Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Western Individualism and an Ordered Society

For me, one of the really big historical questions is this one:

How has the West succeeded in liberating the energies of the individual without causing social chaos?

I'm still reading Freedom Just Around the Corner, and McDougall deals with this question within an American context, so I'll supply a few relevant passages to mull over. The first passage raises the question, albeit obscurely cloaked in the garments of national survival for the liberated American colonies -- no longer colonies, of course, but 13 free and independent states united in an imperfect union under the Articles of Confederation and in need of a more powerful central authority:

The chances [of granting any power to a central authority in the absence of war] were slim unless the states and people could be scared, bribed, bullied, duped -- or persuaded -- into believing their local liberties and private pursuits of happiness required a national government. But that was only the prelude to two harder tasks. The first was to design a national government that did not repress and indeed harnessed the raw human nature of a free people. The second was to wrap that naked statue of wrestling interests in such resplendent rhetorical raiment that Americans could feel good about doing well, indeed make their nationhood a sort of religion. The British and French could not imagine such a thing. To them raw human nature was the solvent of order. That is why they concluded from America's sloppy war effort these "United States" could not long survive. If instead they had asked how Americans managed to win despite their untidy behavior, the truth of [Edmund] Burke's lesson to Parliament might have sunk in. A people so loving of liberty, steeped in religion, rife with smart lawyers, and "full of chicane" [cf. 230-231] would figure out how to make even vice the servant of virtue. (278-279)

McDougall looks to the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment's views about human nature in the American construction of a system that would place vice at the service of virtue:

[T]he Scottish savants arrived at truths eluding most of their peers in Europe. They saw human beings as a volatile mixture of reason and passion. They observed how men and women both made history and were made by it. They learned to temper dreams of what humanity might become with an appreciation of the immutability of human nature. They looked at themselves and wild Highlanders alike, admitting even the most erudite scholar could err and even an ignorant herdsman grasp truth. They became, in short, consummate realists who imagined no stylized states of nature or utopias crafted by man. They believed instead in what [the philosopher Thomas] Reid called common sense: the innate power common to all human beings to apprehend reality through the senses, mind, intuition, and conscience and then exploit that grip on reality to advance what [Francis] Hutcheson called the pursuit of happiness. A perfect society was impossible, but common sense taught that the least bad society was one that freed each person's passion for improvement and so made possible a measure of freedom and progress for all. (281-282)

That "least bad society" was one of divided, balanced powers, as the American 'founding father' Alexander Hamilton learned from experience, reflection, and his reading of that Scottish philosopher David Hume:

In a series of 1781 articles written under the nom de plume [pen name] "The Continentalist," Hamilton seized on Hume's notion of "divided sovereignty." Before 1776 the British crown and Parliament had mocked the colonies' protests [for their own lawmaking, self-governing authority within the larger British system] on the grounds that divided sovereignty was a contradiction in terms. But Hamilton saw what the colonists wanted then -- local representative government within an empire led by a strong executive -- was exactly what the thirteen states needed now if they were to survive. Yes, the states were sovereign in a sense, but would soon lose their freedom unless a strong "common sovereignty" acted on behalf of them all. Nor was there any contradiction in that because Congress and the states alike derived their authority from the people. Finally, Hamilton found in Hume and his critics the clue to effective government: do not pretend human nature to be something it's not (that is, forget "republican virtue") and do not attempt to suppress human nature. Rather, fashion government so as to encourage individual greed for money, power, prestige under sturdy legal procedures that do not dictate what people should strive for, but only how they must play the game. Thus did he devise a political counterpart to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Thus did he seek to make corruption creative and -- insofar as a reputation for honesty is an asset in business and politics -- perhaps gnaw away at corruption over time. (285)

In short, America is a utopian experiment in the self-rule of free individuals founded upon conservative principles about the dangers of an immutably selfish, power-hungry human nature.

And that's why America works.


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At 8:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

More Blogger Vultures?!

Or should I call them "Blogger Buggerers" -- they come here 'raping to reap' with their ramrod recommendations.

Well, you reap what you sow. May septillions of spam overload your server.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Greg, thanks for the kind words, but actually, I am an American . . . well, I'm from Arkansas if that counts.

The smartness of my post is due more to the insights borrowed from Walter McDougall than to anything that I've said. If you liked this post, you'd love McDougall's book.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see that the Blogger Buggerers are taking over. From now on, I'll see if I can delete this unwanted spam.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Hypersonic said...

It was interesting that you reffered to the "Continentalist" movement in Scotland and drew a kind of parallel with the nascent North American Union. I think the closest analogy to how the Americn "colony" was at the time you mentioned: it's state and disunity, clearly echoes the Scots and their eternal struggle to unite behind one person or ideal to maintain or regain their seperation from the United Kingdom. Forever chafing at the bit placed by the English monarchy. Unfortunately, unlike the Americans, they were never able to do that. Clan interests and internal power struggles held them back, and the English used that to great effect.

The sand is now out of the computer by the way, but it is still undergoing tests to determine if any serious damage has been done, and I only had it fifteen days dammit!

p.s. I never get spammers on my blog. I think that there is some kind of spam protection on blogger. I 'll look it up and get back to you.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I tend to think the jury's out on the question of individualism and social chaos. Especially in America, we've been blessed with a lot of open physical space, which has allowed our society to buzz and bump while doing little harm to itself. I think, though, that our crowded urban centers are indicative of what can go wrong when individualism is unchecked by other values and virtues. Overcrowding, especially on the American coasts, will be a true test of the sturdiness of our ideals and social structure.

I'm not saying that Asian megalopolises represent the ideal alternative: while a place like Seoul might be more "orderly" in terms of lower violent crime rates than a city like New York, East Asian social values like conformism are also pretty stifling. I don't know what an American solution to the problem of overcrowding might be, but I'll trust that we're clever enough to figure out something.


At 3:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, if I were writing a full essay, I'd add a lot on the necessity for what Robert Bellah calls the "habits of the heart."

A society governed only by self-interest is not one where I'd want to live, but Americans are not really "rugged individualists." We're individualists, sure, but we're also volunteerists who contribute more personal time and private money to charities than any other nation on earth (or so I've read), and we're usually ready to cooperate for the greater good.

A lot of Europeans look at America, see only the marketplace, and assume that American life is a Darwinian struggle for survival, but I never found it so. It's tough, but most people have networks, churches, or communities of some sort to support them.

But in building a sociopolitical system that can function well, we need to structure it using a separation and balance of powers because people can -- and will -- abuse power if given the opportunity.


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