The Consequences of History

2006-02-16

I admit it: I'm a recovering Randian and libertarian. Starting in my early teens I was deeply enamored of the intellectual purity of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and the libertarian vision of a fully voluntary society. Then a funny thing happened on the way to utopia: I started to read history. In particular, spurred by Jim Bennett's Anglosphere Primer (this was several years before his book was published), I read everything in his bibliography and many of the works referred to in those books as well. Soon I began to see significant patterns among the multi-colored details of history where previously I had viewed the world in black and white. In particular, I began to question Randian and libertarian premises about the nature of American society. Where the libertarians see America as radically different from all other societies, the Anglosphere perspective enables one to see deep continuities between the American experience and the earlier British experience (as well as the other plantings of Anglospheric culture in the "Second Anglosphere" of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and the emerging "Third Anglosphere" of India, Singapore, etc.).

In an essay entitled Ayn Rand and American Culture (published by the UK's Libertarian Alliance in 2004), I summarized my findings as follows:

Rand thought that America was profoundly different from all other nations. While she did not explicate her reasons for thinking so, they seem to be connected with her view that America is the only nation in history to have been founded on the basis of ideas (specifically, an Aristotelian philosophical base) rather than to have evolved through the accidents of history. Yet America was not founded as an Aristotelian experiment: the original 13 states were founded as English colonies, usually by religious dissenters seeking freedom for their beliefs (but no one else's). In broad brush, there were four main emigrations from England to America before the Revolution:

  1. Dissenting Puritans from East Anglia to New England (1629-1641)
  2. Low-Church Anglican Cavaliers and indentured servants from Wessex and Sussex to Virginia and the Carolinas (1642-1675)
  3. Quakers from the North Midlands to the Delaware Valley (1675-1725)
  4. Presbyterians from Ulster and the Scottish-English Borderland to the Appalachian backcountry (1717-1775)

In Albion's Seed, David Hackett Fischer argues persuasively that these four comprise the founding cultures of America, and that American culture did not emerge full-grown from the head of Zeus or develop without precedent through the "frontier experience", but instead that American culture can best be explained through reference to the cultures of its founding residents (Fischer 1989). Part of what makes his exploration so persuasive is the detailed information he provides regarding each culture's social and regional origins, religious beliefs and behaviors, speech patterns, architectural styles, family ways, marriage customs, gender relations, attitudes toward elders and toward death, educational approaches, food and dress customs, ways of working and of recreation, use of time, attitudes toward wealth, division of labor, societal orders and social rankings, patterns of settlement, and relations of power -- culminating in each culture's ideas about freedom and liberty. These details are fascinating and telling, providing connections both back to the cultures of four distinct English regions (which in turn had deeper roots in the migrations to the British Isles of the Angles, Saxons, Scandanavian Vikings, and Celts, respectively), and forward to our own times and to the regional and cultural tensions evident throughout American history.

Consider, for example, child-rearing. The intent in Puritan New England was to break the child's will for the sake of social and religious conformity in small-town democracies; the intent in Cavalier Virginia was to bend the child's will back upon itself for the sake of a kind of Stoical leadership in the "Squirearchy" of the coastal plantations; the intent in Quaker Delaware was to enlighten the will for the sake of personal and familial fulfillment in strong meetinghouse communities; the intent in the mainly Presbyterian backcountry was to build up the will for the sake of a fierce, stubborn independence in the shifting, warlike culture on the frontier between civilization and chaos.

These founding folkways, and much else besides, led to quite distinct, and often diametrically opposed, ideas about liberty. Fischer calls the New England idea "ordered liberty" (freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England. The Virginia idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "Slaveocracy" that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington. The Quaker idea was that of "reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment. The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.

These ideas about liberty, which find their roots in their respective cultures in England, live on to this day in American life -- even in so small and seemingly monolithic a subculture as the libertarian movement. Most economic libertarians seem to be inheritors of the East Anglian commercial culture that took root in New England: respectful of the rule of law, acknowledging a need for some forms of social order deriving from custom and community consensus, relatively unconcerned about the absolute liberty of the individual. Other libertarians, often especially those of a Randian persuasion, value liberty mainly for the sake of those at the top of the "pyramid of ability"; while none of them today would attempt to justify slavery or indentured servitude, they seem not to care about the effects of freedom on those with lower levels of talent, intelligence, or attainment. Then there is a certain kind of pacifistic libertarian, who values a studied neutrality in all wordly concerns (quite similar to that of the early Quakers). Finally, the anarchist edge of the libertarian movement often cleaves to the frontier concept of natural liberty, and proudly chafes at any least restriction on the right of the individual to do as he (or she) pleases.

The Objectivist and libertarian movements, if such they can even be called at this point, provided much of the fuel for the turn away from ever-greater statism in the late twentieth century. Yet they are mostly spent forces now. Part of the reason is that they are hopelessly abstract and philosophical, divorced from the reality of human cultures. Both Objectivism and libertarian cleave to a kind of intellectual determinism, which holds that a dedicated movement can change the world by spreading the right ideas. Those movements have failed in practice because one can't "change the culture" or help move the world in a more positive direction if one does not understand the true basis of culture. This is where the Anglospherist perspective comes in, by helping those who value freedom and liberty understand how the values and practices that are bound up with those ideas emerged historically and manifest themselves today in the culture we happen to know best: that of the English-speaking peoples (there never was a libertarian movement in China or Russia or the Islamic world or even continental Europe -- it was almost exclusively an American phenomenon with offshoots in other parts of the Anglosphere). While I don't doubt that "ideas have consequences", the challenge for those of a libertarian persuasion is to figure out the "cash value" of ideas once they pull back from the precipice of intellectual determinism and realize that history, too, has consequences. I don't claim to have all the answers (that's another benefit of studying history), but I do think that in many ways the Anglospherist approach will be the most productive vein for practical libertarians to mine in the coming years.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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