Why We Are United

As the patriotic tunes of July 4 reminded us, America is a highly diverse nation. We’re black, brown, white, red, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or other; we’re originally from Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa as well as North America. Politically, we’re conservative, libertarian, liberal, and populist. Yet, with this great diversity, America retains a unity lacking in much of the world. Moreover, America is unique in being one of the very few nations that has resisted the temptation to race down the Road to Serfdom. Why?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


America, of course, had some brilliant intellectual “parents.” The Founding Fathers were well aware that government tended to grow at the expense of liberty. Accordingly, they crafted a Constitution designed with checks and balances to restrain Leviathan. Other countries have constitutions not unlike the United States; yet, they quickly found themselves saddled with massive government. What is it—or rather given the weakening of these restraints over the last century—what was it about American culture that made us honor Constitutional restraints? Why were we an exception? And, what might we do to regain that status?


To address that question, let me (all too briefly) recount the cultural value schema developed by the late Aaron Wildavsky. Aaron, himself a libertarian, believed that America’s attitude toward government was unique because our political culture was unique. Aaron argued that a society could be viewed as a mix of four cultural types: Individualists, those valuing freedom; Hierarchists, those concerned with structure and order; Egalitarians, those focused on fairness; and Fatalists, those passively accepting whatever happens. As alliances among these groups form and dissolve (and their views on whether government helps or harms their interests shift), the propensity to expand or resist government growth similarly ebbs and flows.


America’s unique ability to resist the growth of government for so many years, Wildavsky argued, reflected an unusual cultural alliance between individualists and egalitarians (think Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine). That alliance checked the centralist tendencies of the hierarchists (think Alexander Hamilton). What made it unique was that it drew together people who valued liberty for different reasons. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine differed, but they were equally skeptical about the wisdom of government advancing their respective concerns. The greater strength of individualism in the United States was important; but the truly unique factor was the egalitarian preference for private rather than state action. (America’s unique reliance on voluntary associations is discussed at some length by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America.)


This limited government alliance began to break down in the late 19th century when the disruptive influences of the Industrial Revolution and the intellectual defection to collectivism seduced many egalitarians away from voluntarism. Voluntarism, it was argued, might have been fine in an earlier age, but the modern world required expanded government programs. Like their European counterparts, American egalitarians began to ally with hierarchists.


America remained a strongly individualist nation, but the loss of egalitarians from the limited government coalition was serious. From the time of the Progressive Era forward, limited government advocates slowly retreated as the new alliance of big government hierarchists and welfare state egalitarians gained power.


If America is to have a future, it is critical that we reestablish the individualist-egalitarian alliance that once restrained Leviathan. That will not be easy. One need is to better communicate our position to egalitarians. Recall: They don’t care what we know, until they know that we care! We must demonstrate where government action has made the world less fair (as well as less free). Some groups are doing exactly that. For example, the Institute of Justice has done a marvelous job of focusing on the racist results of various government policies. Similarly, CEI’s “Death by Regulation” project has shown how FDA regulations, federal fuel efficiency standards, and the EPA’s ban on DDT have not only proven costly to the economy but actually kill. Arguments about cost effectiveness can be useful, but the point about the harm done to people can be much more persuasive with egalitarians. A freer society, most of us believe, is also a fairer society. That was once widely believed. We must ensure that it is again.


You in the younger generation have a particular responsibility for restoring a limited government alliance. Conservatives, libertarians, and voluntary-sector egalitarians should commit themselves that by our nation’s next birthday, we will have strengthened rather than weakened the bounds that once held us together. America remains the best and brightest hope for the future. We must not let that hope wither.