Monday, September 9

From Tofu to the Police State (More on the concept of economic collectivism): Part 3 of "From Economic Collectivism to Police State"

A debate broke out in Pundita-land about my use of the term "economic collectivism" in my series of posts on economic collectivism and the police state.  One of my critics (in my dour moods I refer to these as "my enemies") told me I can't use the term because it's a redundancy; that is, collectivism can't be divorced from the term economics because collectivism is an economic theory.  Before the debate proceeded to the pie-throwing stage I visited a few authoritative resources to learn what the heck collectivism means anyhow.

(The problem with language is that it's been around so long by now that definitions tend to get piled in top of definitions, to the point where people can actually be in agreement without realizing it when they debate.)

Wikipedia states flatly that collectivism is "any philosophic, political, religious, economic, or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human."

Not so, counters Merriam-Webster dictionary, which puts Wiki's definition second to the main definition:

"1: A political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution; also : a system marked by such control.

"2: Emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity."

That first definition gives some weight to the critic's argument. In an attempt to end the impasse I turned to Britannica Online:

"Collectivism: any of several types of social organization in which the individual is seen as being subordinate to a social collectivity such as a state, a nation, a race, or a social class. Collectivism may be contrasted with individualism, in which the rights and interests of the individual are emphasized."

This means I win, although from my reading of an article at the Anarcho-Syndicalist [don't ask] Review titled The Collectivist Tradition, which naturally doesn't define collectivism, I'll grant that the first widely known use of the term referred to ideas of European labor union organizers in the mid-1800s, who did seem to interpret collectivism in economic terms.

But  in an attempt to mollify the critic I reconvened my foreign policy team to discuss alternate terms for economic collectivism. Once the team had established that the term referred to a bad thing, the squirrel hopped onto the conference table, which I've asked him many times not to do, and said, "What not call it something nobody likes?"

The vote more or less split along nocturnal and diurnal lines, with the raccoon and possum weighing in for one name, the squirrel predictably not being able to concentrate on the voting process long enough to make up his mind, and the Peregrine Falcon and two crows voting for another name.  (Da and Nyet, who hang out at the grounds of the Russian embassy, always vote as a bloc despite their constant bickering with each other.)

This left me to cast the deciding vote. Because I refuse to term anything Rabid Batism, I sided with the daytime vote. And so the new name for economic collectivism is Tofuism or simply Tofu -- unless the critic would like me to get nit-picking and term it Econo-stasticalism. (I know for a fact that this critic is a martini drinker and that after two he wouldn't be able to say econostatisticalism.)

What I can also do is expand on the definition I gave to economic collectivism, which is a radical departure from any known definition, and hope that eventually I'll think of a better way to term the concept. Readers who want to contribute to this task are welcome to do so.

I am saying that the very nature of data analysis can create a statistical person, such as The Consumer, or a statistical entity, such as The Economy. The potential for the creation of a statistical person or entity exists in every field that relies on data analysis, in particular analysis of large amounts of data on human behavior.

In itself this statistical phenomenon can't be termed collectivist. It would be ridiculous to term a structural engineer a collectivist because he includes a statistical person in his analysis of, say, stresses on load-bearing bridge materials. It would be equally ridiculous to term a person a collectivist because he refers to people in the collective; e.g., 'A good thing about Americans is...' As I noted in an earlier post, thinking in terms of groups is simply part of being human.

But I'd say that thinking in terms of a statistical person, or viewing an entire society of individuals as a singular entity, becomes collectivist in nature when it's institutionalized in some fashion; e.g., used in mass marketing techniques, or relied on by a government to guide policy decisions. When that happens, such thinking risks becoming an occupational hazard for those who use it as a guide to problem solving and policy making.

Given that many governments now rely in the extreme on massive data collection and mathematical analysis of such data in administering to megapopulations, both the benefits and risks of the approach have come to characterize this era of governance in the most globalized societies.

I realize that "statistical collectivism" is a more accurate way than economic collectivism to convey the basic concept I'm discussing. However, it's the economic type of statistical collectivism that concerns me and is the subject of my series of posts.

Hidden in plain sight

As to how economic collectivism, as a distinct phenomenon, has flown under the radar for so long, I think because it's blended so well with a vast array of political concepts.

Many times I've noted that when people speak about the evils of globalization and capitalism, often they're reacting to the ruthlessness that can evolve from economic collectivism when it's fashioned into, say, International Monetary Fund policies. Conversely, many times when people speak about the evils of socialism or communism they're actually criticizing the very same economic collectivist thought that anti-capitalists and anti-globalists do!

Of course there are criticisms about all these systems that are quite distinct from economic collectivism. But my point is that it can apply to any type of economic agenda, whether socialist or capitalist; it can instill a way of thinking that's the same no matter what its political or economic application.

And it's the mindset itself which can be dangerous if unchecked and then translated into government policies. Policies that treat large numbers of people as a singular phenomenon risk dehumanizing not only individuals but also entire populations of individuals. The economic prescriptions that follow from this, when backed by the force of the state, can have horrific consequences.

Yet the worst aspect of unchecked economic collectivism is not what it does to the thinking of government officials but to the thinking of the governed. Americans have come to accept fiscal and monetary policies that are blatantly destructive to their finances because economists decree these measures to be beneficial not to people but to the economy.

Not a monarchist, fascist or communist among them

The dangers of collectivism associated with totalitarian rules during the 20th Century have been well documented. I am pointing out a danger associated with collectivism that gathered force in the latter half of the 20th Century, and which is lodged in the benign social science of economics and presided over by economists and mathematicians.


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