How We Got Here: the Debate I

March 6, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

This will be a rather lengthy piece.  It is my intention here to examine the historical underpinnings of what is happening today in the fight between the Right and everyone else.  This will be part one of a two-part essay.  Bear with me, it all does lead somewhere.

The talking heads have been bloviating for decades now about the function of government vis a vis a so-called Welfare State.  The Right claims that having the government “take care of” people is a violation of the American tradition of independence and self-reliance and will sap our resources, both fiscal and moral.  The Left has argued that such government programs are there to protect people who have few resources from the depredations of the wealthy and an economy that fluctuates as a normal element of its functioning and that it is the responsibility of the better-off to aid those who are left without recourse in such a system.

That’s the basics of the debate.  The Right says no, people should look out for themselves.  The Left says many people can’t and it isn’t right to let them starve in the streets.  The Right says it has no desire to see anyone starve in the streets but rejects the idea that others are responsible for the perhaps bad choices of individuals who have been unable to take advantage of an open system.  The Left counters by pointing out the system is not as open as the Right believes and built in to its workings is the inevitability that a certain number of people simply won’t be able to participate.  Even if the Right then agrees, they assert that it is not the job of the State, using tax payer money, to off-set this imbalance.  The Left says it is if people vote for it and even if they don’t there’s a moral imperative involved.  The Right counters that the State is not the instrument for pursuing moral imperatives.

Well.

Let me be up front here—I think the Right has it wrong.  They base their philosophy, if that’s what it is, on an idea of equality that is unsupportable.  In the narrowest sense, they argue that our system is open to the extent that everyone has an equal shot at some measure of success and if they fail it is either because they were lazy, foolish, or unlucky.  The government can functionally do nothing about any of that.

The argument falls apart on its face.  Equality in this country is a principle concerning representation before the State.  The State in this sense is the community as a whole, both public and private.  The ideas that we are not born to a Station in life which determines at the outset how far an individual might go through his or her own efforts.  It was never intended as an assessment of talent or a measure of will or a guarantee of achievement.  It is only a promise of access.  Because people are not equal as individuals.

They aren’t and there’s not much point in arguing about it.  Intelligence, physical attributes, proclivities, all these things vary widely throughout any population group and to argue that, if somehow we could take away all social obstacles, everyone would be exactly the same is absurd.

The Right seems to argue that because this is true, the rest of us have no responsibility for the fundamentally unequal achievements of any one, or group of, individual.   They discount social obstacles.  Not completely, because when an individual rises above a certain level, reaches the precincts of success, and has done so from straitened beginnings, many on the Right like to point to that individual as an exemplar of succeeding in spite of the circumstances of his or her life.  So there is a tacit recognition that social conditions matter, but only as an ennobling aspect to a Horatio Alger story.  The question really is why those conditions keep so many others down, but that, as much as the successful individual’s achievement is credited to personal qualities, is a matter of personal failure, not attributable to anyone else.

Which seems to make success and failure a matter of choice.  Exclusively.  Ergo, the tax payer, through the medium of the State, has no responsibility for such failures.

This can only be true if the assertion of equality is true as an innate quality.

The reality is quite different.  Opportunity is not equally distributed.  It depends on where you are born, where you go to school (if you go to school), who your friends are, your religion, your ethnic group, your gender, your health, the laws in place in your community, the local economics, how much money your parents have, local environmental conditions.  What you are able to do is determined as much if not more by those parts of your life in which you have no say whatsoever as any kind of innate ability, quality of mind, or willful intention.

Yes, there are many examples of individuals born into situations which would seem to guarantee failure who succeed.  They are remarkable and should be recognized.  But the Right has elected to see them as the normative factor rather than the vaster numbers of those from the same background who did not succeed.  Why?  They claim that the exceptional is the nominal and blame the true nominal conditions on personal failure on the part of all those who are not exceptional, then defend a status quo in which no community responsibility is justified to address the conditions which act as both barriers and weights on people left behind by the exceptional.

Why?

One argument put forward is that the tax burden to redress social conditions is onerous and ends up punishing success.  But this argument only has merit if the individual so encumbered has no obligation to the community that allowed his or her success.  This leads us to a further statement, Libertarian in nature, that says personal achievement does, in fact, owe nothing to the community, that simply the decision to act is something unique and the effort to succeed is separate from anything the community may provide or contribute, making the successful entrepreneur, for instance, a completely self-made individual.

If true, then morally the argument is sound.  That individual could claim that what he or she has made has been made entirely apart from the community, that the community then takes advantage of that work and therefore owes the builder, and the builder owes nothing in return.  Certainly not to those who failed to achieve on their own.

This is sophomoric philosophy at best, the credo of selfish people.

By achiever here, I refer to builders—industrialists, bankers, corporate giants, what in an earlier age might have been called Robber Barons.   I characterized this as sophomoric.  It is, in fact, best codified by the writings of Ayn Rand, who wrote some interesting novels and a great deal of philosophical defense of greed.  Rand is a hero to those who wish to see themselves as above it all, apart from the masses, a singular individual with gifts and abilities far beyond those of mortal men…Please note, I have been using the term Right in discussing certain folks, because I genuinely believe that there is a conservative viewpoint that is perfectly valid and important to the political discourse.  We need both voices.  But the voice on the Right of late has not been the voice of conservatism except by accident.  I’ll get back to that, probably in a later post.

The basic argument of autonomy in these instances runs this way: “I took it upon myself to develop, create, and build something which did not exist before and which has been found useful by others.  Had I not built it, it would not exist.  The community did not build it, did not hire me to build it, did not even suggest it.  I built it, therefore I can claim sole authorship and the benefits to be derived from what use the community makes of it morally devolve to me.  Having built it, I offered it to others for a price.  If they did not want it, found it not worthwhile, they had the freedom to ignore it, to not pay me, and I would have had to go elsewhere or do something else for compensation.  I owe them no more than the work itself, for which they compensate me in an arrangement devised to our mutual benefit.  Beyond the price of my services, and the requirement that I provide said service/product at that price, I owe nothing further.”

In this way, the individual entrepreneur justifies his or her anger and displeasure over taxation or other community “interferences” with his or her business.  In this view, the individual and the community are like two separate island-states, negotiating over a specific resource, the one providing it, the other paying for it.  In this scenario, it is absurd for the community island to lay a burden on the individual island for anything not having to do directly with the product being offered, i.e. a widget.

Simple.  Actually, simplistic.  It ignores everything to do with how the entrepreneur reached the point of being able to create the widget and offer it for sale and it ignores everything that happens after the widget becomes part of the daily life of both the community and the individual.  It treats the construction of the business—a notable achievement, not to be undervalued—as an event which occurs in isolation from the world in which it seeks to exist.

Functionally, this description of the entrepreneur is closer to Robinson Crusoe than Bill Gates.  If you go off to a spot of land all by yourself and with your own hands build your home, grow your food, make your own clothes, and take care of your own needs with what is available to hand, then you can make a decent argument that you are the sole creator of your life’s work.  But that requires you to be a bit of hermit and that’s where the similarities break down altogether.

We don’t do anything without the work of other people being involved, to greater or lesser degrees.  But more importantly, we have no possibility of doing something like building a business without work already in place done by thousands if not millions of people we don’t know but on whom we will depend for any kind of success we might desire.  And I am not talking about the simple metric of The Market.

Image by Gunnar3000 at Dreamstime (with permission)

At its most basic, the community has provided the builder with a place and a circumstance in which what has been built has meaning.  The community allows it to exist, makes use of it after its built, probably provides assistance in the building, and then guarantees that you may benefit from what you’ve built in ways that make it worth while.  I’m not talking about money, although that’s part of it.  What good is the most beautiful bridge in the world if no one wants to cross it?  Or there’s nowhere to go once you do cross it?  Without that community, be it a neighborhood, a village, town, city, or country, what Robinson Crusoe might want to build has no meaning other than to himself and even that, probably, not for very long.

The Right seems to be trying to assert the Robinson Crusoe argument of entrepreneurship, as if that community is irrelevant.  More precisely, they act as if everyone in a community is just another Robinson Crusoe, doing their own thing for their own reasons, regardless of any connections to anyone else.  By making the argument that “What I’ve built is mine!  Just like whatever you build is yours!  You have no right to what’s mine!” they are trying to put forward a model of human relations that would make everyone their own little state and everything they do is subject to contract negotiations with everyone else around them.  It reduces responsibility to a matter of terms rather than a dynamic and strips everyone of any moral connection with anyone else.

This is not to claim that individuals cannot be abused and overburdened by the community.  An obverse claim that the individual does nothing and can claim nothing of his or her own has many examples throughout history and can extend so far as to claim that there is no such thing as The Individual.  This is idiocy in the other direction, but I hesitate to say it is to the Left, at least not anymore.

The shifting context of what we label Left or Right can be baffling when the history is examined.  At a time when “conservative” or Right Wing politics rested squarely with The State, Leftist ideology was squarely in support of the individual in opposition to the status quo—which makes the American Revolution appear to be a Leftist event.  Individual freedoms were part of the goal sought by the rebels and the cause for the drafting of the Bill of Rights.   It needs to be remembered that during the Constitutional Convention, a vote of ten to zero defeated a proposal to appoint a committee to draft exactly such a bill.  Federalists opposed specifying individual rights and it emerged that this action became the single largest barrier to ratification.  Federalists maintained that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary because the only powers delegated to the federal government would not threaten liberties.  They further argued that an incomplete Bill of Rights would be dangerous because it would imply the abandonment of liberties not listed. (Hence the inclusion of the Ninth Amendment, which is often troublesome, often ignored.)  Despite their opposition, in order to achieve ratification a promise that the first congress would take up the matter was made.

Most Federalists ran for office in opposition to a Bill of Rights.  The pattern was therefore set early on that the national government tended to be oppressive of individual liberties, even though by the mid 20th Century this was clearly not the case as the federal government became the guarantor of personal freedoms in the face of local violations and oppressions.

However, the Federalist opposition to a Bill of Rights sheds light on another trend in our history that is today manifesting itself mightily, and that is the arrogation of privilege to a select group of self-appointed “true” citizens.  We can see this most clearly in an event that almost toppled President Washington’s image and nearly split the country.  The Whiskey Rebellion is one of the first and most often misunderstood challenges to aggregate authority and underscores everything that followed pertaining to individual liberties versus collective power—but furthermore anchors the trend toward separating out people who “mattered” from those who don’t.

There are two aspects of the whole Colonial/Post Colonial period of American history which most people either pay no attention to or flat know nothing about.  Among those who are acquainted with these events, many misunderstand their meaning or discount that meaning, preferring to talk about the years in between which make up the actual revolution.  Both of these things I’m about to talk about are vital to any understanding of where we come from and why we seem to be where we are today.  Anyone who tells you that events that occurred two hundred plus years ago don’t matter to the present have no real grasp of history.  There’s a reason the Right likes to keep harking back to the Founders and why they so often mischaracterize what happened.

The first event—or really set of events—took place before, during, and after the Seven Years War.  We like to call this war the French and Indian War, making it nicely central to our history, and indeed it was because it led almost inevitably, given the personalities and finances involved, to the revolution.  But in fact is in many respects the first world war.  As far as England and France were concerned, events on the Continent, across the oceans, in the Caribbean, and in the Indian subcontinent were just as important as the North American theater.  This was a contest between them, the two great powers of the day, and the outcome would determine who called the shots for the next several decades.  As it turned out, with a hiccup for the Napoleonic Wars, the winner called the shots for more than a century afterward.

But it began here.  And George Washington, childless father of our country, was right in the thick of it.

Trans Appalachia was a demarcation of considerable interest both to England and to France.  It led to both Kentucky and to the Ohio Valley, regions both countries saw as part of their future.  The only problem, of course, was all the Indians still living there, among them tribes that had already migrated from the east coast to escape the burgeoning population of Europeans and their slaves.  The French, from Canada in the north and New Orleans in the south, already had entree to the interior of North America, but they were small in numbers compared to the British, Scottish, and Irish colonials rapidly building up the coasts from Maine down to the southern end of Georgia.  Florida was claimed by Spain.

The Colonials had their own interests.  Land.  The thing that brought more people here in the 18th Century than anything else was the prospect of cheap land, land an individual could actually own, the cheapest land on the globe, and for all intents and purposes not a king or duke or count in sight to tell the commoners that it couldn’t be theirs.  This is vitally important to everything that follows, unto the present.  At a time when owning land was the privilege of the elites—aristocrats and their immediate supporters—the idea that some peasant from Northumbria or County Cork or anywhere else could own his land and do with it what he wanted was the holy grail.  It was surreal.  It was unheard of at least since the height of the Roman Empire and even then there were conditions.  This is the single biggest attractor of immigration the 18th Century and well into the 19th and the idea of personal ownership, free of any by-your-leave from the local nobleman still drew people from the rest of the world here through a good part of the 20th Century.  Ownership.

For the wealthier colonials whose families had already been here a while, this meant something further—more wealth.  Land speculation companies sprung up like mushrooms after rain before the Seven Years War and resumed after it was over.

The Ohio Company was one of these.  This company had a royal grant to lands in the Ohio Valley, to survey, parcel, and sell to settlers.  The problem was, the French were moving into the area and fomenting discord among the Indians living there against the English settlers.  Washington was appointed Lt. Colonel and put in charge of 300 militia by Virginia to go out and enforce the royal grant on behalf of the Ohio Company.  In the course of the endeavor he had his hat handed to him in the debacle of Fort Necessity and the wars were triggered.

Washington later was part of another land speculation company with interests in the same area.  Many of the Founders had a piece of land speculation companies.  They invested in this land, hired surveyors with the intent of parceling it for sale, and they fully expected to make a lot of money.  Many of them used their public offices and military careers to further these efforts.  There was no illegality in this as the idea of conflict of interest was then nebulous at best.  What was illegal was pursuit of settlement after the Treaty of Paris that ended the conflict.  Britain had treaties with the Indian tribes in the region and the deal was that this land, so coveted by the colonists, was off limits.

Many of these men had a lot of money invested in land deals that were now not going to happen because of a treaty signed between England and France.  Worse still, England intended to tax the colonies for the privilege of “defending” them during the war and, as far as the colonists were concerned, preventing them from pursuing the one thing that made coming to America worth while—getting rich.

Speculation companies continued to be formed, surveyors sent over the mountains, and deals struck despite the law and the more the British tried to enforce the barrier and relieve their debt burden by taxing the colonists.  It might be argued that one (minor, but important) reason Britain was loathe to grant the colonists seats in Parliament was the obvious consequence that these new M.P.s would work to undo the Treaty of Paris so these speculators could reap the profits of their investments.  In any case, it should never be forgotten that while the Founders risked much—in fact, everything—in pursuing independence, one of the things they fought for was the freedom to make money.  And after the revolution, make it they did.

Which brings us to the next event that ties all this together.

The Whiskey Rebellion is often characterized as settlers in western Pennsylvania rising up in arms to protest a tax laid on them by the federal government without their consent.  The tax is characterized as the first internal tax and a tax on a luxury—whiskey.

This misrepresents the entire affair.

In the wake of the revolution, two completely incompatible views of what the new nation should look like emerged and famously fought it out.  What is bandied about as Jeffersonian Republicanism is the one that lost the fight.  Basically, this was the view that America should be a nation of independent stakeholders, largely agrarian, with subsistence economies at work.  The idea was that each family, however it was defined, would own the land, the equipment, and the means to support itself and perhaps produce enough extra to sell at local markets.  Decentralization was key and concentrations of wealth and political power the antithesis.  Jefferson’s “yeoman farmers” were to be the freeborn ideal of this system, which would deny the possibility of powerful central governments through diffusion and the independence of its citizens.  (Interesting such an idea should come from a slaveholding plantation owner.  Still…)

Federalism countered this.  One of its strongest advocates was Alexander Hamilton, who was the brilliant mind behind our economic system, our first treasurer, close adviser to President Washington, and staunch enemy of Thomas Jefferson.  (Interestingly enough, Adams didn’t like Hamilton much, either, and Adams supported Federalism, at least more than the Jeffersonian idea.)

Hamilton from the beginning advocated a strong central government that would not only establish the law of the land but, most significantly, would take on the debt of the states. (This would give us credibility in dealing with foreign banks and potentates, among other things.)  Hamilton wanted a stable currency and he argued—correctly—this was unachievable if every state set its own currency and exchange rates.  That work had to be centralized.  Hamilton wanted a central bank.  Hamilton wanted the infant United States to build its industrial might as quickly as possible because, he argued, we were vulnerable to the depredations of the world at large without the kind of unity of purpose and finance and industry that can only be brought to bear under centralized authority.

To the man in the street (or on the farm), centralized authority was everything they had just finished fighting and bleeding to be rid of.

But the politicking was being done in the well-settled east and businessmen recognized the utility in all these proposals.  The more agrarian south, as usual, disliked much of Hamilton’s plans, but they lacked the votes to carry the day in congress.

The Whiskey Tax was Hamilton’s first venture in large scale nation-building with a view toward subjugating Jefferson’s “yeomanry.”  The Frontier was a problem for Hamilton because it frayed away from control.  People on the frontier set themselves up any way that made sense for them in their location and rarely did these new institutions conform to establish business models in the east, which for Hamilton was the preferred template.  Remember, he wanted to build a strong, unified nation, able to forge cannon, float warships, raise armies, and compete with Europe.  All through the war there had been problems keeping soldiers fed, clothed, and armed and in the army.  Farmers would leave when they felt they needed to tend their steads.  It was difficult getting states to pay up to support the men in the field.  They weren’t plagued by desertions so much as an inability to maintain something to which to remain committed.  Hamilton looked at the more disciplined and usually better-supplied British troops and understood what needed to be in place to duplicate it.  And duplicate it he believed we must just to survive.

Convincing individual freeholders of this necessary was another matter.  What he intended to do, then, was bring them all under control through economics and the best tool for this was a tax.  Or so he thought.  Even in England, internal taxes were difficult, fey things that failed as often as they succeeded.  But for this first one he thought he had one no one could object to.  A tax on a luxury—whiskey.

None of the distillers in the cities of the east objected.  They passed the tax on to their customers and ended up out of pocket nothing.  But in Western Pennsylvania, it was a completely different matter.  There, whiskey was not a luxury.  It was currency.

Here’s what Hamilton did.  He based his tax on capacity, basically a tax on the volume a given still could produce.  That made it simple to estimate.  For a distiller who was in business to bottle whiskey and wholesale it to distributors, this offered little burden, and they sold everything they produced and they produced usually to capacity.

But that was their business.  For a farmer outside Pittsburgh in 1790, whiskey was the way he put aside excess grain production.  For him, that still was a way to offset losses because it was so far from major markets.  Rather than store the grain as harvested and see it rot, he would convert unsold quantities to whiskey, which had no shelf life, and then use it as liquid money.  He sold some retail, sure, but a lot of it was used to pay debts to merchants.  Moreover, it was rare that his still produced to capacity.  To tax him on what his still could produce overlooked the fact that he rarely produced that much and that what production he did have was erratic at best.  So this tax on a so-called luxury was for him a huge imposition.

Hamilton claimed later not to understand their complaint.  He kept telling them, through their representatives, that all they had to do was pass to expense on to their customers.  What he seemed not to understand was that these people were not distillers.  They were subsistence farmers.  This was not a business expense for them, it was an attack on their livelihood at its base.  When the first tax collectors showed up to start assessing and collecting, the uprising began.

Hamilton urged Washington to act and act massively.  Washington raised one of the largest armies to date of Americans, over 13,000, and marched on Pittsburgh.  The rebellion was over before he got there, but Hamilton held trials anyway.  The tax was suspended afterward.

In fact, Hamilton knew very well what he was doing.  He was crushing individual entrepreneurs to establish a pattern in which only those who could afford to play were allowed to play.  It was the first American war on mom-and-pop enterprises.  Hamilton wanted these people under the umbrella of industrial concerns so he could pool the collective resources into the building of his mighty nation.  Taxes structured to benefit a particular model of business and destroy competing forms, especially forms that served exclusively individual, familial, or even village needs, as such forms were inefficient and could be too easily kept from serving the national interest.

These two aspects of colonial and post-colonial America are important to understanding how we got here, today, and what it is the Right is trying to do.  Almost at the outset, this country has tacitly recognized that there are citizens and there is everybody else.  Citizens have money, have power, have the capacity to generate wealth.  Everybody else is, well, everybody else.  The Revolution was fought on the principle of self-determination.  But once the shooting stopped and constitution-building began, it emerged quickly that these Founders were deeply suspicious of democracy, of “the people” and formed a republic instead in which the franchise was limited to white males with property.  Certainly many of the Founders wrote warnings about the growth of corporate power and certainly provisions were built into the Constitution to enable people to fight the encroaching feudalism that might potentially dominate, but it was still there from the beginning—this country was founded for people who wanted to be rich and the rich were the ones everyone expected to call the tune.

What changed everything was the emergence of capitalism as the dominant economic philosophy of the 19th Century.

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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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