Today in our Business Ethics class the professor briefly mentioned the two key and ancient Chinese philosophies. Although he couldn’t name them he went on to describe them. One maintains the idea that people are inherently evil and that they have to be controlled, while the opposite one maintains that people are not necessarily evil but generally strive for good and therefore should be left alone. In more complete terms, it was a matter of collectivism and individualism or as is more famously known in the West as the X and the Y theories. This immediately rang a bell to me; it reminded me of an article I had read from Rothbard some time ago.
This naturally made me think and I noticed the absurdity of the collectivist thinking at its very outset. “People are inherently evil, therefore they should be controlled.” How on earth can you find good people worthy of controlling others, if you’re claiming that people are inherently bad? Why should the guys controlling the rest be different from the evil spirit of what collectivism claims people are made of? If anything, they should be worse! We all know the famous expression, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is one of the most observable facts of nature, for we can see it every day as part of the political struggle for more influence and more decision-making. I’m not claiming that once people become part of the apparatus of State or another collectivist, central-planning body (a Gosplan) they will necessarily become more evil. Maybe it’s just that their impact increases so dramatically that even if they keep the same (alleged) level of evil they will cause more harm than if they were not part of such an influential body. The collectivist ideal doesn’t in any way weaken the case for markets, and if anything, it strengthens it because it paints itself into a corner. It’s simply illogical to think that from a set of elements that are all evil, you can derive a set of elements that are not evil. Or that they somehow cease being so after they assume control and power over others which they didn’t have before. All the real life evidence shows that on average a person is more prone to becoming more evil and unethical if he or she assumes more power than they previously had. The trouble with collectivism is that it has to assign somebody to do a job which cannot be done. That job is not only the coordination of knowledge, tastes or wishes throughout the economy, but also the absolutist definition of a certain set of morals and ethical norms. Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are typical examples of the consequences of collectivism. New absurd and completely meaningless terms such as “the common good” or “the collective spirit” are invented and a select group of few decide about everything. You don’t even need to observe the disastrous consequences of such ideologies to come to the conclusion that when one person decides for everybody else the chance that he’s going to make a mistake is huge. Hell, even people themselves can’t tell what they want for sure, they have dilemmas and sometimes they regret their choices. It just seems to me that it takes an awful lot of arrogance and complete disregard of the existence, and dignity if you will, of a human being to even attempt to make the case for collectivism. Only through individualism and individual choices can the society thrive, because the society is nothing but the sum of its individuals.
P.S. For a more detailed discussion of collectivism and the spontaneous order, see Hayek’s two books The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit.