Commentary Magazine


No, Mike Lee Is Not a Collectivist

A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

First, let’s be clear about one thing.  The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For more than two hundred years, the United States – through trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually remember when their own families were poor.

Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.

To that, Brook and Simpson have this to say:

Really? American colonists fought the most powerful nation on earth as a precursor to a mid-20th century welfare program? Would it be too much to expect a simple “you did build that” from a senator put in office by the Tea Party? Apparently so. …

Sen. Lee no doubt views himself as a champion of America’s founding principles. But how do his views really differ from President Obama’s? They both think America’s defining purpose is its ability to solve big social problems. They both think America’s wealth comes from some group — “community and cooperation” in the senator’s view and “one nation and one people” in the president’s. Their only dispute seems to be about how we should distribute it. Lee opposes government enforced charity and cooperation. But if you concede that wealth, success, and prosperity come from “community and cooperation” rather than individual initiative, why shouldn’t government force us to “give back”? The government would never stand by while some people stole property from others. If we really think groups produced the nation’s wealth, then it is groups that own that wealth and government should “redistribute” it. “We’re all in this together,” under Sen. Lee’s view, becomes just a conservative version of “you didn’t build that.”

This seems to me way off the mark. In fact, Brook and Simpson are appropriating the left’s rhetoric on Citizens United and related First Amendment cases, such as the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. Liberals dismiss the notion of corporate personhood with the claim that “corporations aren’t people.” But that’s not what the argument is about. The question is: when people assemble in a group in order to better project their voices above the din, do they retain their constitutional rights or not?

The conservative case, which is patently correct once you put the question into practice, is that yes: individuals retain their constitutional rights even when they gather. Indeed, Lee spells that out in his speech, when he says:

We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and information and opportunity. What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth – to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.

Lee here is pointing out a key difference between right and left: institutions of the right are made up of individuals who choose to organize a certain way. Institutions of the left are really rolled into one institution: government. And its participation is based on coercion. When the government spends money, it’s spending money it took by force of law from one person and giving it to another. The institutions of civil society do not strip citizens of their choice, of their individual liberty.

That voluntary gathering doesn’t make them collectivist. Brook and Simpson argue that this is another version of “you didn’t build that.” But that strikes me as exactly the opposite of the case. You still “built that,” even if the you is plural. Further, the institutions of civil society serve as key protectors of individual liberty. If there is nothing between the government and the people, there is less to prevent every facet of private life from becoming the government’s business. Mike Lee understands that there is strength in numbers, but that’s a far cry from coercive collective action.

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