Blog 66. America’s Unreal Ideals

Among industrial nations, America is unusual, perhaps totally unique.  So says political scientist John Kindgon in his small book, America the Unusual.   Kingdon says American governance, and more important, the American sense of government, is different from that of other western democracies.  It seems we aren’t just another British colony.
Kingdon’s thesis is that America’s three independent branches of government were intentionally created to be inefficient and mutually obstructive, thus limiting the government’s ability to control people.  The American ideology was formed by the self-selecting process of those who came here from Europe, seeking opportunity, escaping from authority, and wanting freedom of the individual.  Kingdon concludes the result is a set of cultural ideals of freedom, equal opportunity, and minimal government, that is, individualism.  These terms appear in political speeches; to question them would be to lose an election.
As simple and as beautiful as these ideals are, I see a serious difficulty in governing by them.  Or in even claiming to govern by them.  Today’s society is not the agrarian collection of farmers and tradesmen of 1776 with an open frontier for anyone having a gun and fortitude.  These ideals are myths, displaced from the reality of the society today.
As a society with hundreds of millions of people, we don’t have the freedom of a bucolic Eden.  Eden was not densely populated.  In the U.S. as elsewhere in the world, what one person does affects the others.  Thus, any society has to have rules, written and unwritten.  Your life is governed by rules, both the written laws and the cultural behavior you learned as a child, even down to where you place the fork on a proper dinner table.
The ideal is equal opportunity.  But the kid who is born to a single parent in a poor neighborhood with controlling gangs does no have the same opportunity as a kid from the middle class, and the middle class kid does not have the same opportunity as one from the top ten percent.  The U.S. has extreme income disparity in comparison with other industrial countries.  I suggest that unequal opportunity causes much of the income disparity, and that income disparity generates inequality in opportunity, which in turn generates more income disparity.  That’s a positive feedback loop, which is unstable.
Limited government
In the complex world where information, goods, services, and influences move across all boundaries, minimal government  would engender a barbaric jungle.  The tax code, the regulations on traffic and property, the licensing, labeling, and the subsidies are often structured more for particular interests than for the general welfare, but they create order.  Government is far from limited. and it makes no sense to pretend that it is or could be small.
So what?
It isn’t the myths that are dangerous.  It’s our political refusal to acknowledge reality.  Sixty years ago, historian Crane Brinton said the strength of a society does not depend on its ideals or on its reality; rather, the weakness of a society depends on the size of the gap between the two.  I interpreted the recent protests and riots in Ferguson (MO), New York, and California as indicating a frustration growing from the gap between the real and the ideal.
And do what?
Protests and riots are emergent behaviors of the complex system that is society.  The behavior of a complex system is best changed by adjusting its rules, rather than by applying force against the particular unwanted behavior.  To reduce oscillations in the stock market you might better regulate trading than to close the market after any large excursion.  You reduce traffic jams by regulating traffic, not by adding more police cars.  Unfortunately, such regulatory actions are contrary to the ideals of unrestricted freedom, unhampered opportunity, and limited government.  To be effective, regulations must not grow to meaningless bureaucratic impositions.  Good regulation requires judgement, a word some people might regard as contrary to freedom.  Well, without reasoned judgement, you don’t have freedom anyway.
Imposition of rules in the absence of judgement leads to revolution, not evolution, and in revolution nothing is safe.  Remember the ideals of the French revolution—”Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”—proclaimed while ignoring reason and reality.

One thought on “Blog 66. America’s Unreal Ideals

  1. Joyce Carlson ·

    Seemingly so simple and easy to read, but there are some big concepts in here that I’ll have to think about.
    I see that what you’ve been writing is important and accumulating and will give me ultimately a feeling for complex systems. You’re sneaking it in on me and I thank you for that.

Comments are closed.