What to do in a divided nation?

From the Introduction of the book:

During the run-up to the mid-term election in 2010, as it became apparent that scores of Democrats would be replaced by a troop of Republican ‘Tea Party’ candidates, a bystander was almost guaranteed to hear a steady chant of lament from the left side of the political spectrum. It was a familiar chant, one that included such claims as ‘If those yahoos get into office, this country is ruined!’ and the old standby, ‘If they get hold of power, I’m moving to Canada!’

It was familiar because we actually heard it from the other side of the spectrum in 2008, when it had become clear that Barack Obama and the Democrats were poised to win power. Conservatives and Republicans from across the country shouted that ‘If that guy gets into office, this country is ruined!’ They too threatened to move to a different country, though it was to New Zealand or Singapore or some other place known to have reduced taxes and government intervention in recent years.

To the thoughtful participant, making such claims seemed like the only recourse. In fact, during every election, and especially the presidential ones, the mantra is always the same—‘If the other side gets ahold of power, the only thing left to do is move.’

Of course, in 2010, as it was in 2008 and other election years before, no one actually moved. As the protestors quickly learned, there was nowhere to move that could provide an escape from the newly elected officials and still offer all the benefits of living in the United States. What troubled voters found upon reflection was that no other country in the world provided a better situation than that which could be found at home—all had their drawbacks, and none provided the kind of deliverance that might be imagined.

For example, modern liberals saw Canada as enticing because of its universal health care, its anti-war posture, its progressive stance on same-sex marriage, and other liberal causes célèbres of the time, but Canada has always had high unemployment, relatively limited culture, and, no matter how warm their poutine is, it’s just really cold up there. Conservatives found places like New Zealand and Singapore appealing because they have reduced taxes and governmental bureaucracy in recent years, but they still maintain no small amount of strict rules and state intervention, which make them less appealing than they might have seemed on the surface—not to mention the 18-hour flight it would take to get there.

And so the typical disgruntled American voter really has no alternative in the situation. As corrupt as Dick Cheney and George W. Rex might have seemed, the leaders of France or Italy proved to be no more principled. As socialist and radical as Obama seems, the conditions in Germany or Australia provide no reprieve—all advanced countries suffer from the ills of the modern system, quite as if they are endemic. By moving away from America, one might be able to escape the threats to freedom and well-being present under its new regime, only to face new threats abroad. And who wants to eat Vegemite all day, anyway?

The fact is that there is no place to go that would provide a frustrated American with a viable escape. Certainly, there is no place to go that would improve the situation enough to justify changing citizenship, packing up, and actually making the move. It would be too much trouble for too little gain, and so, though such a move is often promised, it never happens.

*   *   *

This subtle truth is more troubling than it may seem. Simply, there is no place to move if things don’t go the way one wants them to go. This means that the citizens of this country, as passionate and idealistic as they are, must endure whatever policies and ventures the few in power decide to assume, even when those policies and ventures completely contradict the people’s core beliefs and ideals.

Throughout the Bush presidency, for instance, modern liberals had to tolerate eight years of foreign wars, crony capitalism, and bad public speaking; throughout the short Obama presidency, conservatives have had to endure third-world-style nationalization, deficit spending that would make Keynes’ head spin, and really good speeches that make it all sound like grapes and sunshine.

Americans are not used to this sort of thing. To them, it seems illogical and even unnatural to accept anything that is disagreeable or contradictory to one’s principles. If one is faced with a war that he finds objectionable or a government health care mandate that he considers to be unconstitutional, the American believes he should just reject it, turn away, and go find something that he does agree with—that is the American way; that is the way of a free people.

But that’s not the way it works anymore. For some time now, the party in power has been able to dictate what everyone must do, whether or not those dictates coincide with what everyone wants or believes to be in their best interest. We live in what might be called a ‘closed system’, one where there are no real alternatives or means of escape. If one disagrees with the war or cannot come to accept the government-run health care system, too bad. Everyone must deal with it and carry on as if there is no problem at all.

Now, one might argue that the average citizen does not have to just sit by and deal with it—he is given a means to correct the situation by voting. And, certainly, the kind of elections that we have seen in the last decade or so show that an agitated public can and will take their concerns to the voting booth to change the officials in power. It is thought that by doing so the people can improve their situation and actually make the system work.

But this is to neglect the contingencies inherent in the system itself. A closer look shows that it is designed in such a way that every action a voter makes or attempts to make through his representatives to correct the system basically undoes or prevents an action that someone else wanted or aimed for through other representatives. In the modern system, one side’s victory is the other side’s loss.

And so a citizen’s action necessarily invigorates a slew of others—Republicand stir up Democrats; the clean air advocates rile the tobacco lobbies to further action; environmentalists agitate the oil companies for more protection; financial regulations give banks incentive to find new ways to capitalize on their consumers. In a closed system, one group’s action always leads to another group’s reaction, and the procerss continues until everyone is affected.

Politically minded individuals will simply view this condition as a challenge. If we face a closed system with no real alternatives, then the only thing to do is to join in the fracas and get as much of the action as possible. The idea is to form some sort of lobby, ignite a campaign, or organize a special interest to extract as much funding, underwriting, or subsidy from the system as can be mustered.

These days, no one can afford to sit by and do nothing, and so everyone takes part and forms a special interest to gain political power. Manufacturers, teachers, engineers, farmers, secretaries, accountants, doctors, bankers, and so on—everyone must take part or else lose out. Indeed, this football fan recently learned that the NFL has a political action committee. Apparently, no one is exempt.

Anyone can see the trap that is set. By attempting to control the system through lobbies, campaigns, and special interests, these few politically minded activists only agitate others to join in and do the same. So more lobbies are initiated, more campaigns are run, and more special interests are formed in order to get more from the system, ultimately inducing even more of the same action. The more diligent and persuasive a group is, the more power they can obtain. Everyone involved is compelled to jump in on one side or the other and compete for control of the system that no one can afford to reject or deny. Since everyone has a stake in the game, and no one can deny the benefit of joining in, it becomes a massive tug-of-war that can only end in lots of muddy participants.

*   *   *

This vignette shows us in capsule form what happens when alternatives are eliminated from a given situation. Like clockwork, the powerful end up dictating, and so everyone is forced to compete for power, which only leads to an ever-escalating quest for control over others. This is the condition in which we live in early twenty-first century America. Without viable alternatives, everyone must adhere to the dictates of those in power, whether it is the Democrats or Republicans, the corporations or the unions. Given such a predicament, it is only reasonable to strive to achieve control, and so ensues a neverending struggle to obtain and hold power over everyone else

The goal of this book is to examine this condition, how it came about in our society and how it comes about in general, the major consequences of such a situation, and, in the end, potential solutions. The primary source of reference is Western Civilization in the last five hundred years. As we will see, this slice of culture shows us exactly what happens when a closed system opens and then closes again. During the last five hundred years, we have experienced a wave of change that has taken us from one extreme to the other and back again, as if in a great tragedy.

The Western story is emblematic primarily because its signposts are so vivid in our historical imagination. At the end of the fifteenth century, the system was closed with nowhere to go, much like it is today. With the discovery of America, the system suddenly opened up, after which came an era of revolution and growth. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, the frontier closed, and a sort of cultural reversal set in. In our age, the West again finds itself locked in a closed system, not unlike that from which it emerged around 1500, and braces for what critics have warned will be another Dark Ages.

The plan of this book follows this rough sketch: The first part examines the discovery of the New World and the economic significance of its exploration and colonization. The second section opens with a survey of the close of the frontier, which occurred around 1890 and more or less brought an end to the era of expansion and growth, followed by an examination of the consequences of the close, namely interdependency and the competition for wealth and resources. The third part looks at the rather logical solution to this problem: the development of a welfare statist system and the large-scale control of wealth by central governments. It concludes with an appraisal of statism and its moral effect. Finally, in the fourth part, having examined the root problem and the failed solution of government intervention, the text aims at a viable solution, which centers largely on self-sufficiency and independence—a moving forward to the new kind of life first experienced after the discovery of the New World.

*   *   *

If nothing else, this argument should be seen as a way to understand current troubles as more than just the intentional conspiracy of some group of malicious others. These days, it is all too easy to assign the ills of the world to some political party or contingent of the population, such as the corporations or the unions. All of the elements of the modern system arose from valid aims and are sustained by human beings. They are no more malicious or devious than the average voter or consumer or worker, and they should shoulder no more of the blame than anyone else.

That is to say that the average voter, consumer, and worker is no more exempt from blame than the great political parties, corporations, or unions. Indeed, individuals and families are as responsible as those hated organizations, if not more so, because it is from the actions and desires of individuals that large companies and government bureaucracies derive their power. What reckless manufacturer, for instance, would be able to continue its egregious pollution if no consumer bought its products? What politician could curtail freedoms and aid a special interest if the citizens of the country refused to put up with a system that enabled such corruption? It is a truth widely recognized that tyranny stems from the consent of the governed as much as democracy does.

The fact is that consumers value highly the nearly infinite supply of cheap, reliable goods available at Walmart and Target; they enjoy McDonald’s delicious, fatty foods and Microsoft’s highly functional software. If these great corporations did not provide what consumers wanted, then the corporations couldn’t act as they wished. Voters want ‘free’ health care and social security, protection and the removal of risk in financial investments. If the government didn’t provide what the people wanted, then it would not have been able to grow so dominant in the first place. There isn’t a conspiracy—everyday people are just getting what they’re asking for.

Of course, exploitation does exist, and so do shady back-room meetings of twelve fat men—one such meeting took place in 1910 on Jekyll Island. But even so, the U.S. and other world economies are too large for any limited conspiracy to control completely, and must rely on everyone else to be carried through. This is to say that the problems we face as a people are not the intentional plans of some devious plot, but rather a natural manifestation of the system as a whole.

The system—what a concept! In common usage it implies a swollen leviathan that regulates the status quo and dictates the actions and thoughts of everyone in sight. In reality, it is nothing more than the complex organization of all social, political, and economic institutions—institutions that we, the average citizens, comprise almost wholly. At first glance, one might assume that these institutions are controlled by those at the top—the politicians, the CEOs, the bankers, the twelve fat men, and so on—but those figureheads only wield power because the populace is so willing to be overpowered. The fact that the large majority of Americans are largely content with their standard of living is proof of the system’s appeal. And so it must be said that the people are as responsible for their condition as the fat men in shadowy rooms; indeed, they are just the instrument, and we are actually the system.

This entry was posted in Autarchy, Bureaucracy, Capitalism, Closed System, Competition, Complexity, Current Events, Economic Theory, Free Land, Free Market, Frontier Thesis, Game Theory, Interdependency, Keynesianism, Marxism, Perpetuity, Political Theory, Polycentrism, Self-Government, Self-Reliance, Self-Rule, Self-Sufficiency, Sociology, Welfare Statism, Zero-sum. Bookmark the permalink.

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