Sunday, April 5, 2009

Individual Effort vs? Collective Action

Andrew Sullivan wrote in a recent blog post that conservativism needs to "recover its core sense of itself as the movement that values...individual effort over collective action." The Washington Post also snubbed the idea of collective action when it described how Obama "yields to 'collective action'" by the G20. So what is collective action? Is it really a bad thing? Why are conservatives so against it? Are individual effort and collective action mutually exclusive?

Collective action is people working together to do things they cannot do alone. It is organizing to build infrastructure. It's pooling resources to help farmers in a drought or hurricane victims after a storm. It is the march of the military and the march on Washington. It is the Chamber of Commerce and the slimiest group of lobbyists. It can be a lynching or a sit in. It isn't inherently good or bad. Collective action is neutral.

What Sullivan seems to be saying is that collective action protects the unworthy, the lazy, the moochers. That idea rests on an assumption that defies logic, that individual effort and collective action are mutually exclusive. Collective action requires individual effort. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything collectively can confirm that it's a lot more work than going it alone.

In fact, collective action often protects individual effort. A farmer can work all year tilling fields and that individual effort may be for nothing if a drought comes and there is no collective action to help. An employee may give 80 hours a week of amazingly productive work to an employer and have nothing to show for it because of their manager's personal prejudices. We are at the mercy of powerful forces throughout our lives - nature and human nature. Collective action can help to ensure that all our work is not wasted because of some whim beyond our control.

In the conservative worldview personal responsibility became code for black and brown people taking advantage of you. Selfishness is a given. The ideal is a cowboy (always a man) out on his own - no family, no community to restrict his selfish desires. Conservatives resent having to show consideration for other people. If anyone is in need, according to this worldview, it must be their own fault.

To be fair, Sullivan expressly says that he is not talking about "welfare queens," although he shouldn't be surprised that people assumed he was. And he is not attacking a basic social safety net. In fact he defends it. For him, "it's about those who contribute their labor to produce something of value, and those who primarily rely on government, directly and indirectly, to get them through their lives." The moochers he cites include corporate welfare recipients and teachers unions.

I'm all for getting rid of corporate welfare, but is the problem too much collective action or not enough? Where are the citizens collectively screaming from the rooftops when they hear about Archer Daniels Midland getting billions in tax dollars. Where are the citizens screaming from the rooftops when a bad teacher continues to teach. Better yet, where are they when good teachers are fired for political reasons or when horrible administration makes good teachers quit.

It is not collective action that is to blame for corporate welfare and lobbyists and obstructionist unions. It is abuse of power on the part of a few and a lack of collective action on the part of the many. What Sullivan should be asking himself is how the very conservative values that Sullivan is pining for are part of the problem.

Democracy is collective action.

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