Human Events Blog

Collective action: the tough part is when they come to collect the unwilling

“Preserving our individual freedom requires collective action,” President Obama declared in his second inaugural speech.  In other words, freedom requires compulsion!

As with so many questionable declarations of ideology, it all boils down to how the terms are defined.  From a certain perspective, the President’s statement is reasonable enough.  The military is most certainly a “collective action,” as drill sergeants have been impatiently explaining to recruits for generations.  More broadly speaking, the defense of the United States and her citizens from enemies foreign and domestic is something that must be undertaken and funded collectively.  That’s the difference between an all-volunteer military and “show up if you feel like fighting, and bring your own gun.”

Speaking even more generally, all laws in a constitutional republic are collective actions.  Everyone is supposed to obey them, after all.  We all have influence upon the legislative process, through the power of the vote.  There are certainly things that only the government can do, as even the most spirited libertarian will attest.

But of course, to view Obama’s comment in that light is to grant him an absurd amount of credit.  He’s not a spirited libertarian.  He’s a collectivist.  The government should only be doing the things it must do.  But Obama supports the radical expansion of government power into many areas that private citizens should reserve for themselves.  Very few of these things have any connection to “preserving our individual freedom.”  Most of them are aggressive restrictions upon individual freedom.  Many of his collective actions are justified as “investments” that will supposedly pay a great “return” to society… which is a very far cry from talking about “preserving our individual freedom” as the highest priority.  That would be true even if Obama’s compulsory “investments” had a better record of panning out.

Socialists are in love with positive rights, meaning the exercise of government power to “give” favored constituents what they “deserve.”  The collectivist believes that individuals can only be emotionally and intellectually free when they are liberated from need.  We must be forced to do certain things, so that we can be “free” in other ways.

And the key word is “force,” because that’s the dark side of “collective action.”  Funny, but I could swear it was just a few short years ago that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!” was the liberal battle cry.  Well, no dissent is permitted from collective action.  You obey, or you are punished.  You might get a little input during the planning stages (or more realistically, the powerful and well-connected political action group that claims to speak for you will.)  But once the collective action is under way, dissent is intolerable.

That’s understandable in a military operation, but why should free people celebrate “collective action,” instead of demanding a minimal and impartial government enforcing a light and uniform legal burden?  In another passage of his speech, Obama declared, “We believe America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”  That’s entirely incompatible with his salute to collective action.  The middle class has “broad shoulders” only to the extent that its individuality is respected, and people are allowed to pursue opportunity in their countless individual ways, investing their own resources and keeping the profits.  The number of collective actions they get drafted into must be kept to a minimum; as it rises, the size and power of the middle class is diminished.

The great difference between liberty and tyranny is the amount of force deployed against the populace, not the good intentions of the ruling class.  The language of volunteerism and community effort is often co-opted by collectivists, but they most certainly are not hungry for increased volunteer effort from willing citizens.  Free people celebrate their ability to opt out of collective actions, and never forget that government will be coming along to collect the unwilling.

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