Collectivism and Meaning

Great stuff in today’s WSJ from Cato executive veep David Boaz on the collectivist blowhards running for president.

Messrs. Obama and McCain are telling us Americans that our normal lives are not good enough, that pursuing our own happiness is “self-indulgence,” that building a business is “chasing after our money culture,” that working to provide a better life for our families is a “narrow concern.”

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.

Right on. So why the nonsense? Arnold Kling says it’s Hansonian altruistic signaling. Sure, there’s some of that. But why does this get a grip on us? Why are people such suckers for the idea that collective sacrifice is a source of meaning.

Here’s a question. Is sacrifice for grand collective projects really meaningful? Probably it is. But the reward, the compensation for sacrifice, is indifferent to the content of the project. Probably genocide is meaningful for those who devote themselves to it. Religion is meaningful, too. But it’s a pack of lies. Meaningfulness is too promiscuous, justifies too much. I suspect there’s little sense in mounting an argument against meaning, per se. Everybody wants it, even if we badly overestimate how much we need it. But I think we’re obliged to do better in discriminating between sources of meaning and their effects. We tend to indulge people’s irrational fixations when they claim that they find them “meaningful.” But why? That it is “meaningful” to X may be a reason to be especially hard on X, if X is dangerous and meaning is really so attractive. Collectivism is meaningful, but it is mindless, pathetic, and the essential fuel for the greatest cruelty. That it does feel sublime to submit to the will of the whole, to lose oneself in something bigger, that it is a special kind of bliss to transcend the small grubby thing that is one’s own small life, is why human beings will so cheerfully slaughter one another. This should probably be discouraged.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center