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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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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.


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


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


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


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


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


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”


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


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


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