Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Collective Interests

Last blog I suggested that human being pursue both individual and collective interests and that consensus is required of the latter, but not the former. This blog will address some of the puzzles associated with the identification of collective interests and why consensus is a necessary component of collectivism.

First, let's recall that interests are "ends" or "goals" and that our knowledge of interests is imperfect, therefore we all make mistakes. Because we change and the world changes over time, our knowledge of long-term interests (individual and collective) is highly fallible.  Here's why collective interests are so puzzling.

One problem is that we often simplify the nature of "collective interests" by focusing on universal collective interests that correspond to basic biological needs: food, clothing, shelter etc. Then, these basic needs are interpreted as universal legal rights which imply corresponding legal duties to provide food, clothing shelter etc. But what's missing here is HOW to best meet human needs. The knee-jerk answer is usually that government ought to provide a social safety net for those whose basic needs are not met needs via taxation and redistribution. However, is that necessarily the only way to meet basic human needs, and is it the most efficient way? Libertarians generally avoid the imposition of collective legal duties in favor of individual moral duties. Collective rights (legal and moral) and collective duties (legal and moral) are essentially abstract, faceless, rhetorical devices, which must eventually connect to individual responsibility. In other words, only individuals have rights and duties, therefore beneficence (or benevolence) is best exercised as a moral duty. Then, it's up to individuals to figure out "if" and "how" to fulfill that responsibility. Sometimes it might involve feeding a particular homeless family. Sometimes it might involve contributing to a private charitable organization. Sometimes it might doing nothing at all.    

Another problem with collective interests is that humans are social beings and therefore identify themselves with a variety of groups or collectives. These groups are created around common-interests, which are the products of our individual and collective imaginations. (For example, I am a Cincinnati Reds fan, which means that I "identify" with other fans that go to games, watch games on T.V.., or listen to them on the radio. We all prefer that they win games.) However, interest groups can be organized to greater or lesser degrees. The most common form of organizational structure is the "dominance hierarchy," where leaders (at the top) identify the ends pursued and the means by which these interests are pursued. Leaders can either use logic and/or rhetoric to attract and maintain followers, or deploy coercive force. For now, let's focus on the former, but there are many puzzles.

The first, and most serious puzzle, is that collective interests do not, necessarily, correpond to individual interests, therefore leaders attempt to convince individual followers that they must sacrifice a few of their lesser-interests for greater-interests; short-term interests for long-term interests; and/or sacrifice their own interests for the interests of other group members. Second, although many leaders believe they know collective interests and how to attain them, they really don't have access to that knowledge, but, nevertheless, have the ability to convince followers that they really do. Years ago, city council voted to use tax money to build new, state-of-the-art stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. The argument was that those stadiums would advance the collective interests of Cincinnati. Many individuals benefitted from that stadium deal (ballplayers, team owners, hotel owners, restaurant owners) but not everyone. I've never been to the football stadium and I attend only 1-2 baseball games a year, but I pay taxes. Third, many leaders surreptitiously manipulate the concept of "collective interest" to advance their own individual interests. That's exactly the purpose of lobbying advance the interests of one group at the expense of the interests of other individuals and groups.

So how can we make sense of "collective interest" within dominance hierarchies? Well, there's a longstanding tradition in philosophy (J.S. Mill) that says that "collective interest" is really nothing more than aggregated individual interests based on reciprocity. Individuals voluntarily identify with groups, and therefore, forge voluntary contracts with one another in order to advance what they believe to be their individual interests: hence, the dictum "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Now the internal dynamics of this process is important. Contracts require the exchange of information between the individual and the group. Individuals must know the ends that are being pursued the means by which those ends are to be pursued. Then the contract must be based on freedom of entry (voluntary and non-coercive association) and freedom of exit.

Now obviously, social contracts can only function in a group that has a moral foundation. There are really only a few moral rules that are absolutely necessary for voluntary association. 1. You can't steal from others or harm others in pursuit of your individual interests. 2.) Everyone must tell the Truth or at least pursue the Truth (information)before the contract is agreed upon. 3. Once you forge a contract with a collective you must keep that contract (promise), unless it was based on deception or fraud. 4. You can't have leaders and/or majorities over-rule or nullify contracts between individuals unless either rule 1, 2, or 3 are violated. (Obviously, individuals need to be wary of long-term contracts with groups! NEVER purchase a Timeshare!)  

Now if all human organizations were voluntary and non-coercive, over time those groups would naturally evolve: that is, over the long-run they would either survive, thrive, or become extinct. Economists call this process "creative destruction." When this principle is disabled by misinformation, coercive entry, and coercive exit we end up with dysfunctional organizations that pursue immoral ends through immoral means. NOTE: this is not majority rule. I didn't vote to pay for those two stadiums, so why should I be forced to pay the costs? Projects like this ought to be funded by voluntary association, or consensus. Let the individual sports teams, hotels, restaurants, and the fans voluntarily pay for those stadiums. I'd rather listen to Marty on the radio.                      .