08 August 2012

Collective = Government?

Cal Thomas has an interesting column in one of the local papers today. There's an implicit acknowledgment in it that the usual ideological rallying cries aren't really catching fire this year. The presidential campaign, he writes, "seems more about politicians and their power and not enough about everyday realities." Thomas thinks that Republicans can prevail if they translate their ideology into practical terms by "showing real people who have been harmed by policies that aren't working"or "focusing on how much of our money government wastes." There's a telling (some might say damning) concession that "Republicans can never win a debate about 'fairness' even though it is unfair to disproportionately penalize the productive." We could debate whether it's fair to characterize taxation as "penalizing," but that bit isn't the most interesting part of the column. Most of it consists of Thomas touting the Calvin Coolidge Education Center, on whose advisory board he serves. He riffs on a Coolidge quote, "All liberty is individual liberty," as follows:

That sounds strangely foreign in an age where the collective is becoming supreme. 'It takes a village' has come to mean a government village, not a village of individuals helping each other with government intervening only when individuals are not enough.

Thomas's comments demonstrate how ideological semantics can confuse issues. For starters, why is "a village of individuals helping each other" not a collective? The implication is that the "village of individuals" becomes an unwelcome "collective" only when government intervenes more than is absolutely necessary. Is the distinction justified? There's a further insinuation that a "collective" is something imposed from outside, a category the village of individuals would never confer upon themselves. In Thomas's usage, a "collective" seems to be essentially an administrative unit, like a province of an empire, rather than a natural social phenomenon. Leaving the state out of it for a moment, there's an unspoken distinction between the "village of individuals" and the "collective" that is nevertheless implicit to Thomas's readers. In the "village of individuals," the individuals presumably help each other voluntarily, while in a "collective" mutual aid is presumably compulsory. The "collective" compels you to aid those who may not really need aid, by Cal Thomas's standards, or those who may otherwise be unworthy, while individual discretion and judgment prevails in the "village of individuals." This distinction becomes crucial when Thomas's final premise comes up for question -- who decides when "individuals are not enough?" In Thomas's ideal, the individuals of the village presumably decide, either as individuals or as a village. In his worst-case scenario, government from outside sets a standard regardless of the individuals' opinion. In the middle, however, can the village itself convince an individual that enough hasn't been done? Has the village the right to compel the individual to help more than he deems necessary? Because Thomas is a Republican, it's ultimately uncertain whether he means "village" in anything but a geographic sense, or if he acknowledges a "village" as a kind of collective with some authority over its constituent individuals. All we can surmise with any certainty is that he envisions a limit to both government's power to compel aid and the dependents' right to demand it. But the question of dependence, which has been freshly raised by Mitt Romney, deserves consideration in a separate post. For now, it should be somewhat more clear that an obsession with "government" or "collective" as artificial entities on the part of reactionaries like Cal Thomas evades the real question of what individuals owe each other in a civilization presumably dedicated to life above all. 

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