The Facebook Collectivist

Facebook has a way of bringing out the silly in people. Here’s a comment from an acquaintance I used to play poker with:

Which financial genius thought it was a good idea to charge fees for not carrying a large enough balance? They don’t have much money…we should take the rest of it!

Yeah, I know, we all need to let off a little steam sometimes. That said, these fees are presumably predictable; it’s not like this was really a surprise. I posted something in response reminding him that keeping up with how much money he has costs the bank money, a service it’s not going to provide for free. If they’re not making enough in interest off of what he has to cover those costs, it makes sense for them to charge him a fee (though, my personal suspicion is that those fees are overstated relative to what they’re meant to cover – so I do have some sympathy). What I got in response was a respectful but fairly alarming screed about how this is symptomatic of some of the flaws in the dominant individualist paradigm. For example:

[Your] explanation does not, however, stop the feeling that there’s something fundamentally devious and morally defective about their “solution” to my low funds problem.

B-b-b-ut – it ISN’T a solution to your low funds problem! Your low funds problem is just that – YOUR low funds problem!

And then this:

I won’t be skipping a meal because of it, not this time, but I’m reminded that the prevailing social paradigm is one with a focus on the success of individuals rather than the success of the collective.

Which just strikes me as really hypocritical – and at the same time utterly typical of most self-styled “collectivists” I know. The bank wasn’t charging him a fee because he was running low on cash; the bank was charging him a fee because he was imposing a cost on the bank! What’s “collectivist” about complaining about one’s inability to impose a cost on others? Shouldn’t a good collectivist think first about his contribution? Like, for example, whether there were any choices he could have made differently that might have led to a different outcome in which he didn’t end up imposing a cost on the bank that it had to recoup? I mean, if you’re really dedicated to thinking in collectivist terms, don’t you start by recovnizing that the bank is more people than you, that it benefits a lot of people, and that as an institution it’s healthier when everyone participating in it pays his bills?

But this is always the irony with collectivists. Very rarely do you hear one talking about what he can do for the group. More normally, it’s precisely this kind of griping. It strikes me, as it should strike anyone, that complaining about a couple of dollars lost to bank fees when one’s basic needs are met is no more “collectivist” than charging the fees in the first place. The bank is concerned about its property – as, evidently, is my Facebook friend, or he wouldn’t sweat a few bucks. Clearly, he thinks of those few bucks as his – or formerly his – that the bank took from him, even though we’re not talking about enough of his property to even cause him to skip a meal. That’s “collectivist” is it? Neither my friend nor the bank is particularly collectivist, it seems – the difference is that the bank isn’t pretending to be.

More importantly, though, is that I wonder whether my friend has ever really thought through what a transition to collectivism would involve. Right now we’re talking about a few lost dollars – something that barely even rates as “uncomfortable.” Adopting an entirely new world order, by contrast, is the undiscovered country. It isn’t as though you flip a switch, and bank fees go away, but everything else is relatively unchanged: housing remains abundant and relatively cheap, everyone has easy access to transportation, etc. etc. Nope – a lot of the reason that there is no housing shortage in the United States but there very much was in the Soviet Union is precisely that people build houses for selfish reasons here. Maybe there is a way to do it with a collectivist mindset, but I’ve certainly never seen it demonstrated if there is! I guess there were no minimum balance fees in the Soviet Union, so, you know, if that’s the tradeoff you want to make…

Am I burning a straw man? Maybe. But only to the extent that my friend really does have a better idea for how to manage things “collectively” and “focused on the success of the collective rather than the success of individuals” than the Soviets did. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he hasn’t thought about it much.

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