Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Unusual Society

Benjamin Martin: May I sit with you?
Charlotte Selton: It's a free country. Or at least it will be.
--The Patriot

In 1776 two ideas built on previously percolating thought were published that shaped the future of what became the United States. Adam Smith published his economic treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Throughout the ages, it was generally assumed that government regulation of economic activity was an absolute must. It was widely believed that economic chaos would result if government did not direct the economy, and that the poor would be especially hard hit without an umbrella supplied by the State.

The dominant economic design in effect in the 1770s was mercantilism. Government regulated economic activity at the most granular level. Price/quantity controls, tariffs, laws prohibiting speculation, no middlemen permitted in commodity trade, taxes, licenses granting monopoly status to the priviledge few, etc.

Much of this intervention was rationalized in the name of helping the poor. Standard of living was pathetic, with average life expectancy in the 20s. It is also important to note that standard of living, particularly near the bottom of social pyramid, had largely been stagnant with little improvement for centuries. Big families were common--in hopes that out of, say 12 children born, a few would survive to advance the family's progress.

Adam Smith concluded that the squalor which had persisted for centuries was caused in large part by the heavy hand of government. Smith posited that general standard of living would advance much more rapidly if government got out of the way, and let the 'invisible hand' of individual buyers and sellers acting in their own best interest drive economic progress.

Stated differently, Smith was suggesting that a primary reason why people remained mired in poverty was government's war on poverty! This was a revolutionary thought at the time which, frankly, remains revolutionary today. In 1776 Smith's work greatly influenced the Framers who were already envisioning a nation where people could pursue their interests unencumbered by the State.

The other idea was published in Jefferson's Declaration the same year. The conceptual basis for Jefferson's work was not exactly new; it had been percolating for more than 100 years via the work of Enlightenment scholars such as John Locke and in pamphlets/writings such as Cato's Letters. As British rule tightened on the colonies in the late 1600s and early 1700s, oppressed colonists became increasingly receptive to the notions of natural law and self-determination. By Jefferson's time, these ideas had been widely diffused in Colonial America.

The ideas that Jefferson wrote into the Declaration, that man's right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness came from nature and not from government, and that people were justified in throwing off governments that trampled on these rights, were radical only that they were published in a document that set the course for a new nation. Locke et al's thoughts were no longer theory. They were being operationalized on a truly revolutionary scale.

By the time the Constitution called the federal government into existence in 1787, these two ideas, one economic and one political, had gripped the hearts and minds of the American people.

Thus was birthed a most unusual society. One where it was envisioned that people would manage their own lives with minimal government intrusion. One in which the powers of centralized government were explicitly limited. One in which the principle of individual liberty trumped collective security.

Such a sight the world had never seen.

1 comment:

dgeorge12358 said...

A sound mind in a sound body, is a short, but full description of a happy state in this World: he that has these two, has little more to wish for; and he that wants either of them, will be little the better for anything else.
~John Locke