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‘You Didn’t Build That’ and the Darkness of Collective Punishment

The fallacy of collective achievement led directly to last century's murderous scapegoating.

by
Oleg Atbashian

Bio

July 31, 2012 - 12:53 am

But here’s the catch: everything in this world has a price. If all of us can be credited for someone else’s achievement, by the same logic, all of us can be punished for someone else’s failure. Just as all individual credit goes to the society as a whole, so does all the blame. And if the entire group, class, nation, or race can gain moral authority because some of its members did something right, the same standard grants the moral authority to blame any other group, class, nation, or race because some of its members did something wrong. In the history of collectivism this concept translated into wars, slavery, pogroms, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, expropriation of wealth, deportation, internment, resettlement, and genocide.

The two notions, collective achievement and collective punishment, are as inseparable as two sides of a coin.

But there’s more: if nothing is to your credit, then nothing is your fault. What is the cost of that bargain? In a seemingly fair trade-off, we lose our right to individual achievements but gain the right to blame others for our failures. Collectivism provides us with a sufficiently analgesic illusion of fairness. If you turn out to be a loser, it’s not because you are unqualified: on a whim, with objective standards removed, you can now self-righteously put the blame on those close to you, or on the unfair system, or even on the big wide (and deeply flawed) world.

Before you know it, your moral impulses are reduced to the tantrum of a toddler who breaks things and hits a babysitter; a teenager who curses at his family and blames the universe for his pimples; a graduating student of Marxism at the Occupy Wall Street encampment who vandalizes private property and blames capitalism for not providing him with a high-income job; an aging member of the “drug revolution” who blames The Man and The System for his depression; or the president of the United States who blames corporations and bank CEOs, modern technology and “messy democracy,” Fox News and all other media, the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring, as well as Bush, Reagan, Congress, the GOP, and the entire city of Washington for his lack of achievement.

Coincidentally, such is also the moral foundation of collectivist societies, from Cargo Cult followers to the so-called People’s Democracies. In the erstwhile USSR, the government redistributed not only the nation’s dwindling wealth; it redistributed successes and failures. All achievements were credited to the Party and its leaders, as well as to a centrally appointed regiment of “Heroes of Socialist Labor” who conspicuously “sacrificed for the common good.”  The failures were blamed on foreign aggressors, Western imperialism, enemies of the people, kulaks, saboteurs, corrupt bureaucracy, irresponsible middle management, selfish greed, and lack of proletariat consciousness, as well as on natural disasters and bad weather. Sound familiar?

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