leader's merits as a human being. They are seeing the leader as a
symbol, an avatar of their collective needs and desires. Similarly,
people who condemn scapegoats are rarely judging the scapegoat as a
human being. Rather, the scapegoat is seen as a symbol, a
manifestation of something that is wrong with the world.

I believe that there is actually a correlation between the
collectivist mindset and hero-worship and scapegoating, and that these
two behaviors both arise from the same psychological fallacy: The
belief that people can impose their will and intentions directly onto

It is a nearly universal superstition that things in the world are all
caused by conscious design. Primitive people believe that the wind
blows or the rain falls because some sentient power willed the event
to happen. This belief has been mostly discredited. But it has been
a lot harder to discredit the belief that social and economic events
are caused by direct intention. Economists study economic events the
same way that physicists study atmospheric events. We know that there
are certain laws that govern the behavior of the system. An
individual, even a politically powerful one, has about as much chance
of changing the economy as he or she does of changing the weather.**

And yet, people continue to believe that economic and social events
are all the result of somebody's intention. They assume that bad
events are the result of evil intentions, and that good events are the
result of good intentions. They believe that it is possible to
magically transform an intention into an economic or social reality.
Usually, they also believe that the government is the tool for doing
this. This leads to the conclusion that you can fix the world by
agreeing on common goals, and then putting someone with the right
intentions into a position of power in order to make those common
goals a reality.

Of course, the world is a lot more complicated than that. Things
happen for a lot of different reasons, and people in power soon find
that their ability to change the world is limited by, among other
things, the basic laws of economics and the basic facts of human
behavior. Things happen that nobody ever intended, and the more you
apply power in an ignorant way, the more likely you are to cause
seriously bad unintended consequences.

My belief in the limited power and capabilities of individuals
actually strengthens my belief in individual liberty. I may have a
small ability to control the circumstances of my life, but everybody
else has an even smaller ability. Life is extremely unpredictable and
chaotic, but this means that decisions must be made quickly and on the
spot. Individuals have more ability to manage their own lives than
any outside agency. The ability of the people in a government agency
is even more limited than the ability of people living their own

So what should we do? We need to learn how the world works. We need
to study how laws, rules, institutions, habits, psychological quirks,
history, and society combine to generate the effects we see in the
world. And then we need to use that knowledge to make sure that
government does the job it was meant to do: provide a legal and social
framework that allows individuals to live the best lives they can.

PS: I was going to include some discussion about how moral judgments
are shaped by beliefs about intentions and effects, but that will have
to wait for a later date. In the meantime, give this question some
thought: Do you base your moral judgments on the intentions behind a
person's actions, or the effects of those actions? This is a question
that gets more challenging as you think about it more.

*For example, many people think that gas is expensive because the oil
companies decided to make it expansive. Economists know that this
belief is nonsense. Gas prices are the result of market forces, the
combination of supply and demand, which comes from the collective
decisions of millions of people.

**Individuals can change the weather, if they work hard enough. You
can seed the clouds to make it rain, and a factory can easily cause a
nasty smog. But in the end, natural forces determine the overall
pattern. The same thing is true of meddling in the economy.

1 comment:

Dylan Bruns said...

Yeah, I really don't like the assumption that any one leader controls the economy. Always bothered me.