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

By Michel Kelly-Gagnon
Pre­si­dent and CEO
Mont­re­al Eco­no­mic Institute

Last 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.

A 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.

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. 

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