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November 3, 2005

Who Is 'We'?


David R. Henderson

One of the beliefs that most distinguished the fascists, Nazis, and communists of the 20th century was their organic view of society. Proponents of all three ideologies thought of society as an organism – and of each of you, dear readers, as simply a cell in some part of the organism. And just as our cells have no importance outside their ability to serve our whole body, in the aforementioned three ideologies, our whole beings had no importance aside from their ability to serve the whole society. So, of what value was the individual? He was simply a tool for the ends of others, none of whom have importance either because they, also, were tools. And if society was an organism, then it made sense for the head to run things, right? Government was thought to be the head. And, of course, because there were many people within government, the true head was leader of the government – Mussolini, Hitler, and Lenin or Stalin.

Why is all this relevant to an article by "The Wartime Economist?" Because the organic view of society, though hostile to the basic principles of individual rights on which the United States of America were founded (I use "were" on purpose; "states" is plural) has crept into our language and has distorted much thinking on the issues of the day, including war. It is particularly important in discussions of war because people are more likely to fall into the trap of seeing war as a conflict between two organisms rather than what it is, a conflict between two governments that, in most cases, have dragooned their countries' resources with little or no consent from their citizens. So, for example, most people who discuss U.S. foreign policy, including, distressingly, most libertarians, talk about what "we" did when it was, in fact, not you or I, but specific government officials, who took the actions they're describing. They say, "We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima," not "Harry Truman decided to send a small number of people in the military to drop a bomb on Hiroshima." "The Japanese [or, more commonly, "the Japs"] bombed Pearl Harbor," rather than "The Japanese government decided to send hundreds of pilots in airplanes to bomb Pearl Harbor." Etc.

George Orwell wrote a famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," and a famous novel, 1984, making the point that language really does affect thinking. In 1984, he focused on the fact that, without certain words, certain thoughts could not be expressed – thus the importance of the government's "memory hole," down which certain words went. In his "Politics" essay, Orwell also pointed out the other side: using words can affect how we think. And that is my point here. Specifically, if we use the word "we" to refer to what specific governments have done and will do in the future, we are adopting the organic view of society, which most definitely will affect how we think.

I saw this in a conversation my wife and I had recently with a well-traveled man we met while in San Antonio. In response to an innocent question about what his favorite place in the world was, he lit into an attack on George Bush and Bush's foreign policy. At some points in his rant, he personalized the issue – for example, when he talked about "Bush's war." There's nothing wrong with speaking that way: it is Bush's war. But then he went on to say that the Sept. 11 attack was "self-inflicted." It was a predictable result of the U.S. government's meddling in the affairs of other countries, he said. Now, as it happens, I agree with this last statement. But he then went on to minimize the loss of 3,000 people on Sept. 11: what did the lives of 3,000 people matter when millions have been murdered throughout the world? That I don't agree with. I thought then, and still think, that the loss was horrific and that the people who did it were among the most evil people in history. But that's because I see each of the 3,000-plus people as an individual who matters. He doesn't. Why? Because he has the organic view of society. Go back to his statement that the Sept. 11 attacks were "self-inflicted." How did the young kid and the 40-something businessman on one of the flights inflict it on themselves? They didn't. So, what did this man really mean? He meant that the U.S. government had helped to bring on the Sept. 11 attacks. But his organic view of society – society is an organism with government as the head – led him to say that the killings were "self-inflicted."

The great tragedy of collectivism, the organic view of society, is that it makes people heartless – they become incapable of seeing the real losses and hurts inflicted on innocent people because they stop seeing them as individuals. The example above is one of someone who couldn't see the hurt that individual innocent Americans suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks. Another example is how hard it is for Americans to see the hurt that the U.S. government inflicts on many foreigners. Two instances come to mind.

While reading a draft of one of my students' thesis chapters a few years ago, I came across the statement, "Fewer than 150 people were killed in the 1991 Gulf war." I wrote in the margin that the number killed was likely in excess of 100,000 people, three orders of magnitude higher than the number he mentioned. When we went over his chapter together, he said that when he wrote "people," he had meant "Americans." His mistake was an innocent one, but it was an innocent consequence of a selective collectivism: seeing Americans as individuals, but people of other societies – particularly ones living in countries on which the U.S. government had made war – as part of an organism.

My second example is like that of the man who thought Sept. 11 was "self-inflicted." Kevin S., a Navy officer and former colleague of mine at the Naval Postgraduate School, was burned by fuel from the airplane that flew into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. It looked as if he wouldn't live, but he did. It was a heroic story that was written up in his local Virginia newspaper. The article talked about his recovery and had me cheering for him and his spirit. But then the article stated that Kevin had contacted some of his buddies in the Air Force and asked them to write on one of the bombs to be dropped on people in Afghanistan, "Kevin sends." As much as I sympathized with Kevin, I was equally sympathetic toward some of the people whom "Kevin's" bomb would injure or kill, who were at least as innocent as he was. Unfortunately, Kevin's collectivist thinking prevented him from distinguishing between those who had hurt him and those who had not.

Collectivism is the ugliest ideology in the world. It has been directly responsible for well over 100 million deaths in the 20th century. Let's do our part by not participating in it, even – maybe especially – in our language. The only hope we have for a peaceful world is to hold guilty people responsible for their actions and to treat the innocent people in all countries as innocent. Let's quit talking about governments whose horrific actions we detest as "we."

Copyright © 2005 by David R. Henderson. Permission automatically granted to use in whole or in part as long as publication, author, and title are attributed.

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David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life (Chicago Park Press.) His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008.)

He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Visit his Web site.

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