Thursday, June 12, 2008

Culture: Part 3

    The birth of the United States, with its pristine philosophy of individualism, was an event the likes of which the human species had never seen before. But we were not far into the nineteenth century when events began to conspire that would slowly corrode that beauty and replace it, at least in part, with something hideous: altruism.

    The first of these was the expansion of the franchise. There was a problem with voting in a federal republic from the beginning. People quickly learned that they could vote themselves access to someone else's pocketbook in such a political arrangement. All they had to do was to vote for a scoundrel who promised to pick their neighbor's pocket and redistribute the wealth to them. But this tendency was minimized because in the early days of the Republic, the franchise was largely limited to property owners. These sturdy yeomen and business owners had little incentive to pick each other's pockets. The idea behind limiting the franchise was not to create some kind of elite landed gentry or economic aristocracy, but instead to restrict voting to those who had something to lose through bad government. If rascals or incompetents were elected, voting property owners could lose their farms or their businesses. And so the United States, contrary to popular belief, was not created as a democracy, but as a Constitutional Republic with very limited direct participation by the people. In fact, it was the Framers' intention that of the four major elements of the general government—the presidency, the judiciary, the Senate and the House, only the House of Representatives would be directly elected by the people. The president is elected indirectly via the electoral college. Federal judges are not elected at all, but instead nominated and confirmed. And senators, until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, were appointed by state legislatures. Only House members would be chosen directly by "that great beast, the people", as Hamilton called them.

    Gradually, however, property requirements were eliminated, especially during the Jacksonian Era. Now the fun began. Those who had nothing to lose through bad government could elect scoundrels who would rob producers at gunpoint through taxation and redistribute the largess to these new voters. Would-be politicians could roam the alleys of America passing out bottles of cheap hooch to winos in exchange for their votes. Eventually, especially after the advent of the income tax with the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, pocket picking became rampant. The justification was usually altruistic. As the decades rolled by, increasing numbers of producers were turned into sacrificial animals for the benefit of non-producers.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American political culture began to change, from individualism, characterized by individual liberty—both personal and economic—as well as by limited government and self-reliance, to something very different. Paternalism began to insinuate itself into the fabric of our nation. In a paternalistic political culture, government is large and expensive, and it tells you what to do, not the other way round. Individual liberty is restricted. Government is the boss, just as are parents in a family. Individuals who possess the paternalistic political culture expect to be taken care of by government (i.e. producers) just as parents take care of children, providing them with all of the economic goods usually associated with the parent-child relationship: food, clothing, housing, education, medical care, etc. This trend toward paternalism, with its altruistic underpinnings, was greatly accelerated by the New Deal of the 1930s. It continues today on an increasingly massive scale. Several authors have recently put forward the thesis that this process was aided and abetted in 1920 when women were given the vote. Women may have a tendency to be more paternalistic—and more altruistic—than are men. Women are, after all, from Venus while men are from Mars. As much as many would like to believe it, we are apparently not the same. The result of all this was that the original individualistic political culture of the Founding Era began to be diluted, so to speak, by a steady stream of paternalism.

There have been alternative attempts to describe American political culture, but the Federal Recluse believes that this simple, elegant, powerful typology does it better than any other. We are at this moment engaged in a culture war pitting individualism against paternalism, living one's life for one's own sake against altruism.

    It was not only the expansion of the franchise that moved the United States in the direction of altruism, that created this bifurcated population of sacrificial animals and blood-sucking parasites. Another factor that should be mentioned briefly was urbanization. In 1800 the United States was largely rural and agricultural. New York was little more than a large town. A century later, we had arguably become the greatest industrial power on Earth. Our cities grew exponentially. New York became massive. Chicago mutated from a trading post into a great city. Urbanites demand more services from government than do rural inhabitants. This is natural and probably unavoidable. It is in the nature of cities. Of course, it is the producers who pay for these services. Non-producers simply consume them. Altruism, and its political product, paternalistic government, was given further impetus.

    Perhaps the most important factor was, and continues to be, immigration. Immigrants do not hang their political cultures at the door when they enter the United States. Many came, and continue to come, from highly paternalistic countries. But that will be the subject of the next entry. It is so critical that it deserves full consideration. Besides, the Federal Recluse is afraid that if he dazzles you with any more of his brilliance right now, you will collapse on the floor in a fetal position, overcome by intellectual overload. And so, in the interest of your mental health, the Federal Recluse bids you adieu.

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