|A Pre-revolutionary Situation||The Ghosts of Liberal Pieties|
by Christopher Chantrill
June 20, 2012 at 12:00 am
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.
Its 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 its time we thought about what together really means.
It just so happens that the life work of Americas 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 arent 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 yeomans 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 Ostroms area of specialization. Then there is Authority Ranking, President Obamas favorite approach to together. Then there is Equality Matching: thats 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 Obamas 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.
Its a shame that the president and his political party really dont really believe in together outside of presidential framing speeches. A stimulus program filled with moneys for the presidents supporters isnt together. A top-down bureaucratic monster health care program isnt together. A green energy program doling out favors to the presidents contributors and issuing draconian regulations to shut down coal production isnt 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.
Buy his Road to the Middle Class.
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[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
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital