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Commentary

There Is No ‘People,’ Only Persons


     
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If there is a favorite book of prominent political analysts this year, it has to be William Greider’s Who Will Tell The People (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The gist of it amounts to a kind of Oliver Stonesque analysis of our government: The American people — treated as a collection of innocents — are being governed by a coalition of nasty folks composed of politicians, bankers, corporate heads, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and so forth, all bent on bilking and manipulating them.

What is so distressing is that to lament all of this is to lament precisely what Greider and many of his cheerleaders on the left reviewing this book seem to be vehemently supporting, namely, democratic totalitarianism. This view holds that ours would be a wonderful country if only we were all fully involved in deciding about everything we find of some concern to us. Let all of the people rule everything, all at once! Ross Perot’s town hall ideas alluded to this notion, as did a good deal of Jerry Brown’s rhetoric during his primary campaign efforts. Some entity called "the people" is supposed to be the solution to all of our problems.

Greider’s book is the political manifesto that states, in effect, that the people are being victimized by, well, the "not-people." And here is the confusion. The "not-people" do not exist in our country.

Everyone is "the people," or there is no such being as "the people," take your pick. In the former interpretation, bureaucrats, lobbyists, bankers, labor union leaders, pundits, students, rioters, and the rest are what constitute the people. And the people are divided on a lot of issues. They are very far from some mythical united and victimized body. The people is composed of everyone and there is no way to be for them by excluding some from the ranks. Certain segments of them are getting ahead, while others are not. Some are nice, others are not. Some are lazy, some diligent. Some care for the poor, some don’t. It is, in short, fraudulent to indicate concern for or alliance with "the people" while denouncing the rich, lobbyists, bankers, the greedy, the uncaring, etc. The people are all of these and then some.

Participatory democracy or democratic socialism has been the dream of many champions of some ideal world, not only on the Left but also on the populist Right. When they don’t quite agree with one another, it is on details. But they all tend to favor something called "the people" or "the community" as against individuals or private citizens. As one enthusiastic reader of Greider’s book, Alan Ehrenhart, wrote in The New Republic:

"The decline of political parties, the decline of unions, the abandonment of regulation, the empowering of government that let bankers run amok and encouraged corporations to desert American towns for low-wage havens in the Third World — all these things are mixed up with the eclipse of community and the ascendance of individualist values in the years when Greider asserts American democracy has been breaking down."

Yet, this bashing of individuals is just wrong: Individualist values have been breaking down and reckless democracy —group think, special interest politicking, helping the victims of "harsh loan officers, giving unions special status in our nation (so that, for example, anti-trust laws do not apply to them but are imposed on corporations), driving out manufacturers to countries that treat them hospitably for what they need to do to remain reasonably profitable (and thus avoid dying) — is what ails us. Even in the Reagan era it was rarely that individual rights were championed. More often Reagan invoked the idea of "the family of Americans," as if a country were like a family, involving mostly intimates who know and often love one another.

Greider is credited with bringing to light the awful war of all special interests against other special interests. This does go on as a regular feature of federal and state politics, yet way before Greider even thought of this, in 1977 economists Satfi Peltzman, George Stigler, and Mancur Olson, for example, discussed the matter at great length. The "public choice" school of economic analysis, lead by Nobel laureate James Buchanan at George Mason University, went to the heart of the matter back in the 1960s. Their main thesis was that in a welfare state the citizens are involved in a zero sum game — for some to.; gain, others must lose. This leads many to group together and petition governments for goodies, buy politicians, march on Washington, and nag the bureaucrats, etc. That way we may outmaneuver others embarking on the very same course.

The belly-aching about individualism is a mere ploy — the central tenet of that doctrine is that individuals should seek to improve their lives in voluntary association with other individuals, not by relying on federal aid, regulation, public programs, minimum wages, tax support, and similar communitarian methods. It is the communitarian approach that drives groups to be pitted against other groups and as such it is a grand flop.

The communitarian, group-think, and group-act theoreticians simply will not learn anything from the collapse of socialism. Instead they keep bashing American individualism, something that hasn’t made an appearance in prominent circles for ages, or only as a cliche in Fourth or July talks and as a theoretical scapegoat for people holding on to a discredited ideology.


Tibor R. Machan is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and Professor of Philosophy at Chapman University. He is the author of numerous books including Private Rights and Public Illusions.






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