Monday, January 14, 2013

In Search of Where We Went Wrong

First a big thanks to Leslie Eastman, the most link generous blogger I know, fellow SLOB and now frequent contributor to College and Legal Insurrection. She tells a good story and makes a big effort to pull together the thoughts and posts of other bloggers. She's been quoting my e-mails and throwing me links in her posts, which makes me remiss in not posting something new here.

WARNING: this post has no conclusion. Its just a description of an intellectual journey half over. Call it a thematic compendium of book blurbs.

Where did we go wrong? This question has been bothering me for years. We started out with a near perfect system of government, as close as could have been achieved given the knowledge of the founders, a system that protected the individual's right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Almost 250 years later the system is in taters. Our liberty and is hemmed in on all sides by hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations. Our property is taxed more than a medieval serf's. And our happiness is deemed ok if it is small. But if it is large and conspicuous then "you didn't build that" and don't expect to keep it our pass it to your children. What happiness we have is largely thanks to the productiveness of individuals in earlier, freer times (or in sectors that are lightly regulated). Similarly, what legal protections we have from the state are remnants of an earlier time and wouldn't exist if our professors, politicians and judges had their way.

Why and when did we shift from the individualism of the Declaration of Independence to the collectivism of massive regulations, taxation and the welfare state? This is the question I've been trying to answer and has been a central motivation in my reading choices of the last few months. The answer should be helpful in getting us out of the mess we're in.

For a long time I thought that were were living through the abandonment of our founders' principles. I thought that Atlas Shrugged was prophecy. It might be in its description of the ultimate collapse of civilization. But in its description of the steps to that's already happened. Not long ago I read Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. There's not one government edict in Atlas Shrugged that didn't have some parallel in actual law from the 20s and 30s. The attacks on capitalism are there. The smearing of businessmen, there. The tongue-tied inability of most businessmen to defend themselves, there. The assumption that the government should be solving all problems, there. Neifeh and Smith's biography of Jackson Pollack is a fascinating book covering a similar time period. It's an inside look at the rise of irrationality in art and the government's takeover in order to promote welfare programs. (If you like Dostoevski, you'll like this biography.) In other words, Atlas is as much a description of what happened under Hoover and FDR as it is a a description of what's happening under Bush and Obama.

My interest in collective bargaining as well as some recommendations of Alex Epstein lead me to several books covering the late 19th century. I've already reviewed The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, describing the anarchist attack on Chicago police in 1886 that was whitewashed out of memory by collectivist authors. More recently I read 1877: Year of Violence by Robert Bruce describing the great railroad strikes and riots of that year. The take home message for me: in almost every violent clash between the strikers/rioters and faithful railroad employees or law enforcement, it was the strikers that first trespassed, first destroyed property, threw the first punch or fired the first shot. The author is sympathetic to the strikers, but provides sufficient detail to see who was standing for justice and who stood for violence and theft. I also read Chernow's biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr. Titan. What comes through in the later two books is that businessmen, industry, and success were already under attack in the 1870s and 1880s. Large businesses are considered "common carriers" with no right to operate as they see fit. During the railroad strikes, mobs ransacked and burnt not only railroad yards, but armories, gun shops, grain elevators and various local, unrelated businesses because they were "monopolists". Most of the nation's newspapers were sympathetic with the strikers. Rockefeller, involved in similar conflicts and controversies all his life, was silent until long after he was retired.

While the extent of the regulations was later dwarfed by the New Deal, the same types of laws existed in the late 19th century. The Sherman (R-OH) Anti-Trust Act was passed in 1890 to break up the somewhat artificial trust organization Rockefeller Oil had adopted to get around state controls concerning corporate ownership. Rockefeller was too successful. Where were the intellectual defenders of laissez-faire, of individualism? They must have existed, but they weren't popular enough to rate a mention in any of the books I've read. There were a couple vocal railroad executives that tried but that's it. I was shocked to see in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt (who entered politics in 1881) denigrate Thomas Paine, "filthy little atheist," and Thomas Jefferson, a "slippery demagogue".

The battle lines between individualism and collectivism were thus already drawn in the 1880s and the individualists had already lost, at least the intellectual battle if not the political/legal one. Note that the Republicans were already joining Democrats to destroy capitalism. How far back do I have to go to find someone who defends the Constitution and capitalism? The next stop for me was The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (H/T Chip Joyce through HBL). Enlightenment individualism and a respect for the rights of man played a large role in the early emancipation movement and civil war, but the entire enterprise was co-opted by nationalists, neo-aristocrats and other collectivists by the end. Much of them sounded like our neo-cons: war builds character, sacrifice, good of the nation, etc. By the end no one was discussing the rights of individual blacks. Of course the more individualistic, states-rights founders were significantly eclipsed (Jefferson especially).

The transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman) abandoned their "individualism" and embraced nationalism by the end of the war. This is perhaps not surprising because their individualism was more Kantian than Lockean, i.e. more mystical than empirical. They believed in some kind of otherworldly oversoul that we're mere shadows of. Emotions are the key to insight. Very platonic. They got their German philosophy from Carlyle's translations of Kant. All of which means that by the early 19th century the enlightenment, rational defense of individualism and individual rights had already lost in intellectual circles.

Since the Constitution went into effect in 1789 and the Revolutionary generation was around for another couple decades, that leaves only a small window during which their enlightenment principles of individualism were supplanted. Probably between 1810 and 1840. If that is the case, then the culprit might be in the growth of new colleges, the importation of European professors and the education of many American's in Europe. In Europe, Kant's philosophy of unreal particulars and otherworldly forms came to dominate subsequent to the unresolved difficulties faced by the rationalists (e.g. Descartes) and empiricists (e.g. Locke). Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, roughly contemporaneous with the Declaration of Independence.

My journey half over I find that individualism might have been lost in America, at least intellectually, almost as soon as it had been enshrined. The publication of Kant's implicitly collectivist Critique on the morning after the Declaration of Independence would fit an epic retelling of the history of collectivism versus individualism. "This will kill that" said Victor Hugo in another context. I still have much to read to figure out if Kant killed Locke.

Finishing the stroll backwards, I should mention one more book: Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling.  I've ready many biographies of the Founders, all of them good, but this has the virtue of covering all the figures so you get a complete picture and can place them relative to one another. It also does a fantastic job explaining the actual issues that motivated the colonists to rebel.

to be continued...


  1. Awesome post, fascinating journey. My blog has been a similar journey, looking at the same things in a different way. I hope you post more about this as time goes by.

    Allow me to suggest that collectivism happened because it could. In the end, most of us want to help each other and in doing so, buy a little insurance for ourselves should things go haywire.

    You can't have a collective if you're conquering the wilderness with technologies like covered wagons and oxen plows. Once you've civilized the land and communications/transactions have been simplified, you can do it. And so we have.

    Just a thought.

    For me, the hazard of the collective is different. Salvation is personal, not collective. In paying to the government, we dismiss the need for participating in things like the prison ministry or foster parenting. We think we buy our salvation by government proxy, but all we really do is incubate failure.

  2. There's definitely something in the taming the wilderness that encouraged reason, self-reliance and individualism and I've been thinking (and reading) about that period. It was Marx who said that communism would take over once capitalism had produced the goods. But I don't think that's quite the sequence. After all, we could have remained communists like the original colonists were and just struggled on for decades (or hundreds) of years. Like the American Indians for that matter. I think its more intellectual than that. Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves collectivism was good.

  3. Certainly some of the original colonists were commies, but it never worked out. Life was so harsh that their failure resulted in annihilation whereas today, failure results in debt default.