When I read Charles Koch's Editorial in the Wall Street Journal, I was struck by his use of the terms "collectivist" and "collectivism" as if they were the 21st century's most loathsome four-letter epithets. I was truly mystified by his choice of words. All of my adult life, I have been employed as a problem solver in technical fields requiring the ability to diagnose complex relationships. Over those years, I have developed one overarching rule: When you set out to solve a problem, make sure you begin at the beginning. That way you stand a chance of finding solutions, rather than endlessly managing symptoms. And so I set out to find what is at the center of all this Kochinalia, where does it begin? Follow along as I wander down a path towards a possible answer...
So why did his use of "collectivist/ism" so intrigue me? The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, "n.-a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution; also : a system marked by such control." Now that does indeed sound like something that the leader of a vast enterprise might chafe at. But this definition reflects the word as transmuted by about a century and a half of various and sundry reactions to industrial capitalism. (Inner voice: Deconstruct further. Get closer to the beginning.) And so I turned to the root of the word collectivism: collective, adj.-shared or assumed by all members of the group.
I had arrived at a point I could deconstruct no further. I felt I was at the beginning. The puzzle was this: All actions by human beings of any significance are collective actions. Procreation is not a singular activity. Neither is a conversation. Even a soliloquy has no value if it is not witnessed in some way; read or heard or described; it needs at least one "other." The creation of a society and a government are collective acts, regardless of the virtue of the society or the benevolence (or lack thereof) of that government. And most especially, a large corporation controlling vast numbers of industrial companies is a collective activity. Surely Mr. Koch is not so silly or vain as to think that he is solely responsible for every activity and decision of his enterprises. I would think that not even the mightiest efforts of his brother could fulfill what Charles could not accomplish on his own each day. He must have some sense of awareness of the collective nature of his enterprises. (inner voice: another paradox rises) How could he cherish his enterprises, but so disparage the collective efforts that made them possible?
And so I looked to many different groupings that have had a history of success in human society. Schools, religions, sewing circles, companies, corporations, unions, legislative bodies. All engage in decision-making processes. Most obviously about future courses of action, and at least subconsciously, they make decisions regarding the preservation/perpetuation of the organization itself. There are many ways to do this, but once it is decided to make collective decisions through the act of voting, then how the vote is counted matters; not just in the quality of the decisions so derived, but also because how the vote is counted directly impacts the preservation and perpetuation of the organization.
The pairing of unions/corporations seemed somehow appropriate to the task at hand. Both are collective, and have many shared interests. In fact, when both exist within the same company, they cannot survive without the other. Perhaps examining this pairing would be useful, as both types of collective activity are ones that Mr. Koch is quite familiar with and might inform the opinions he expressed.
In considering the activities of unions and corporations, there is one process fundamental from inception in both organizations: Decisions are arrived at collectively, most frequently through the casting of votes. But there is one fundamental difference: In a union, the shop steward gets one vote, the same as the lowest seniority entry level worker; in a corporation, votes are awarded based upon ownership shares in the corporation. The principle of one person, one vote is totally foreign to the world of corporate management.
Is it any wonder that men who were born and raised into a corporate world to be the inheritors of that corporation should feel entitled to "their fair share of the process" as they deem it by the "worth that they have contributed"? Does the concept of corporate personhood do anything to dissuade such a belief? Indeed, it reinforces that belief by conferring upon the corporation a value equal to that of a human being as regards rights and privileges. It infers that a corporation's values and principles are the equal of human values, that somehow they are as innate (God given, if you will) as those our society confers upon people. So it is not so great a leap of logic in the mind of the corporatist to expect more "votes," more access to the political process. It is not unfair or immoral. To them it is part of the natural order of their world.
Curiously, if either of the Koch brothers were acting as an individual, all their money and power could not endanger our society, for it takes even more collective activity on their part to create an existential threat to our way of life. It is not humanly possible to physically lift the amount of cash they dispense in furtherance of their beliefs. They need profitable businesses to continue refilling the coffers. It takes legions of companies and employees to dispense such wealth--if just to do the bookkeeping. More companies, more employees to write, produce, and distribute their messages. Their activities pose such a dire threat precisely because they are magnified a thousand-fold through collective activity. And a new paradox emerges: The Kochs' collective activity is being protected through articles of incorporation that convey personhood and constitutional protections designed for an individual even though the collective activity seeks to deprive individual human beings of their rights.
One person, one vote.
So why does Mr.Koch disparage collective activity when he engages collective activity as well? Perhaps because in those other activities, the ones he sees as a threat to "my vision for a free society," votes are not allocated based upon shares, and so he cannot control the outcome. He seems to prefer collective activities in which he controls outcomes, regardless of the will of the majority of those engaged in that activity on his behalf.
One person, one vote.
Such a curious notion. On its face, it might seem a clarion call to the "rugged individualist" from Ronald Reagan's History of the United States that Never Was*. The principle of one person, one vote is both the reason for and the proof of the importance of equality and balance in the decision-making process guiding any organization that exists for the benefit of all its members. It not only serves the obvious purpose to decide many and sundry things, it is essential to to the preservation and perpetuation of the organization itself. If any organization routinely makes decisions collectively through the process of voting, then a sense of fairness and equality is necessary in order for any and all, from time to time, to sublimate personal desires for the good of the group.
One person, one vote.
Through their governance practices, corporations instill and nourish the sense that some voters deserve "more votes" than others. It is an easy leap from "more votes" to "more input in the political process." Corporate governance practices may even encourage some to rationalize an ethic that permits an idea such as "If I can't get more votes at the ballot box, I will make my one vote more powerful by taking the right to vote from others." If we are to restore equality in our political processes, it is essential that we remove the principal of "corporate personhood," if only to begin the process of eliminating the incubator for such thinking.
One person, one vote.
It is so strange. We come into this world, naked and alone, we leave the same way. All along the way, we depend on a complex set of interrelationships for our very existence. And yet, we remain intensely individual, ever unable to share a thought with another human being in such a way that it is understood exactly as we know it. We are at once social and alone.
One person, one vote... the best way to honor both the individual and the society of which they are a part.
*Don't go searching for this tome. Though Ronald Reagan authored and quoted from it often, it does not exist.