© 1998  Karen Selick
Culture, Collectivism and Corruption
An edited version of this article first appeared in the June, 1998 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Culture, Collectivism and Corruption

As an opponent of compulsory schooling, I didn’t need the Canadian government to apologize on my behalf in January over having forced aboriginal children into those detestable residential schools.  If the decision had been up to me, I would never have made them go.  I wouldn’t even have made them attend day school, if their parents had opposed it, or speak English, or adopt Christianity or forsake any other aspects of their culture.  In short, I would have left them alone to decide for themselves whether they preferred to retain their ancestral traditions or assimilate into mainstream Canada.

But please don’t interpret this as an endorsement of cultural relativism.  I am not among those who believe that culture doesn’t matter, or that all cultures are equally valid.  On the contrary, (even though these days it’s considered grossly impolite and possibly even punishable by law to criticize someone else’s culture) I maintain that culture is crucially important and that some cultures are actually better than others.

Specifically, I think cultures that emphasize individualism, entrepreneurship, realism, liberty and private property are superior to cultures that emphasize collectivism, adherence to ancient ritual, mysticism, subjugation to the group, and communal property.  Of course, what is "superior" depends on your values.  My standard for measuring a culture’s merit is whether it promotes human well-being, prosperity, and happiness.  If your standards are different—if, like some environmental extremists, your goal is to see the earth swept clean of civilization and returned to the wild—then your archetype of a superior culture will be different from mine.

What’s interesting is that so many people, including many aboriginals, seem to want the physical commodities that individualist, capitalist cultures produce—centrally heated houses, indoor plumbing, electrical appliances, snowmobiles, high-tech fishing and hunting gear, etc.—while spurning the cultural attitudes and practices that created such items in the first place.  Instead, they endorse a culture of collectivism and communalism which, history reveals, has never in any corner of the globe come remotely close to producing the level of material wealth that individualist cultures produce.

This is  not just historical accident.  There are sound economic reasons why individualist cultures with private property rights produce abundant material wealth, while collectivist cultures don’t. 

First there’s the tragedy of the commons.  When property is owned communally, everyone has an incentive to use it up quickly, before someone else does.  No-one bothers to maintain or improve it, because their efforts will simply benefit others.  The owner of private property, by contrast, is motivated to conserve and improve it, knowing he or his children will reap the benefits of his efforts.  It is only this process of capital preservation and accumulation that permits a society to advance beyond a mere subsistence lifestyle. 

Second, communal societies lack a meaningful price system.  If everyone is entitled to an equal share from the common pot, there will be no market signals to indicate what people really need or want, what they’re tired of, what’s in short supply, etc.   Even in a commune that had somehow managed to abolish greed or self-interest, it would be impossible to calculate rationally what goods to produce, or in what quantities.  This is why we used to see, in former communist countries, absurdities such as farmers feeding their pigs bread instead of unprocessed grain.   Lacking profit and loss signals, prices were simply fixed arbitrarily, and someone had decreed that bread would be cheaper than grain.

When the Supreme Court released its Delgamuuk decision in January, many commentators denounced it for handing aboriginal groups a big stick to use in land claim negotiations.  But aboriginals shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the ruling was an unqualified win for them.   In fact, the court may have done a worse disservice to aboriginals than it did to the rest of us.  It held that lands subject to so-called aboriginal title must be held communally and can be sold only to the Crown.  In other words, it saddled natives in perpetuity with the commons tragedy, and it destroyed any chance for them to benefit from an open market for their lands.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between aboriginal leaders and ordinary band members.  The former are understandably delighted with the Delgamuuk decision.  In a communal property system, someone at the top has to wield the economic power that in a capitalist system is dispersed among myriad individual property holders.  This makes the leader a very powerful—and often a very wealthy—person.  There has never been a communist country whose leaders did not live immeasurably better than their average subject.

Lord Acton warned us:  power corrupts.  Already, a few courageous individuals have spoken out about corruption on reserves.  One Alberta native who made a confidential complaint to the Department of Indian Affairs found that they copied his letter to the person he accused of corruption, who launched a lawsuit against him.  Other whistle-blowers have experienced different forms of intimidation and reprisal.

I’m sure most natives despise corruption as much as non-natives do.  Now that there is so much more wealth at stake than when their culture evolved, natives should be questioning whether collectivism will serve them well for the future.

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June 20, 2000