Public Belief in Collectivisim
One of the persuasive factors in Marxist ideology has always been its claim to historical inevitability. In the early days of socialism, many intellectuals were driven emotionally by the feeling of participation in a historical crusade which would ultimately triumph. Nothing, perhaps, is more frustrating and alienating than the perception that all of your efforts are futile and your cause will ultimately lose anyway. These dynamics of socialist ideology are still at work today—and libertarians who may be cynical and disappointed about the 1976 election results might be interested in some empirical data.
The Harvard Business Review two years ago published the results of a survey of subscribers, all of whom might be considered leaders in society. The survey posed a choice between two ideological statements. The first statement was a John Locke, individualist, Herbert Spencer formulation and the second was a John Dewey, communitarian, Wesley Mouch gem. More than two-thirds of the 1800 respondents selected the individualist statement as a description of their personal beliefs—but only 59 percent believe that the rest of society agrees with them, and only 23 percent believe that American society in 1985 will support individualism. To underscore the degree of pessimism, 63 percent believe that free market solutions are more likely to be effective in solving future problems.
Along with minor regional differences reported—the northeastern part of the country is more collectivistic and the mountain, south central, and far west are more individualistic—the most interesting split is between men and women. Whereas 71 percent of men identify themselves with individualism, only 57 percent of the women responded similarly; 28 percent of the men are collectivists and 42 percent of women are. As to 1985, the two sexes are equally persuaded, 73 to 25 percent, that collectivism will dominate. While 61 percent of the men believe that individualism offers the best solution to future problems, 53 percent of the women subscribers believe that collectivism offers the better answers. (The small percentage point variances are a result of sample size differences.)
The results of the survey were duplicated during the summer of 1977 by the marketing department of Amoco Oil Company in a survey of motorists, not limited to the socioeconomic group of Harvard Business Review subscribers. The results are 72 to 23 percent prefer individualism over collectivism, but the split is 47 to 47 percent as to beliefs about other people today, and over the next 15 years 51 percent believe collectivism will dominate.
Whatever can be said about the "inevitable triumph of socialism," one thing is clear—most people have fallen for the Marxist line. There is something about collectivism which leads to the result that, even if you hate it, you are likely to think that almost everyone else supports it.
In 1974 the marketing department of a major Chicago advertising agency conducted a number of in-depth interviews with several panels of representative citizens to determine their attitudes toward free enterprise. Two findings are instructive, from a libertarian perspective. "Free enterprise" to most of the people interviewed means the opportunity to start one's own business. Big business is perceived along with government as signifying a move toward collectivism. Most people in the study believe that the little man, whom they identified with, doesn't really count in today's society. They think that free enterprise today doesn't really exist as it did in the past. They perceived the change to be a result of the increased complexity and size of the modern economy—the natural consequence of the successes of free enterprise. The increased measure of government control is perceived as necessary to contain monopolies, but both the government and the "monopolies" are viewed disapprovingly. Yet free enterprise, whatever that means, is widely supported.
The Campus Studies Institute, famous for the Incredible Bread Machine film, recently published their 1977 national opinion survey of faculty and students to determine beliefs relating to free enterprise. The interesting aspect of the survey is the very high proportion of the respondents who hold inconsistent positions, coming out in favor of free enterprise on some questions and against it on others. An examination of the questions and the inconsistencies in the measured responses suggests to this columnist that perhaps the entire libertarian movement might profit from creative new formulations of economic ideas. The general public, given the background attitudes and misinformation about economic processes which people hold, simply cannot be expected to support a reduced role for government if this is perceived as an increased role for big business. They might, on the other hand, be strongly in favor of "deinstitutionalization" or some political movement advocating individual liberty if this were stated in terms of the freedom of "the little guy" to run his or her own business.
A serious problem with which the conservative movement has long been saddled, and which affects the declining support for the Republican Party in particular, is the idea that big business would benefit from deregulation and average citizens would not particularly be helped. The Libertarian Party is fortunate in that its radical commitment to social laissez-faire has, for the time being at least, masked the fact that we have a healthy admiration for those big business enterprises which have made it without government favoritism. In attempting to communicate the ideal concept of laissez-faire capitalism as part of this political movement, it is clearly very important to avoid the looming booby trap of guilt by association.
An interesting secondary factor influencing public attitudes toward business and free enterprise may be inflation. The issue of inflation is ranked at the top of almost every list of public worries, far outstripping concern for unemployment or environmental pollution. Of course, inflation is perceived in the marketplace as a business pricing issue, rather than a Federal Reserve Board problem. Public confidence that business is performing in the general interest has dropped from a high of around 70 percent in the late 1960's to a low of around 15 percent today. This drop coincides almost perfectly with the rise of inflation since 1970.
If a libertarian campaign on economic issues were to be designed for a maximum public impact, some conceptual link between anti-inflation, anti-big business, and anti-government would have to be formed. It is not clear if the common popular belief in conspiracy theories would help among the general public more than it would hurt among the opinion leaders, whom we must also influence, but perhaps the opportunity ought to be exploited experimentally. In general, at least, some effort should be made to make the vast majority aware that socialism is not the wave of the future—indeed, that most people think it stinks.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Frontlines".