Friday, August 29, 2008

The Beginning of Cafeteria Societies

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government* makes the case that governments are instituted by the consent of the governed and that governments are instituted in order to maximize human freedom. Much of Locke's thinking was influenced by the American frontier, and it is evident that the Founding Fathers adapted Locke's work in their thinking about government in part because they saw the Declaration of Independence as a compact to which Americans freely consented. Locke saw the colonies as emerging in this way too. In chapter VIII, "Of the Beginning of Political Societies" Locke discusses how someone can consent to being a member of a political society. He argues that owning land in a nation or living there does not make a man a member of the society:

"this no more makes a man a member of that society, a perpetual subject of that common-wealth, than it would make a man a subject to another, in whose family he found it convenient to abide for some time; though, whilst he continued in it, he were obliged to comply with the laws and submit to the government he found there."

Locke sees the freedom to leave one's country of birth and to pursue citizenship in a different state as possible because of the existence of the American frontier. If one can pick up and move to a Pennsylvanian wilderness, then one has a choice. But such wildernesses no longer exist.

The impetus to adopt the Progressive ideology occurred right at the time that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the American frontier had closed. The nineteenth century American belief in laissez-faire psychologically depended on the existence of a frontier. Part of the response to the sense of loss from the closing of the frontier and the end of expansive growth and (mistakenly thought) the beginning of decline, were imperialism and intensification of racism. Thus, the Spanish-American War, Progressivism and intensification of Jim Crow laws all occurred at the same time. These were all the product of a win-lose mentality, a belief that freedom is possible only when physical expansion is possible. Wilson and other Progressives believed that foreign markets would be necessary to sell "overproduced" American goods. A little earlier, economists like DA Wells had argued that "overproduction" was an ongoing problem and that business needed to consolidate. Progressives focused on the need for government to control big business. This way of thinking is the flip side of expansionism. Both are win/lose psychologies.

In a win-lose psychology, one believes that in order to gain, something must be lost. That was a primary assumption of mercantilism, and so the laissez-faire of the American nineteenth century was a mercantilist laissez-faire. It replaced mercantilism's emphasis on community with Lockean individualism but it retained the win-lose psychology of mercantilism. Thus, Jacksonian democracy was racist and focused on land expansion and suppression of the Indians.

The question that intrigues me about Locke's contractualism is whether it would be possible in a non-mercantilist, non-expansionist laissez-faire framework. The expansion necessary for increasing human welfare is mental, not physical. It is not a win-lose process, but a win-win one, whereby technological genius and creativity increment human welfare. This process is possible in all phases of the economy.

But not all Americans agree with this potential. America has become divided into factions. We are no longer a single people. In the nineteenth century there were ideological factions as there are now. Likewise, there were geographic and economic ones. The Civil War was fought for this reason.

But for the most part, the factions of the nineteenth century were not mutually incompatible. This was in part because of the frontier, and in part because alternative modes of government were still possible in the various states. Federalism still permitted considerable discretion among the states. As well, the states diverged on a few key issues, such as slavery, but all Americans shared a belief in individual liberty.

Today, the basic foundation of American culture and government is splitting into the America of liberal collectivism and the America of individualism.

Unlike the nineteenth century differences between the commercial interests of Boston and the agrarian interests of Virginia, collectivism is incompatible with individualism. The most important reason is that the collectivists or Progressives insist on centralization. They have accomplished this through educational systems; creation of an elitist psychology that has enabled the Supreme Court to deviate with respect to values from a large portion of Americans; and emphasis on collectivist federal programs such as Social Security and the income tax that require participation. Most of all, the Progressives have emphasized centralization, and do not tolerate state-level deviation from the broad Progressive program and will violently quell any individual resistance.

Locke argued that citizenship depends on agreement. Those who do not agree with the collectivist program ought to have some rights. So far, they have allowed the collectivists to intimidate them, and have acquiesced in seeing their rights whittled.

What might be a better approach? One might be the creation of cafeteria societies. Might Americans be allowed to choose among several alternative social structures? Why must all Americans make do with the failed ideas that Washington has imposed. In industry, benefit plans have been adopted that give employees a choice. Why can we not have two or three competing social security, welfare, taxation and health insurance schemes? Those who prefer low taxes and less benefits might choose one state, while those who prefer high taxes might choose the other. Democrats and Republicans could each have the system that they prefer. The two systems would be conjoined through a common defense and tariff policy, but Americans could begin to have governments that they believe in.

John Locke's idea of contractual government might point the way to a future that is characterized by flexibility and choice rather than the heavy, violent hand of collectivist Progressivism. America needs to think about how to reassert the basic Lockean compact.

*John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Edited with an Introduction by CB Macpherson. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1980

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