August 31, 2013


The Genius of American Citizenship (Richard Samuelson, August 29, 2013, Claremont Review of Books)

Joseph Stalin apparently coined the term "American exceptionalism" to denounce the heresy that Marx's universal historical laws would somehow not apply to the United States. Though it's now clear that every nation is an exception to the historical dialectic that was supposed to culminate in the triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the U.S. remains an exceptional nation in other crucial ways. Anyone who becomes an American citizen is fully American, from that day forward. By contrast, a naturalized citizen of France, Japan, or Nigeria can live for decades in his new country, and his family can remain there for generations, yet many of the locals will still think of them as foreigners. To be sure, there is an American culture. When traveling around the world, one can often spot other Americans, and not only because of language; dress, deportment, and music often distinguish us. But when it comes to American nationalism, such things are relatively trivial. In America, politics, not culture, makes the nation. [...]

In 1776 American revolutionaries decided to cease being British subjects in order to become American citizens. That radical step changed not just the allegiance of the colonists, but the nature of that allegiance. Under British law, all persons born on British soil were his majesty's subjects. One could cease being a British subject only with the king's consent.

The revolution represented a movement from subjects to citizens. Subjects, as the term implied, were subject to the laws, possessing rights because the government magnanimously granted them. Similarly, in English law, all real property ultimately belonged to the king. Most property titles were "use-holds," rather than true ownership. Citizens, by contrast, are freemen and equals, possessing rights by nature and binding themselves together, voluntarily, to forge a polity. In American law, we own private property outright.
Until the imperial crisis began in the 1760s, the colonists had been proud to be British subjects, enjoying the "rights of Englishmen," as their birthright. Those rights were, in fact, a practical approximation of the rights of men, but they were understood to be the rights of a particular people as well. Between 1761 and 1776, it became clear to Americans that the British did not respect the rights of Englishmen in America. Sir Francis Bernard, the crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts in the 1760s, held that "the rule that a British subject shall not be bound by laws, or liable to taxes, but what he has consented to by his representatives must be confined to the inhabitants of Great Britain only." His successor, Thomas Hutchinson, insisted that in North America "there must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties." These ideas, put into law, meant that the colonists had to choose between being British subjects and retaining their rights. The Americans chose their rights. As a result, American citizenship would be based upon the rights of men rather than the rights of Englishmen. The penchant for universals, and for the robust discussion of them that has been so long remarkable in American history, was affirmed and established. [...]

If it is true that the political character of American nationhood has made it exceptional, it is worth asking about the implications of that mode of nationalism for American politics, broadly speaking. It seems that a political--as opposed to a cultural, tribal, or historic--nationalism has been the complement of a limited, constitutional republic. That is probably not a coincidence.

Jefferson and Madison made this point with particular clarity in some of their best-known writings. In his First Inaugural Address Jefferson connected "[a] rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land" with "a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." Jefferson noted, as well, the character of the American nation: "possessing a chosen country,...entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them."

What made this regime so good at welcoming immigrants? In part, as we noted earlier, it was because of America's self-understanding as a "voluntary association of individuals," rather than a nation of groups. Such a republic was characterized by the kind of government Jefferson described. Moreover, it would feature a robust civil society. Pondering the temperance movement of the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville was, at first, both amused and baffled.

The first time that I heard in America that one hundred thousand men had publicly promised never to drink alcoholic liquor, I thought it more of a joke than a serious matter.... In the end I came to understand that these hundred thousand Americans, frightened by the progress of drunkenness around them, wanted to support sobriety by their patronage. They were acting in just the same way as some great territorial magnate who dresses very plainly to encourage a contempt of luxury among simple citizens.

Importantly, Tocqueville continued, "one may fancy that if they had lived in France each of these hundred thousand would have made individual representations to the government asking it to supervise all the public houses throughout the realm." Citizens do collectively, in the expansive American private sphere, what subjects ask the government to do for them. Citizens understand the duties that come with the rights they enjoy as men and citizens. Just as it was then the job of private citizens and local associations to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, so too was it the job of private citizens to try to moderate excessive drinking. But if rights are understood as the gift of government to the people, then it is also the duty of government to regulate the use and abuse of those rights. And should our government take over that sphere, it changes the regime fundamentally.
An extensive national government with centralized administrative power is likely to be one dominated by what James Madison termed factions. "By a faction," Madison wrote, "I understand a number of citizens whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." A faction was a group, be it a minority or even a majority, that sought through government to secure its own interest, rather than the good of the community as a whole.

What was the remedy to that problem? "If a faction consists of less than a majority," he noted, "relief is supplied by the republican principle." A minority faction can simply be outvoted. The danger of majority faction, however, was real. That being the case, the best way to prevent majority factions was, he reasoned, an extended republic--"extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." The larger the republic, the more likely it was that all factions would be easily tamed minority factions, seeking but never securing private advantages adverse to the common good.

But what if a majority faction is assembled by gathering together a coalition of minority ones? It seems to be a rule of politics that the more areas of our lives government is directly involved with, the easier it is to assemble such coalitions. That was one reason why so many Jeffersonians, including Madison, opposed most internal improvements. They viewed them as the entering wedge for government support of private interest. Still, there is a difference between a government that supplies actual public goods like roads, canals and the like, and a government that serves the private interests of self-seeking factions.

The Madisonian argument, in short, cuts against "pluralism," the idea that government functions in a democratic republic through relations with competing interest and ideological groups rather than with individuals. The pluralist model assumes out of existence the idea of a true, knowable common good. Instead, it presumes that the common good is the good of the dominant groups in society, which compete for support in a democratic process. Pluralism makes it perfectly reasonable for government to grow and grow, providing more and more support to more and more groups along the way, providing infrastructure for a more or less permanent majority coalition of factions.

When government sees its job as serving or servicing groups, it is likely that the smaller the group, the less it will get from government, as political life becomes a mad scramble of rent-seeking. Down that road lies hyphenated citizenship, as each American relates to the government not as an individual citizen but as a member of one or more factions. Moreover, it points us back toward aristocracy, where the government relates to the leaders of each group, rather than regarding individual citizens as the ultimate boss. It creates an America where "government is the only thing we all belong to," as the Charlotte, North Carolina, video welcoming delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention proclaimed. In that America we do not all belong to the polity as equal citizens, creating together the government by which we secure those public goods that cannot be secured any other way. When government does only a few things, and those things involve genuine public goods, the rent-seeking scramble is likely to be more trouble than it's worth--and when it does take place it is less likely to ruin those who refuse to kowtow to the administrators.

Consider then the idea that one of the best ways to safeguard the health of the Republic is precisely by universalizing the social welfare net.  A system that guarantees access to health care, education, housing, and unemployment and retirement accounts potentially deadens factionalism.  Done via First Way market mechanisms it is potentially self-sustaining.

We all know that's where we're headed and it's what electorates throughout the Anglosphere vote for every election, but the Left persists in battling against capitalist solutions to funding welfare and the Right continues its rearguard action against social welfare itself.  As is generally the case, the People know better.

Posted by at August 31, 2013 10:15 AM

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