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  An American Manifesto
Wednesday April 16, 2014 
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A Pre-revolutionary Situation The Ghosts of Liberal Pieties

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Obama's Togetherness

by Christopher Chantrill
June 20, 2012 at 12:00 am

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IN HIS LEARNED excursus on American history in Cleveland last week, President Obama made a big deal about the things we Americans have done “together:” railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.

We got where we are today “not by telling everybody to fend for themselves, but by coming together as one American family, all of us pitching in, all of us pulling our own weight,” said the president. The president used the word “together” ten times in his speech.

It’s a pity that almost everything the president has done in the last three years has divided Americans and replaced “together” with big government and special interests. Maybe it’s time we thought about what “together” really means.

It just so happens that the life work of America’s only woman Nobel economist, Elinor Ostrom, who died last week, had something important to say about this “together.” Ostrom, who was not an economist, did groundbreaking research into the ways that humans manage common resources, a.k.a. the “tragedy of the commons.” In other words, she worked on the science of “together.” She asked the question: How do humans manage things that they own “together?”

Ordinary humans, it turns out, have succeeded in managing common resources like common grazing land and common fisheries despite the “tragedy of the commons.” They have done it with systems of shaming and rewards. Good people, who do the right thing, get praised and honored in their communities; bad people, who sneak off to fish or graze more than their share, get named and shamed. I suspect that a critical part of this system is frequent community meetings, where members of the community know that they have to face their neighbors in a public forum.

You can see why we moderns talk about the “tragedy of the commons.” We look down on guilds and village councils that “together” used to reduce the freedom of their community members. Instead of naming and shaming we prefer the impersonal hand of the regulator and the bureaucrat. But politicians and bureaucrats aren’t very good at managing common resources from Washington DC. Under their management common resources suffer waste, abuse and neglect.

Elinor Ostrom represents a generation of scientists that has been doing yeoman’s work in exposing the noble lies and oversimplifications of the last two centuries, the sort that politicians like President Obama use to justify increased government power. You could run human society purely on the basis of utility, said the utilitarians: “happiness of the greatest number.” You could run society as a communal village writ large, said the socialists. You could run society with rational educated experts, said the Progressives and the Fabians. You could even run society as an evolutionary survival of the fittest, said the entrepreneurs, but everyone agreed that was social Darwinism.

But just as we know now that the design and operation of the human body is complex and sophisticated far beyond our imaginings, we are coming to understand that our life as social animals has a depth of complexity and sophistication beyond the naive simplifications of the philosophers and political activists. For instance Alan Page Fiske in the early 1990s developed a four-dimensional “relational model” of human society, humans doing things together as social animals. There is Communal Sharing, which was Elinor Ostrom’s area of specialization. Then there is Authority Ranking, President Obama’s favorite approach to “together”. Then there is Equality Matching: that’s the idea of taking turns, of returning favors, of tit-for-tat. Finally there is Market Pricing; we know all about that.

The reality of humans as social animals is much more complicated than a four-dimensional model: of course it is. At least the model shines a light on the horribly cramped and bigoted philosophy of President Obama, whose “together” means liberals inventing bureaucratic programs and calling it “community” as they force everyone onto a one-size-fits-all idea that just happens to create easy, lifetime-employment, supervisory roles for educated liberals.

Let us celebrate President Obama’s use of family togetherness, for he is paying tribute to the conservative vision, that there is something more than politics and programs. As Catholics believe in “subsidiarity,” conservatives believe in civil society, the empowerment of the “little platoons” in society in which everyone can make his or her responsible contribution to society.

It’s a shame that the president and his political party really don’t really believe in “together” outside of presidential framing speeches. A stimulus program filled with moneys for the president’s supporters isn’t “together.” A top-down bureaucratic monster health care program isn’t “together.” A green energy program doling out favors to the president’s contributors and issuing draconian regulations to shut down coal production isn’t “together.”

Maybe the president and his top aides should spend a bit of time reading up on the science of human sociality. Then they might learn how very far the program of President Obama and his political party is from “together.”

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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 TAGS


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Racial Discrimination

[T]he way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Sacrifice

[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values


Pentecostalism

Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family...
David Martin, On Secularization


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


Government Expenditure

The Union publishes an exact return of the amount of its taxes; I can get copies of the budgets of the four and twenty component states; but who can tell me what the citizens spend in the administration of county and township?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


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