Thursday, June 15, 2017

The tyranny of the über-state - and what happens when it breaks down

Fred Reed has a very thought-provoking essay.  Here's a lengthy excerpt.

“The consolidation of the states into one vast empire, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all that preceded it.” Robert E. Lee

The man was perceptive. Amalgamation of the states under a central government has led to exactly the effects foreseen by General Lee.

In, say, 1950, to an appreciable though imperfect extent America resembled a confederacy. Different regions of the America had little contact with each other, and almost no influence over one another. The federal government was small and remote. Interstates did not exist, nor of course the internet, nor even direct long-distance telephone dialing. West Virginia, Alabama, Massachusetts, New York City, Texas, and California had little in common, but little conflict arose since for practical purposes they were almost different countries. They chiefly governed themselves. The  proportion of federal to state law was small.

It is important to note that regional differences were great. In 1964 in rural Virginia, the boys brought shotguns to school during deer season. Nobody shot anybody because it wasn’t in the culture. The culture was uniform, so no one was upset. It is when cultures are mixed, or one rules another, that antagonism comes.  Such shotgun freedom would not have worked in New York City with its variegated and often mutually hostile ethnicities.

Regions differed importantly in degree of freedom, not just in the freedom of local populations to govern themselves but also in individual freedom. It made a large difference in the tenor of life. If in Texas, rural Virginia, or West Virginia you wanted to build an addition to your house, you did. You didn’t need licenses, permits, inspections, union-certified electricians. Speed limits? Largely ignored. Federal requirements for Coast Guard approved flotation devices on your canoe? What the hell kind of crazy idea was that?

. . .

Then came the vast empire, the phenomenal increase in the power and reach of the federal government, which really means the Northeast Corridor. The Supreme Court expanded and expanded and expanded the authority of Washington, New York’s store-front operation. The federals now decided what could be taught in the schools, what religious practices could be permitted, what standards employers could use in hiring, who they had to hire. The media coalesced into a small number of corporations, controlled from New York but with national reach. More recently we have added surveillance of everything by Washington’s intelligence agencies.

Tyranny at home, said said General Lee. Just so. This could happen only with the consolidation of the states into one vast empire.

Tyranny comes easily when those seeking it need only corrupt a single Congress, appoint a single Supreme Court, or control the departments of one executive branch. In a confederation of largely self-governing states, those hungry to domineer would have to suborn fifty congresses. It could not be done. State governments are accessible to the governed. They can be ejected. They are much more likely to be sympathetic to the desires of their constituents since they are of the same culture.

There's more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

There's another aspect to this, one I've seen in action at first hand in South Africa, and (in the opposite sense) in the former Soviet Union.  It's a political and social and cultural phenomenon, but it's rooted in Newton's Third Law of Motion:  'To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction'.  In cultural terms, a government or political philosophy may apply pressure to achieve and maintain a particular effect in society.  When that pressure is removed, the countervailing pressure against it - the 'equal and opposite reaction' - will immediately result in the opposite effect being at least strengthened, if not becoming dominant.

In South Africa, the political and racial philosophy of apartheid decreed that every cultural 'nation' - in particular, African tribes - must be separated from all others, and emphasize its national or tribal identity.  This was taken so far that many tribes were forced into 'homelands', some of which became nominally 'independent'.  The idea, of course, was to prevent the adoption of any overarching Black or African identity - 'divide and rule' in a tribal context.  However, when apartheid collapsed (which was demographically inevitable), the result was a rush to emphasize national unity over any and all divisions of tribe, culture, language, etc.  (Those divisions are very real, illustrated by the fact that to this day, South Africa has no less than eleven official languages:  English, Afrikaans [a Dutch derivative dialect], and nine tribal tongues.)  It was the opposite of apartheid . . . call it an enforced 'togetherheid', if you like.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union emphasized a strong central government under Russian hegemony.  The states that had made up the Russian Empire were forcibly amalgamated into the USSR, their ethnic, cultural and language divisions forcibly dismantled, with the Communist Party demanding and enforcing an overarching Soviet and Marxist-Leninist identity that subsumed all others . . . or so they thought.  However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, those ethnic divisions reasserted themselves.  The enforced union disintegrated, with its component ethnic divisions and former independent states splintering off from the central state as fast and as far as they could.  To this day, Russia is a far smaller entity than the former USSR that it dominated.  It's trying to reassert its political domination, but this is often fiercely resisted by the former Soviet states around it.

In both cases, South Africa and the USSR, we see the 'equal and opposite reaction' in full swing.  In South Africa, the reaction was against the former orthodoxy of separation and towards unity.  In the Soviet Union, the reaction was against the former orthodoxy of unity and towards separation.

Consider Mr. Reed's thesis in the light of those examples.  The USA was, until the mid-20th century, content to muddle along with strong regional identities and cultures and customs, governed with a light and careful hand from the federal hub in Washington.  In the half-century since then, that's been overturned.  The federal government has demanded - and achieved - much greater domination over the states, and imposed cultural norms from its centralized perspective that were (and still are) sometimes diametrically opposed to regional views and norms.  This reached its apogee under the Obama administration, where health care, housing, immigration and refugee resettlement, and many other issues were dictated nationally and imposed willy-nilly.  President Trump is trying to undo some of those aspects, but his administration is also centralist at its core, and may not place a high priority on undoing the federal controls that it's inherited.

I suspect a great deal of the political tensions we're currently experiencing are the fruit of this dichotomy.  Other commenters are noticing it too, although perhaps not equating it with an 'equal and opposite reaction' in political terms.  As David French noted last week:

A civil war results when the desire for unification and domination overrides the desire for separation and self-determination. The American civil war is a classic example. There were grounds for separation — North and South were culturally different on a scale that dwarfs modern divides between red and blue — but the North did not consent. It sought to first unify and then transform the southern states. By contrast, had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom, would England have mobilized in response? No, the U.K. came close to its own national divorce, the dissolution of a union generations older than the American republic.

Here is the core American question. As we continue our own “big sort,” will the desire to separate trump the desire to dominate? Or can we instead choose to tolerate? We’re still quite far from the kind of near-miss that Britain just experienced, and we’re even farther removed from the vicious strife of a true civil war, but the trends are pointing toward continued matching of like with like — and along with that, increasing hostility against communities not like our own. In my Memorial Day column, I asked what I believe to be the key question: “Is there a single significant cultural, political, social, or religious trend that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart?”

I don’t believe a civil-war mentality will save America. There are simply too many differences and too many profound disagreements for one side or the other to exercise true political dominance. Red won’t beat blue in the same way that blue beat gray. Adopt the civil-war mentality and you’ll only hasten a potential divorce. No, absent a presently unforeseen unifying ideology, event, or person, the idea that will save America is one of the oldest ideas of the Republic: federalism.

So long as we protect the “privileges and immunities” of American citizenship, including all of the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights, let California be California and Texas be Texas. De-escalate national politics. Ideas that work in Massachusetts shouldn’t be crammed down the throats of culturally different Tennesseans. Indeed, as our sorting continues, our ability to persuade diminishes. (After all, how can we understand communities we don’t encounter?)

If we seek to preserve our union, we’re left with a choice — try to dominate or learn to tolerate? The effort to dominate is futile, and it will leave us with a permanently embittered population that grows increasingly punitive with each transition of presidential power. There is hope, however, in the quest to tolerate. Our Constitution is built to allow our citizens to govern themselves while protecting individual liberty and providing for the common defense. It’s built to withstand profound differences without asking citizens or states to surrender their strongest convictions. We can either rediscover this federalism, or we may ultimately take a third path — we may choose to separate.

Again, more at the link.

I don't know what the future holds for America, but I'm seriously worried about it in the light of current events and the attitudes they're revealing.  In a way, it's almost a political and cultural form of xenophobia - we're afraid of being dominated by the other, so we're becoming increasingly intolerant of it and its disciples.

I fear we've lost sight of Benjamin Franklin's sage admonition:

"We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."



Anonymous said...

I have no wish for war. I doubt any sane person does, but I am not sure that tolerance is going to win as all who are governed together must consent to be tolerant. The very definition of the word has been so warped and stretched that it hardly resembles its actual meaning at all. Looking around at so many evils that have been allowed to transpire under the banner of tolerance, I am quite certain I do not wish tolerance to win *as it is presently carried out.*

So what do we do when factions demand tolerance from everyone else, but give none of their own--justifying their own intolerance as a virtue and actual tolerance as a vice? How do we solve a problem peaceably when certain factions demand their can be no lines in the sand other than their own? People who seek to take your reputation, your livelihood, and even your life away from you simply because you do not share their opinions.

The idealist in me wishes reason and actual tolerance would win the day, but the realist recognizes that there will be fighting. Whether it is with those who have pushed our nation to the brink of war or within the nation itself remains to be seen. Either way, we as a nation cannot continue long on our current trajectory.

Uncle Lar said...

Here's a highly enlightening and frightening article on the current state of infrastructure in South Africa.
It also points out that a similar effect is starting to take root here in the US.

drjim said...

Thanks for the post, Peter. It ties together and sums up things I've had rattling around in my brain, but wasn't able to accurately form up to a cohesive piece.

My opinion is that we should go back to being a loosely governed collection of states, much as The Founders intended. If you don't like California, move! If you can't stand Texas, get out of there!

JK Brown said...

Make no mistake that if war comes it is going to be an old fashioned religious war. The pietistic "faithful" may be secular in this case, but make no mistake the Marxists, et al, still intend to use the coercion and compulsion of government force to save the heathens even if it kills the heathens for the "faithful' see their salvation dependent upon it. If it comes to war, unless some new development in human history occurs, the only historical way found to beat back religious nut is to kill them until the survivors come to believe their god has forsaken them and the only hope for their faith is "peace" long as they are weak. Classical liberal logic and argument of ideas will not penetrate the religious zeal of a radical pietist.

The American Civil War was driven in large part by the radical Christian pietists west of Boston and in the Ohio and upper Mississippi valleys. These were the 'Damn Yankees" not just everyone from the North. This same ideology became the Progressives of the late 19th century and in the early 20th they split with Evangelicals remaining followers of Christ while many shifted their pietistic zeal in their following of Marx and other secular ideologies.

The difference today is that the modern pietists do not have the morally valid motivation of freeing the slaves so that they would be free to have their own emotional/mystical conversion and relationship with God. Instead their motivation is enslavement and domination of non-believers.

"Briefly, the pietist tends to hold that to be truly religious, a person must experience an emotional conversion; the convert, in what has been called "the baptism of the Holy Spirit", has a direct relationship to God or to Jesus. The liturgical, on the other hand, is interested in either doctrinal belief or the following of prescribed church ritual as the key to salvation.

"Now, it might seem as if the pietistic emphasis on the individual might lead to a political individualism, to the belief that the State may not interfere in each individual's moral choices and actions. In 17th century pietism, it often meant just that. But by the 19th century, unfortunately, such was not the case. Most pietists took the following view: Since we can't gauge an individual's morality by his following rituals or even by his professed adherence to creed, we must watch his actions and see if he is really moral.

"From there the pietists concluded that it was everyone's moral duty to his own salvation to see to it that his fellow men as well as himself are kept out of temptation's path. That is, it was supposed to be the State's business to enforce compulsory morality, to create the proper moral climate for maximizing salvation. In short, instead of an individualist, the pietist now tended to become a pest, a busybody, a moral watchdog for his fellow man, and a compulsory moralist using the State to outlaw "vice" as well as crime."

--Lysander Spooner: Libertarian Pietist, 07/06/2012, Murray N. Rothbard

Quartermaster said...

David French is a misinformed idiot. There is so much in his essay that shows he has little knowledge of the war of Northern Aggression.

From what I've seen, there is no togetherheid in SA. being white can mean your life. There has been a large exist from SA, and anyone with any sense, and has the means to leave, is doing so.

Rolf said...

But if the price of "hanging together" is a near complete loss of freedom in a total surveilance state where tolerance and diversity is required and strictly enforced with zero-tolerance policies and strict conformity, is it worth it?