Saturday, January 2, 2010

Economy of the Golden Rule

If I tarry one moment longer to examine my grandfather’s understanding of socialism, am I exploiting the license I gain from being without a readership? That’s a rhetorical question, as all questions are, when you write in a vacuum. At any rate, I have in my hands a Harvard Class of 1912 alumni book that gives each living graduate a short forum for explaining his (they were all men at the time) “guiding philosophy” in the year 1962. My grandfather could never pass up a chance to explain his political and economic credo, and, moreover, he genuinely believed that Harvard professors and classmates had shaped him.

Drag At Harvard

So what was Montelle espousing when he used the word, collectivism? How did this word differ from socialism, Marxism, communism, or anarchism? I have to say up front that Montelle Boyd wasn’t the most precise thinker or writer. Knowing very little about his topic, I wonder whether the vagueness surrounding his use of the term collectivism was related to the economic theory or to Montelle’s understanding of that theory. Certainly, Montelle’s description of the term—and its impact on his life’s work—is filled with nonsequitors. Neverthless, Montelle’s evangelical essay (longer than most other classmates) gives a great deal of credit to a Harvard professor named Francis Greenwood Peabody (see future posts for an analysis of one of Peabody’s books, inherited from my grandfather’s library, which may or may not explain the concepts here more satisfactorily).

Apparently, Peabody gave Harvard classmates a choice between three social systems: capitalism, socialism, and collectivism. (It’s interesting to think that this choice was originally offered even before the Bolsheviks had, arguably, helped to illustrate what socialism might look like if fully implemented. ) Clearly, Peabody favored collectivism. Apparently, capitalism had proved its inadequacy even before the Great Depression. It fostered exploitation, social divisions, and economic uncertainty as a result of the pitiless market laws of supply and demand. But, according to Montelle, socialism was little better: it merely reversed the equation and created other forms of elites, including Big Labor and Big Government.

What collectivism offered was voluntary association between free individuals, cooperation based on the Christian principles of the Golden Rule, equality of dividend enjoyment, and fundamental fairness when it came to the distribution of what Marx would have called the surplus value of labor. The difference between collectivism and socialism isn’t self-evident, but Montelle thought collectivism was about local communities retaining control of their own economic destinies. He wanted a rigidly decentralized system of economic control, where Boom and Bust cycles couldn’t hurt “the little guy,” most frequently a farmer.

Montelle distrusted “middle men” in the economic system, banks in particular, and therefore championed credit unions. Even money could be controlled by local communities of people who were dedicated to common principles of fairness. He also seemed to evince the traditional agrarian suspicion of cities, perhaps with good reason. Touchingly, he wanted “metropolitan areas” to be broken down into units so small that “neighborliness” would once again become appropriate for urban dwellers. Of course, on some rare occasions local communities would need to “federate” with one another to achieve goals that transcended particular regions. Writing in 1962, Montelle was acutely aware that large parts of the world were deciding between socialism and capitalism. He believed that the local autonomy offered by collectivism would ultimately persuade developing countries as well as communist countries to change.

1 comment:

  1. A family member who knew Montelle read these two posts and, in addition to disagreeing with a few points, added that I should look up Bishop McConnell and Walter Rauschenbusch for a clearer definition of the liberal church's social agenda in the early 20th century.