Our Collectivist Candidates

Last night, at my favorite cafe in San Francisco, I said to a friend that Obama’s speech at Wesleyan kind of made me squirm. It’s the latest in a string of events that has made me less optimistic about his candidacy. Today, I was pleased to read David Boaz’s op/ed in the WSJ describing what I felt and why:

Sen. Obama told the students that "our individual salvation depends on collective salvation." He disparaged students who want to "take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy."…

John McCain also denounces "self-indulgence" and insists that Americans serve "a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests." During a Republican debate at the Reagan Library on May 3, 2007, Sen. McCain derided Mitt Romney’s leadership ability, saying, "I led . . . out of patriotism, not for profit." Challenged on his statement, Mr. McCain elaborated that Mr. Romney "managed companies, and he bought, and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs. That’s the nature of that business." He could have been channeling Barack Obama.

"A greater cause," "community service" – to many of us, these gauzy phrases sound warm and comforting. But their purpose is to disparage and denigrate our own lives, to belittle our own pursuit of happiness. They’re concepts better suited to a more collectivist country than to one founded in libertarian revolution – a revolution intended to defend our rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." …

They’re wrong. Every human life counts. Your life counts. You have a right to live it as you choose, to follow your bliss. You have a right to seek satisfaction in accomplishment. And if you chase after the almighty dollar, you just might find that you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others.

This is related to my Marketplace commentary on national service.

20 Responses to Our Collectivist Candidates

  1. Jack Poller says:

    Ben:

    Excellent!

    I, too, am very uncomfortable with the candidates populist/collectivist statements. They read an awful lot like communism, and definitely denigrate our passion for entrepreneurship.

  2. Matt J. says:

    Ben, I would suggest that many of the most successful people in business (particularly entrepreneurs) aren’t driven by the dollar, but by a higher or greater purpose:

    George Eastman – to make photography simpler.

    Henry Ford – to create an automobile to liberate the common man.

    Larry and Sergey – to organize the world’s information.

    Charles Schwab – to democratize investing.

    etc.

  3. marc h. says:

    And if you chase after the almighty dollar, you just might find that you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others.

    Ayn Rand 101

    II: “Jail the Tax Man”:

    Assignment: Describe the triumph of free enterprise and laissez-faire capitalism in America’s 19th-century “Golden Age” of child labor, union-busting, monopolies, debtors’ prisons. Tell why Upton Sinclair was a quiche head.

    — Pretending you are the attorney general of the United States in 1885, write a 50-page attack on coal miners that blames Black Lung on their sniveling and moral slackness.

    — Show in a separate paper why Howard Roark would never contract Black Lung.

  4. Are entrepreneurship and community service really at polar opposites? I don’t think so.

    What I’d like to see — and hear from our candidates — are examples of business people who combine their entrepreneurship with community service. I can think of many examples in my town, and I’ll bet you can do the same in yours.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    I read the Obama speech a bit differently, and wonder if you and Boaz are being slightly paranoid.

    I don’t hear anything in Obama’s speech that is anti-capitalist or anti-individual (and given that I write “Adventures in Capitalism,” I like to think that I’m sensitive to these issues).

    Here’s what he had to say:

    “Now, each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because, as President Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the outside world; no one’s forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

    But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although I believe you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get to where you are today, although I do believe you have that debt to pay.

    It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story.”

    1) While I am a big believer in profit and the individual hand, it is the case that science consistently shows that the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness are two very different goals, and that the rampant materialism of our country has a corrosive effect on our character.

    Note that Obama is not trying to fix the problem with punitive taxes or by mandating service; rather he is trying to persuade people to make a voluntary choice.

    2) It is also true that positive psychology shows that humans generally crave a sense of transcendance and connectedness. This is one of the major reasons that religion exists, as well as sports and other affinity groupings.

    Seligman writes about the tyranny of individualism. We are all individuals, and our freedom of choice should be sacrosanct. But people should be encouraged to recognize that living simply for ourselves is most likely a recipe for an unhappy and unfulfilling life.

  6. K_Cheng says:

    I’m reading Dave Eggers’ “What is the What”, and whenever I’m drawn back to his talent, I get swept away by his, yes, collective spirit, and the admirable strength of his values, which have led him to speak on behalf of teachers and students in this country and open workshops that promote literacy and the arts.

    For people with rare talent and ambition such as his, there’s got to be a quick transition between the search for individual bliss and advocating for collective happiness. Does it first take remarkable success such as his to trigger remarkable contributions to community? Of course. But let’s first acknowledge that not everyone has what it takes to become a great entrepreneur, to succeed in business, to share their wealth generously with others, or even to find happiness if that was their only goal in life. A very small proportion of people look outside of their own existence, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Most of us are pretty selfish, which is why kids are taught to share.

    So I don’t have a problem with the way Obama and McCain are talking about community obligation. It’s like reminding passengers on a plane to first put on their own oxygen mask in case of emergency before helping others. The point being you assume people are willing to help others in the first place…

    Also you have to agree that students aren’t frequently told to do community service for a reason other than it would look good on their college application and make them appear more well-rounded. Or they hear about community service because some Hollywood celebrity was caught drunk driving and was sentenced to do however many hours of it. So out of every hundred kids there that day, if only one of them really heard Obama’s words and remembered they have the potential to make an impact one day, then it was worth saying.

    Lastly, if you haven’t yet read “What is the What”, it’s awesome.

    Have a great weekend, Ben.

    Kathy

    About Dave Eggers: link to ted.com

  7. jrandom42 says:

    “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Ben Franklin

    “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy

    Is what Obama said any different in substance?

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Chris, you write:

    While I am a big believer in profit and the individual hand, it is the case that science consistently shows that the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness are two very different goals, and that the rampant materialism of our country has a corrosive effect on our character.

    True, but too often commencement speakers and others imply that the pursuit of profit prevents happiness, or any happiness that would come from a profit-seeking endeavor isn’t “true” happiness. If you put these Obama remarks in context of other things he and Michelle Obama have said — and next to all of John McCain’s statements about how he’s served out of patriotism not profit and that all youth should perform national service — it’s easy to get depressed.

    And you say that Obama is just trying to persuade people to make a voluntary choice. Fine, but jacking up the social pressure in a high profile way, to me, represents a kind of back door coercion.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    jrandom42: I’ve never agreed with that oft-cited JFK quote.

  10. “– to many of us, these gauzy phrases sound warm and comforting. But their purpose is to disparage and denigrate our own lives, to belittle our own pursuit of happiness.”

    What utter nonsense.

    It says something about the interior state of a person who would isolate these remarks from their context in Obama’s speech and twist them into an assault on entrepreneurship, or even more ridiculously, a collectivist call to the subsuming of the self (to what? the goals of ‘our enemy’, the State?).

    If the “invisible hand” of the marketplace worked so efficiently as Adam Smith imagined, then I’d expect to see the wealth of this nation more equitably distributed.

    Surely the ghost of Ayn Rand frowns with scorn when she hears the speechifying of such impostor Objectivists as David Boaz.

  11. Dario Abramskiehn says:

    Ben, my friend, you have ruffled my feathers. My apollogies in advance for what will undoubtedly be a long comment.:

    “Fine, but jacking up the social pressure in a high profile way, to me, represents a kind of back door coercion.”

    I could not disagree with you more heartily. First off, I find it hard to believe that a speech to thousands of people could ever be construed as “back door coercion.” It’s as though Obama is tracking down the graduates individually and guilting them into becoming underpaid community organizers on the Southside of Chicago. You have born witness to hundreds, maybe thousands of speeches in your lifetime, and given a few rabble-rousers yourself from what I understand. My guess is that you try to retain the gems, maybe learn a thing or two from the speeches that did not succeed, and forget pretty much everything else (that’s why I try to do anyway). To call a graduation speech cooercive is a stretch. I find it hard to believe that any future magnates, investors, financiers, CEOs, (insert other groups of generally wealthy people) of the world that come out of Wesleyan’s class of 2008, were or will be coerced into much of any kind of public service from Obama’s speech seems unlikely, but if I’m wrong (and I hope that I am) I don’t that American society or the world as a whole will be any worse for wear. I certainly don’t think that there was anything in it that was intended to stifle entreprenurialism or capitalism

    He did not tell these graduates not to go out and make money, as a significant fraction of them undoubtedly will do, the overarching tenet of his speech was some (almost any) kind of action that in some way contributes to some community that is larger than the self. He made a point of not saying that they had an obligation or debt to repay, but instead emphasized that there is some fulfillment in doing something for one’s community that cannot be attained solely by maximizing monetary wealth. Calling that (extraordinarily common) theme “coercive,” a threat to entrepreneurship, or some kind of thinly veiled communism as the first commenter suggested, are all fairly ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.

    I agree with you that it’s an extremely common theme and that maybe it loses some of its poignancy because of that, but I don’t really think that it could be perceived as a threat to anything. Conflating any notion of “community service” (regardless of how overused the phrase is) with a threat to the capitalistic and entreprenurial spirit of this nation is oversensitive.

    Finally, you can rest assured that, regardless of the rhetoric, John McCain is a far cry from being anything akin to a populist, or the collectivist that you accuse Obama of being. His voting record in the senate and the donors who support his campaign, assert in no uncertain terms that he is in the pocket of moneyed special interests.

    I think his statements about national service are simply rhetoric aimed at capturing votes among an older demographic who see today’s youth as not contributing to the betterment of the coutry. I find it hard to imagine these statements will ever come to fruition, but even if they do, it most certainly will not make him a collectivist or a threat to capitalism. If you actually believe that free-markets and the unconstrained pursuit of profit are the only things that are important issues in this election, then McCain is probably your guy (among the major parties) and the republicans will probably be the go-to party most of the time. (Or if Ron Paul goes back on his word and runs as an independent then he’d be a solid choice). But from what I’ve studied of economics and politics, it seems abundantly clear that these are vast oversimplifications, and that the people touting some kind of Ron Paul-esque return to the federalist government that we had at this country’s inception are sincerely out of touch with the real world, the way the economy actually works, and the challenges that we as a nation face in the 21st century.

  12. Marina Shvarts says:

    “– to many of us, these gauzy phrases sound warm and comforting. But their purpose is to disparage and denigrate our own lives, to belittle our own pursuit of happiness.”

    I personally don’t see anything wrong with political candidates encouraging college students to pursue community service. Nor do I see anything wrong with people “chasing after the almighty dollar.” In fact, those two aren’t necessarily contradictory. After all, we can be rich and help others. (Bill Gates?) I think that what everyone should do is try to pursue their own happiness, wherever it may lie. However, I don’t necessarily think that it always lies in the almighty dollar (at least above a certain point.) Many people feel genuinely happy when they help others. Community service isn’t giving up your own life and happiness to help others. Rather, it is the pursuit of your own happiness because helping other people, knowing that you are making a difference in their lives makes you happy. And, often, it offers a longer lasting kind of happiness than the pursuit of material rewards. Is it wrong to tell college students to give it a try? I might make them really happy.

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    Dario – My point was to the larger idea and statements that Obama (and McCain, for that matter) has said throughout the campaign. I was not just referring to this single speech.

    On the back door coercion thing. If someone like Obama — someone in a very high profile and powerful and influential position — says: “You do not have to do community service. But if you don’t do it, you’re a bad person. If you do community service, you’re a real leader, a real American. It’s totally your choice what you decide.” If this message is repeated over and over, through different channels, what effect does this have?

    Clearly Obama and McCain aren’t using those words, but to me, that’s the underlying message in some of their remarks on this topic.

  14. Dani says:

    Could we take Community Service as a symbol? Maybe encapsulating the idea that one should not simply think of themselves, an find some way, any way, to contribute? I know volunteerism is the implicit defintion, and I tend to agree that the simple equation volunteerism=good person is over-simplistic, but the notion that a business person might take a moment to donate to a community cause, or create a solution to a community problem, might also fit into the conversation. I think it should.

    Sidebar:
    When I first heard about the book “The Secret,” I felt a quiet discomfort, which grew as the cult of The Secret grew. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…and then after talking to a few Secret acolytes, I realized that they were now obsessed with thinking/ manifesting themselves a yacht. That was all they thought about. They took those teachings as an excuse to obsess over material goods for personal profit. The whole argument of The Secret seemed framed by the ‘pursuit of happiness’ arguments, but the consequent symptoms were completely material.

    I find the above book (millions sold, Oprah-approved) more troubling than Obama asking that people think about participating in their communities–(I don’t know that a slightly chiding tone, or persuasion through guilt, equals coercion, though–there are no guns to heads)–and I agree with the above posters who point out that being reminded that pursuing the mighty dollar alone mightn’t be enough to ensure community health. But I’m also of the ilk that finds the lack of program evaluation and proper goals for programs such as the Peace Corps eyeroll-inducing. Volunteerism can be self-indulgent as well.

    As I stated at the start of this post–if we were to define community service more broadly–remind ourselves to check the health of the community, and actively participate in its ongoing checkup–business people and entrepreneurs could find all sorts of niches where they can make things a bit better for all.

  15. Shefaly says:

    Ben:

    I doubt you ever thought anybody would ever say this to you but this post makes you sound like an extremist version of Maggie Thatcher, the one who said: “there is no such thing as society”. This line is often quoted out of context too.

    Because even she went on to say: “There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

    Alas I think you will find many more – presumably older – people who disagree with you on this point.

    Most of us have been through our Ayn Rand phase (usually in our teens) and most of us have found flaws with that extremist view through our own reflection, analysis, experience and debate.

  16. Ben Casnocha says:

    Shefaly,

    I have nothing against helping those who are less fortunate. In fact, I support giving back — and I have done this myself in various ways. This post and the ensuing comments were specifically about the current U.S. political campaign and the tactics and messages used by Obama and McCain around the topic of individual pursuits, collective pursuits, national service, etc.

    Rather than just shoo-shoo Ayn Rand from the wise, high pedestal — I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say to others “Oh, don’t worry you young whippersnapper, I’ve also been thru my Ayn Rand phase” — why don’t you specify WHAT flaws you identified in all of your “reflection, analysis, experience, and debate”, and how you assess Rand on philosophical or moral grounds. As it happens, I don’t much like Rand myself. But “I’m wise and old” isn’t an argument.

  17. Tim says:

    To reiterate and add to Ben’s points, to me the underlying premise of McCain and Obama’s statements are that working in the public sector or nonprofit agencies is better than the private sector. There is a blatant form of moralizing going on where choosing to work for the government or working for the “common good” makes you a better person than working for business for profit. I can share in Ben sentiments that working in any of these sectors should be seen as value neutral. We should expect these kind of statements from McCain (who spent of most of his time in the military and government) and Obama (who spent most of his time as a community organizer). An additional problem I see is that this moralizing is also in a way pandering to people who work in these sectors for votes. It is also a strong recruitment tool for people who want to work for the government whether it be in a military fashion (McCain) or a community service route (Obama…think “Green Corps”). Ultimately, getting more people working under the public trough is advantageous for either of these candidates to support their policies and visions for the US/World.

  18. Shefaly says:

    Ben, in sharing what I have experienced, I do not necessarily imply any automatic disparagement to any ‘young whippersnapper’. Nor is my ‘argument’ based on being ‘old and wise’.

    May be it is time there was a way to communicate the intent and the emotion behind a comment on the web! I am sure a young whippersnapper will come up with something some time soon. :-)

    The answer to your question is not a comment or a blog post, but perhaps a thesis.

    Specifically on collectivism, Ms Rand’s views were pretty stark. That collectivism implies subjugation of the individual to a group, the subordination of one’s own interests to that of a group, that the individual has no rights and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim.

    These are views that assume life to be a zero-sum game. Which it really is not. Not even in America.

    Several anthropological, sociological and psychological accounts of societies find this to be an extreme interpretation of collectivism. Being aware of the larger consequences of one’s actions and choices – in temporal terms as well as in terms of whom those actions affect the most – is not being collectivist; it is merely a responsible way of being individualist.

    Indeed the invisible hand is nothing but the collective sentiment prevailing at the moment. An individual – whether an entrepreneur selling his wares or a politician seeking votes – ultimately relies on the choices of the collective. Democracy itself indeed is eventually collectivist.

    [Incidentally, I agree with your stance on national service.]

    As it happens, I do follow your national politics and elections very closely. I tend to interpret specific policy statements or comments of Obama, McCain and Clinton against their past public record to see if any dominant values emerge. In this case, on national service, I can see a reason for McCain’s views but not Obama’s.

    My assessment is simply this: the candidates are trying hard to define their vision of how to pull Americans together across many schisms. The general view from this side of the pond is that no matter who wins, the US will be more divided along at least racial lines than it has been since 1964. Probably the candidates are aware of it too. And racism, of course, is the ultimate and most primitive form of collectivism (this is Ayn Rand too, but here I agree with her).

  19. Steve says:

    Markets don’t always work as Adam Smith theorized. There are many people that accumulate wealth yet provide no benefit whatsoever to society. Mutual fund managers take a hugh chunk of their customers wealth in management fees, yet provide a service that is inferior to a simple index fund. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Obama suggesting to graduates that they avoid this type of work and instead do something where there is a net benefit to society.

  20. jrandom42 says:

    Since you haven’t received your notice for compulsory community service, and there doesn’t seem to be a gun pressed to the back of your head, marching you down to the local community center, what’s your beef?

    Coercion is only effective if you believe it’s effective. If you truly decide differently, no amount of coercion is going to matter. So many of Gen-Y wants to decide for themselves, and take their lives into their own control. Whining about coercion, like “being called a bad person”, sounds like a little kid running to their mother,crying “Ma, he called me a bad name!”

    Are you going to have the courage to find your own path, chart your own course, no matter what anyone else says, or are you be swayed by what other people say and think?

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