One of the most useful things I’ve learned about communication is the importance of stating things plainly and concretely.* But thinking about that lesson frequently makes politics maddening.
Euphemisms are the health of politics. If a government really wants to get away with murder, even secrecy can be less useful than making that particular murder sound unremarkable, justifiable, sensible, or even dutiful.
As we launch ourselves further into an era of “collective action” as Obama called it in his 2nd Inaugural address, we can be sure that reality won’t stop the left from remaining true believers in its ultimate power and good and demanding it be forced on us all. But what does that really mean?
Let’s hark back to Mancur Olson’s critique of collective action for a moment and point out a little ground truth about it, shall we?
Olson’s critique of collective action is complicated, and it is made less accessible by an ungainly prose style. But the gist is that large numbers of people do not naturally band together to secure common interests. In fact, the larger the group, the less likely it is to act in a truly collective manner.
As Olson explained, the interests that unite large groups are necessarily of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Therefore the concrete benefits of collective action to any individual are usually small compared with the costs — in time, effort and money — of participation. “Free-riding” is a constant threat — as the difficulties of collecting union dues illustrates.
By contrast, small groups are good at collective action. It costs less to organize a few people around a narrow, but intensely felt, shared concern. For each member, the potential benefits of joint action are more likely to outweigh the costs, whether or not success comes at the larger society’s expense.
Now, to me, that’s common sense. The bigger the group the more unlikely it will find common ground than a smaller group. So urging a nation of 300 million to a common effort or collective action? Yeah, not going to happen – at least in the areas Obama is likely to want to make such an effort.
That’s not to say that collective action won’t happen. It happens everyday in DC as Charles Lane points out:
Hence, the housing lobby, the farm lobby and all the special-interest groups that swarm Congress. Hence, too, the conspicuous absence of an effective lobby on behalf of all taxpayers or, for that matter, all poor people.
If there is any “collective action” that will take place in DC, besides those noted, it will be among the politicians who band together (and break apart) depending on what they’re after this week or next. Their constituency? Not that big of a concern to most. Those that reside inside the beltway are more likely on their radar than those who voted to put them in office.
So when Obama called on Americans to once again act “as one nation, and one people,” he was, at best, stating an aspiration.
No he’s not – he’s mouthing platitudes to calm the masses, put the opposition on the defensive and set himself up to get his way. And this is how that will work:
Olson’s assessment of reality, both historical and contemporary, is less lofty but more accurate: “There will be no countries that attain symmetrical organization of all groups with a common interest and thereby attain optimal outcomes through comprehensive bargaining.”
Nope. It will be the group/party that is able to appeal the best to the masses and thereby garner more of a veneer of support for their agenda than can the other party/group, whether or not the ultimate goal of the action is good for the country or the majority or not. Whether it really benefits the country as a whole usually has little bearing on the effort. And the minority? Well, they’re simply left hanging in the wind.
Their call for “collective action” is a cover, a means of draping the usual politics in high sounding rhetoric. The reality of the situation is that what he calls “collective action” is simply a new code phrase for continued class warfare and redistribution of income. The purpose of proposing “collective action” is to enable him and his cronies to label anyone who opposes them and their actions as divisive, unpatriotic and just about any other name they can think of necessary to demonize and dismiss them.
Meanwhile, the “collective” dismantling of this once great country will continue apace.