Suppose we discover the worst, to our blinking, unbelieving dismay, is worse than we ever imagined. What if the coming wave of revelations really rocks us back in stunned dismay.
Thomas Jefferson said that each generation must hammer together a new and revolutionary set of methods to use, in vigorously defending freedom. One reason for this is that technologies and other social factors change, requiring new and innovative solutions. Also, the “solutions” of a previous generation often get spoiled or suborned by new waves of parasites, who learn how to twist them to their advantage.
Take the way agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Bell System all started with the intent of overcoming monopolistic abuses, but wound up being “captured” by the industries they were supposed to regulate. Hence a little known historical fact -- that it was the Democratic Party, particularly under Jimmy Carter, who performed the biggest and most effective deregulations in U.S. history, by breaking up all three of these calcified entities and several others, restoring healthy competition to railroads, trucking, airlines, telecommunications and many other fields.
(In contrast, GOP-led ‘deregulations’ in S&Ls, banking, securities and mortgage lending all led directly to locust-swarms of loophole-using vampirism. The clear lesson of history: if you want decent de-regulation, that both reduces government meddling and fosters open, honest competition, ask Dems to do it.)
Or witness what happened to the supposedly “progressive” income tax. An innovation that appreciably limited aristocratic power for a while, but now seems fine-tuned to serve the interests of a newer aristocratic clade—one that grew up knowing every twist in the creaky and arcane and outdated law.
Why do I raise this now? Because we do not yet know how deep the rot goes, how far parasitic tentacles have penetrated, during the last decade. Suppose Special Prosecutors or a “truth commission” were to reveal something truly pervasive and nasty? Might our leaders try to hide this information from us, for our own good? (See #16.) Or, if it’s revealed, might people be so radicalized they demand draconian, even revolutionary measures?
This is the ultimate, illogical foolishness of insatiable/rapacious, top-level parasitism. Aristocrats who think they are mutant-smart (instead of merely lucky) tend to assume they are immune to history. That cyclical patterns can never apply to them, or that sheep don’t look up. Or that tumbrels can never again roll through the streets.
Time for a historical factoid. At around the time of the 1775 uprising that sparked the American Revolution, vast sections (up to half) of the colonies of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were owned by individual families under charters granted by the British crown. The great landlords were mostly royal cronies - personal friends of the king - who never even visited their vast new fiefs. (Such cronyism was cited by Adam Smith as the great destroyer of free markets, rather than socialism, which he considered a much less worrisme threat.)
How did that earlier generation of Founders solve the problem? Certainly seizure of some Tory assets had a great deal to do with the breakup of those grossly unfair, unearned estates -- and such things might happen again, if the People must rise up against a new feudalism. Still, mass confiscation is a bludgeon, at-best unreliable. Often, it only leads to a new class of meddling masters, even worse than those who came before.
Fortunately the main rebalancing technique that was used, just after the revolution was far gentler and less socialistic. Across the 1780s and 1790s, many states passed laws against “primogeniture"... the automatic inheritance of all real property and titles by the eldest son.
That was it. Simple. But it sufficed.
Recall that primogeniture had been a strong tradition, that let aristocratic wealth and power remain concentrated in a few families. Hence, for a generation, American society (through consensus political action) stepped in to severely limit a landowner's right to decide which of his children would receive what. Instead, for a while, the law demanded equal distribution among all offspring.
It sounds meddlesome and anathema to libertarian principles. Yet, without such innovations, America would have started as a true feudal-oligarchy. But thanks to anti-primogeniture laws, within two generations all the remaining giant estates had broken down to fair economic units, without much actual confiscation, by simple division of inheritance among large families.
The result: a win-win situation. Profit motive was retained and wealth continued to be a draw for innovators, yet aristocracy was forestalled. Moreover, having done its job, the solution was then allowed to wither away! Today, by phrasing a will correctly, a man or woman can bequeath to whichever child he or she likes best.
Why do I raise this now? Making this posting so long that hardly anybody will have reached this point anyway?
Because we were blessed, since the era of George Marshall, with an era that featured the flattest social structure in human history, a period without major class conflict, dominated by a highly mobile and empowered middle class. One in which by far a majority of American millionaires were “self-made” through having delivered competitive goods or services or innovations. A time when billionaires left far more to their foundations than to hyper-privileged offspring.
But we need to prepare against the very real possibility that we’re re-entering a more “normal” period of history. One riven by steep cliffs of disparity of and inherited privilege -- tendencies that appear to be rooted in human nature and our genes. The very same trends that ruined free markets and democracy in hundreds of other nations and eras. Precisely the trends that the Enlightenment was invented to resist.
This could be our generation’s time of testing.
Just suppose that it is so, then we have a duty. We must emulate our pragmatic reformer ancestors and avoid the excesses seen in France, Germany, Russia and China and so many other places, where anti-artistocracy uprisings went too fgar. Where they radicalized and then turned monstrous, in their own right. Resisting the tempting allure of class hatred and simplistic ideology, we should recall that nothing good ever came of the hoary and stupid and utterly destructive/insane so-called “left-right political axis.” It has nothing to tell us. Toss it out! (After all, isn’t it... French?)
No. If we find our nation slipping into an age-old human failure mode -- if some fraction of the monied elites... if disloyal capitalists and kleptocratic thieves... are doing the same-old, tiresomely predictable human thing that over-privileged fools have done in most eras -- trying to turn their advantages permanent, into something like feudalism -- that doesn’t automatically make the answer socialism!
Indeed, I doubt very many Democrats -- and certainly not the pragmatists currently running the party -- lean that way, even slightly. After all, Adam Smith would be a Democrat, today.
No, if we do find ourselves in such a crisis, forced to reconsider the fate of class and nation on a basic level, well, there are many details of capitalism that might be revised. But we are Americans. No one ever benefited more from the positive side of markets We can and must do as our ancestors did, when they faced similar problems. Fine-tuning in ways punish the wicked and prevent feudalism while still incentivizing the creative and dynamically inventive! Ways that serve to stimulate new and brighter and better and more competitive/creative markets.
We need to save and care for the baby, even if the bathwater stinks.
Every generation of Americans has had to strike the balance in new ways. We need to gird ourselves with courage, imagination, goodwill, pragmatism, dedication and plenty of good old common sense
--Continue to Suggestion #17: Political matters
(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)