February 16, 2006

The Consequences of History

I admit it: I'm a recovering Randian and libertarian. Starting in my early teens I was deeply enamored of the intellectual purity of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and the libertarian vision of a fully voluntary society. Then a funny thing happened on the way to utopia: I started to read history. In particular, spurred by Jim Bennett's Anglosphere Primer (this was several years before his book was published), I read everything in his bibliography and many of the works referred to in those books as well. Soon I began to see significant patterns among the multi-colored details of history where previously I had viewed the world in black and white. In particular, I began to question Randian and libertarian premises about the nature of American society. Where the libertarians see America as radically different from all other societies, the Anglosphere perspective enables one to see deep continuities between the American experience and the earlier British experience (as well as the other plantings of Anglospheric culture in the "Second Anglosphere" of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and the emerging "Third Anglosphere" of India, Singapore, etc.).

In an essay entitled Ayn Rand and American Culture (published by the UK's Libertarian Alliance in 2004), I summarized my findings as follows:

Rand thought that America was profoundly different from all other nations. While she did not explicate her reasons for thinking so, they seem to be connected with her view that America is the only nation in history to have been founded on the basis of ideas (specifically, an Aristotelian philosophical base) rather than to have evolved through the accidents of history. Yet America was not founded as an Aristotelian experiment: the original 13 states were founded as English colonies, usually by religious dissenters seeking freedom for their beliefs (but no one else's). In broad brush, there were four main emigrations from England to America before the Revolution:

  1. Dissenting Puritans from East Anglia to New England (1629-1641)
  2. Low-Church Anglican Cavaliers and indentured servants from Wessex and Sussex to Virginia and the Carolinas (1642-1675)
  3. Quakers from the North Midlands to the Delaware Valley (1675-1725)
  4. Presbyterians from Ulster and the Scottish-English Borderland to the Appalachian backcountry (1717-1775)

In Albion's Seed, David Hackett Fischer argues persuasively that these four comprise the founding cultures of America, and that American culture did not emerge full-grown from the head of Zeus or develop without precedent through the "frontier experience", but instead that American culture can best be explained through reference to the cultures of its founding residents (Fischer 1989). Part of what makes his exploration so persuasive is the detailed information he provides regarding each culture's social and regional origins, religious beliefs and behaviors, speech patterns, architectural styles, family ways, marriage customs, gender relations, attitudes toward elders and toward death, educational approaches, food and dress customs, ways of working and of recreation, use of time, attitudes toward wealth, division of labor, societal orders and social rankings, patterns of settlement, and relations of power -- culminating in each culture's ideas about freedom and liberty. These details are fascinating and telling, providing connections both back to the cultures of four distinct English regions (which in turn had deeper roots in the migrations to the British Isles of the Angles, Saxons, Scandanavian Vikings, and Celts, respectively), and forward to our own times and to the regional and cultural tensions evident throughout American history.

Consider, for example, child-rearing. The intent in Puritan New England was to break the child's will for the sake of social and religious conformity in small-town democracies; the intent in Cavalier Virginia was to bend the child's will back upon itself for the sake of a kind of Stoical leadership in the "Squirearchy" of the coastal plantations; the intent in Quaker Delaware was to enlighten the will for the sake of personal and familial fulfillment in strong meetinghouse communities; the intent in the mainly Presbyterian backcountry was to build up the will for the sake of a fierce, stubborn independence in the shifting, warlike culture on the frontier between civilization and chaos.

These founding folkways, and much else besides, led to quite distinct, and often diametrically opposed, ideas about liberty. Fischer calls the New England idea "ordered liberty" (freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England. The Virginia idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "Slaveocracy" that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington. The Quaker idea was that of "reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment. The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.

These ideas about liberty, which find their roots in their respective cultures in England, live on to this day in American life -- even in so small and seemingly monolithic a subculture as the libertarian movement. Most economic libertarians seem to be inheritors of the East Anglian commercial culture that took root in New England: respectful of the rule of law, acknowledging a need for some forms of social order deriving from custom and community consensus, relatively unconcerned about the absolute liberty of the individual. Other libertarians, often especially those of a Randian persuasion, value liberty mainly for the sake of those at the top of the "pyramid of ability"; while none of them today would attempt to justify slavery or indentured servitude, they seem not to care about the effects of freedom on those with lower levels of talent, intelligence, or attainment. Then there is a certain kind of pacifistic libertarian, who values a studied neutrality in all wordly concerns (quite similar to that of the early Quakers). Finally, the anarchist edge of the libertarian movement often cleaves to the frontier concept of natural liberty, and proudly chafes at any least restriction on the right of the individual to do as he (or she) pleases.

The Objectivist and libertarian movements, if such they can even be called at this point, provided much of the fuel for the turn away from ever-greater statism in the late twentieth century. Yet they are mostly spent forces now. Part of the reason is that they are hopelessly abstract and philosophical, divorced from the reality of human cultures. Both Objectivism and libertarian cleave to a kind of intellectual determinism, which holds that a dedicated movement can change the world by spreading the right ideas. Those movements have failed in practice because one can't "change the culture" or help move the world in a more positive direction if one does not understand the true basis of culture. This is where the Anglospherist perspective comes in, by helping those who value freedom and liberty understand how the values and practices that are bound up with those ideas emerged historically and manifest themselves today in the culture we happen to know best: that of the English-speaking peoples (there never was a libertarian movement in China or Russia or the Islamic world or even continental Europe -- it was almost exclusively an American phenomenon with offshoots in other parts of the Anglosphere). While I don't doubt that "ideas have consequences", the challenge for those of a libertarian persuasion is to figure out the "cash value" of ideas once they pull back from the precipice of intellectual determinism and realize that history, too, has consequences. I don't claim to have all the answers (that's another benefit of studying history), but I do think that in many ways the Anglospherist approach will be the most productive vein for practical libertarians to mine in the coming years.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at February 16, 2006 08:51 PM
Comments

Peter, the Fischerian segmentation of the Libertarian world is positively brilliant and unique.

Posted by: Lex at February 16, 2006 09:18 PM
Rand thought that America was profoundly different from all other nations. While she did not explicate her reasons for thinking so, they seem to be connected with her view that America is the only nation in history to have been founded on the basis of ideas (specifically, an Aristotelian philosophical base) rather than to have evolved through the accidents of history.

Yet nothing you write afterwards contradicts that America is the only existing nation founded upon ideas, which it demonstrably is.

Interesting stuff. I may read it. But on this one thing, Rand was correct in general.

Posted by: rightwingprof at February 17, 2006 03:56 PM

Yet nothing you write afterwards contradicts that America is the only existing nation founded upon ideas, which it demonstrably is.

Well, that depends what you mean by "founded on". To a large extent America was founded by its several seed colonies at the time of settlement, and although two of those (Massachusetts Bay and Pennsylvania) were founded on at least theological ideas -- those of Calvin and Fox, specifically (see Kevin Phillips, The Cousins' War) , the rest were pretty much a natural extension of previous expansions of the English-speaking, Common Law communities of the British Isles (see R.R. Davies, The First English Empire). The American state was justified to the outside world on the intellectual basis of generally-accepted Anglo-American Whig ideologies, but aside from some particulars, this was not really reflected in the Constitution.

The new American state's memetic DNA was almost entirely adapted from British and former colonial practice, both of which were English adaptations of medieval constitutionalism. Common Law and its administrative adjuncts formed the bulk of American political structure, and Blackstone (and more distantly Coke) was the most widely referenced thinker. Certainly we got our practice of judicial review from his advocacy of it. The New Englanders, especially below the level of the Boston elites, referenced the Commonwealth experience more than Lockean theory, and certainly many of the specifics of the Constitution of 1789 were revivals from the Cromwellian constitution (regular census and reapportionment, for example) that the New Englanders had been carrying on their agendas for the past century and longer. part of the inbuilt tension in the Union was the fact that from the start the New Englanders has been playing from the script of 1649, while everybody else had been playing from the script of 1688. There was in fact fairly little in the way of ideas that everybody held in common.

To complicate matters further, by the mid-19th Century some American intellectuals started to see the American revolution in the guise of a 19th century European organic-state nationalist revolution, just as some 20th century marxists tried to color it as a proletarian revolution. But these burden the Founders with ideological baggage that did not even exist at that time.

Founded on ideas? Perhaps it could be said that we later adopted a narrative that liked to think that was the case. As an antidote to the idea of a blood-and-soil organic state, it was probably a preferable myth. But's a myth all the same.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 17, 2006 05:00 PM
Well, that depends what you mean by "founded on"

Well no, since "founded" implies an act of deliberation, and does not include an accidental or "cultural" mix of factors. The only definition of "founded upon" refers to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc., and not an ethnography.

Of course, you can argue that the nation wouldn't have been founded upon these ideas had these groups not immigrated, but that's another issue.

It is no myth. Britain was not founded upon an idea or set of ideas. It makes no difference how much of our legal system may come from Britain; the US set down those ideas as the foundation for the nation (which did not exist before the Revolutionary War).

It is no myth, though it does pain me to side with Ayn Rand.


Posted by: rightwingprof at February 18, 2006 05:35 AM

The ideas evolved in Britain and were a product of British historical experience crossed with Biblical (ie, Hebraic) ideals of equality, freedom, and social justice, which were part of the common European heritage.

America articulated these ideas with genius (Jefferson, Lincoln) and then adopted them explicitly as our founding principles. In Britain they exist as part of an unwritten constitution, ie, tradition.

BTW, Jim Bennet writes exceedingly well on a difficult subject. Speaking as a cross between Pennsylvania and Appalachia (groups 2 and 4) I applaud him with envy.

Posted by: Luke Lea at February 18, 2006 08:48 AM

Sorry, it was Peter Saint-Andre who wrote that piece. Congratulations to him! Everybody writes well here.

Posted by: Luke Lea at February 18, 2006 08:50 AM

Well no, since "founded" implies an act of deliberation, and does not include an accidental or "cultural" mix of factors. The only definition of "founded upon" refers to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc., and not an ethnography.

It would have been a great surprise to the founders of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, or Pennsylvania that they were not founded deliberately or on the basis of ideas. It is far more likely that the militia-men of Lexington and Concord were closer in their thinking and feeling to the theological mission of the "City on a Hill" sermon than to the abstract republicanism articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

It is no myth. Britain was not founded upon an idea or set of ideas.

Well, actually the British state, the United Kingdom, (which is not much older than the American union) was founded on the ideology of the Revolution of 1688, which in turn was based on pretty much the same Whig ideas articulated in the English Bill of rights and later in the Declaration of Independence. The American Founders referenced these ideas and this historical experience repeatedly throughout the War of Independence.

the US set down those ideas as the foundation for the nation (which did not exist before the Revolutionary War).

Well, it didn't exist after the Revolution, either. It's a curious "national" founding in which the very use of the word "nation" was considered controversial and provocative, and was avoided in all official documentation. American society gradually emerged in the form of thirteen self-governing entities, each of which had a distinct version of English-speaking, Common Law-base culture and society. For the first century and a half, they were connected with each other and the outside world through the political framework of the English, and later the British empire. At the Revolution these entities severed the political ties connecting them through London and constructed several different structures to replace the imperial functions. After several tries, the Constitution of 1789 emerged and became the basis for constucting a state. For the first seventy years of that state's existence, there was widespread disagreement as to whether the state also constituted a nation, or was a confederation of nations. Only after the Civil War and the reconciliation movement was the idea of the USA as a nation generally accepted.

The Lockean ideas of the Declaration and the Constitution were important ingredients in the process of creating an American state, an American narrative, and ultimately an American nation. But I think it's wrong to say that without them, America would have never been a nation, or that with them, but absent the deep cultural DNA of English-speaking, Common Law society, American would have emerged as anything like what it is.

Certainly the pre-revolutionary neighbors of Crevecoeur feel to the modern reader as authentically American as those Tocqueville described -- it seems kind of silly to say that they weren't Americans. On the other hand, if we can imagine American idependence delayed fifty years, it's almost certain that its Constitution would have been explicitly Christian, and a lot less Enlightenment than the actual document was. But it's hard to see how it would not have been American.

In my opinion we must see the Revolution and the ideas of the founders the way they themselves did -- as one important event and set of ideas on a continuum of actions, ideas, and values stretching back through the Revolution of 1688, Magna Carta, and the legacy of the pre-Norman proto-representative institutions that Jefferson referenced and that modern research is beginning to revindicate. To over-emphasize the uniqueness of the Founding, or to over-emphasize the role of the particular Whig and Lockean expression of the values of English-speaking society, is to cut us off from the roots of our tradition of freedom. In doing so, we weaken the entire organism of our culture, which is already under grave assaults.

Our culture and its values predated the Revolution. The Revolution created the state, but not the nation. The state ultimately created the nation, and a national narrative as a means of doing so. Ideas played an important part, but not uniquely so.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 18, 2006 01:15 PM

No, Britain existed long before the UK.

There was no United States before the Revolutionary War. Your points about a shared culture are not relevant to the point.

A narrative. So you're a post-modernist? That would explain a great deal.

Posted by: rightwingprof at February 19, 2006 11:00 AM

Rand was right as far as she provided the words and arguments to cut the ties between Protestant Christianity and accretioning socialism. She never understood America as distinct at its core. The bumptious rough and tumble of a free deomcracy conflicted with her views of a class stratified society. The utopian view of a meritocracy conflicted with her definitions of who was worthy to participate. Rand had little tolerance for small voices, small ideas from people with small pedigrees. She was enamored with wealth as are most immigrants. Her failing was in understanding the connection between prosperity and community and the role that religion played in building those communities of trust and accommodation.

Posted by: Andy at February 19, 2006 02:56 PM

No, Britain existed long before the UK.

As a geographic term, but not as a state, and certainly not as a nation. The UK went through a period of growing self-awareness as a shared community in the half-century following Union, in the same way the USA did.

There was no United States before the Revolutionary War. Your points about a shared culture are not relevant to the point.


Since "the United States" is a political construct, your statement is tautologically true. But "Americans" were recognized as such, and seen to have distinct characteristics, before independence. This was also true after independence, and gradually became more so.

A narrative. So you're a post-modernist? That would explain a great deal.

"Narrative" is a useful taxonomic tool. It doesn't imply buying into post-modernism.

The existence of the stars is objective fact. The names of the constellations are narratives people have created about the appearance of stars from Earth, for their own varied purposes. A post-modernist would deny that the stars had any more objective existence than the constellations. But it's also useful to be able to distinguish between the kind of reality the stars have, and the kind of reality the narratives about the stars have. Both are real, but it wouldn't do to confuse the one for the other.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 19, 2006 04:03 PM

A quick question for Bill Bennett: Granting your point that, owing to our common British cultural inheritance, the kind of people we are in America preceeded the events of 1776 and 1789, wouldn't you nevertheless agree that if, by some extralegal turn of events, our Constitution and its attending documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, etc -- were to be either explicitly repudiated or violently overthrown, this would profoundly alter the essence of our identity as a people and a nation? My own feeling is that it most would -- though, I suppose you could argue, the mere fact that some future generation would tolerate such a turn of events might indicate that they had already ceased being Americans in the traditional sense. Your commenst would be appreciated, as well as your thoughts on the problem of cultural transmission: the role of public education, the place of history in the public school curriculum, etc.

Posted by: Luke Lea at February 19, 2006 06:45 PM

Sorry, I meant Jim Bennet. I am getting old and feeble.

Posted by: Luke Lea at February 19, 2006 06:47 PM

wouldn't you nevertheless agree that if, by some extralegal turn of events, our Constitution and its attending documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, etc -- were to be either explicitly repudiated or violently overthrown, this would profoundly alter the essence of our identity as a people and a nation?

Sure -- but that would be not just because it would overthrow the legacy of 1776 and 1789, but in doing so it also overthrows the legacy of 1688, etc. Unless whatever replaced the Constitution was essentially a further development or evolution of 17776/1789, as those events were evolutions of their predecessors. However, your question seems to imply a discontinuous event.

1776, 1789, 1860-65, are all part and parcel of who we are as a nation. There's no way to go back in time and undo them, although looking at Canada gives us some clues in a comparative mode. Nor would I want to, I'm an heir of those events -- but they're not unique, they are part of a much longer history and pattern.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 19, 2006 07:22 PM

So, then, does this pattern automatically re-propagate? Or is there an issue of cultural transmission here beyond what takes place informally in the family, local churces, etc.?

How important is a knowledge of the history of the distinctive features of the Anglosphere? Is it something our children need to learn about in school? How about undergraduates at elite colleges and universities?

You are aware I presume that Americans are famously ignorant of the past. History as a subject (both World and American)is a diminishing part of the curriculum, often missing entirely from both the elementary and undergraduate requirements. Do you consider this a cause of alarm or not? How highly do you rate it? thanks

Posted by: Luke Lea at February 20, 2006 08:29 AM

Well, I think that nothing happens automatically, but that cultures do have momentum. The Anglosphere is fairly robust, since we are a strong civil society and this have a dense network of ties and associations tthat can re-knit social fabric when disrupted.

However, without history, and history well-understood, we are flying blind. I'd love to see history re-established in schools and universities with a long-term, overarcing perspective that draws on recent research and scholarship.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 20, 2006 03:44 PM

"You are aware I presume that Americans are famously ignorant of the past. "

That all depends on which Americans and which past. The military history portion of Command and General Staff College got very tense and confrontational as we edged up to the Civil War era.

Some people's American history starts basically with Ellis Island. For others, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are hardly available as symbols of anything. And probably all of them are unaware that the Navajo are alien and fairly recent immigrants in the Southwest.

Posted by: Jim at February 21, 2006 12:53 PM