The Eclipse of “Old America”

This is the second installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the first of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty.

If you have not read the first installment, “Liberty and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Is Society, as I define It, Impossible? Or, Isn’t This All Rather Romantic?

The answers are “no” and “no.” All that the existence of a society requires is the general observance of the Golden Rule. This is not difficult in relatively small communities.

You will have known such a community if you have ever lived or spent much time in a rural or semi-rural village, or in an urban enclave consisting of persons bound by ethnic or religious affiliation. Everyone may not know everyone else in such a community, but the circles formed by common bonds (family, church, etc.) are interlocking. (And a lot of the community’s members will “know of” almost everyone in the community.)

One result of this kind of living is less anti-social behavior and outright crime, but without a lot of formal rules and regulations or more than a token police presence. (Anonymity not only fosters crime but also rudeness, as is evident in comment threads, e-mail exchanges, and behavior on the highway.) Another result is genuine charity, based on direct knowledge of persons who are in need, or a sense of community with them.

Do such communities know unkindness, conflict, and crime? Of course, but to suggest or demand otherwise is to be deluded or to demand impossible perfection. It should be good enough that such communities — where they still exist — are better places in which to live than the mostly anonymous urban complexes that now dominate America.

The United States, for a very long time, was a polity whose disparate parts cohered, regionally if not nationally, because the experience of living in the kind of small community sketched above was a common one. Long after the majority of Americans came to live in urban complexes, a large fraction of the residents of those complexes had grown up in small communities.

This was Old America — and it was predominant for almost 200 years after America won its independence from Britain. Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

It is now de rigeur to deride the culture of Old America, and to call its constituents greedy, insensitive, hidebound, culturally retrograde, and — above all — intolerant.  But what does that make the proponents and practitioners of the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s (many of whom have long-since risen to positions of prominence and power), of the LGBT counter-culture that is now so active and adamant about its “rights,” and of recently imported cultures that seek dominance rather than assimilation (certain Latins and Muslims, I am looking at you)?

These various counter-culturalists and incomers have not been content to establish their own communities; rather, they have sought to overthrow Old America. Intolerance is their essence. They are not merely reacting to the intolerance that may be directed at them. No, they are intolerant, and militantly so. They seek to destroy what is left of Old America. — and they have enlisted the power of the state in that effort.

Has Old America receded just because its enemies have enlisted the power of the state? Not entirely. There was (and is) also a collective-action phenomenon at work, and it began while Old America was dominant. Americans prospered with the rise of industrialization after the Civil War. But industrialization led to greater productivity in agriculture (thus fewer farm workers per unit of output) while demanding more workers in factories, and thus putting in motion America’s long march toward urban anonymity and away from rural and semi-rural communities. That march led to the New America, where governmental power, geographic displacement, and cultural intermarriage have diluted (and often destroyed) the social norms that bound Old America.

These changes, once put in motion, were bound to continue (unless interrupted by a shock or massive social change) because of path dependence: decisions made in the present are constrained by decisions made in the past. Quite simply, the possibility of quitting the urban scene for rural splendor — however attractive in theory — was closed to most Americans by economic reality, that is, the necessity of making a living and the perceived necessity of doing as well as the urban Joneses. And, worse, the values of Old America simply could not (and cannot) be replicated in New America, given its reliance on governmental power and widespread rejection of the values of Old America.

On that point, I interject a personal note: I have, in my adult life, lived in semi-rural splendor. And I can tell you that it has much to commend it as a way of life, especially as a way of life for one’s children. And I can tell you, also, that living in semi-rural splendor — despite the generally lower cost of living — does require the acceptance of a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by the urban Joneses. Most Americans who recognize and pine for the virtues of rural and semi-rural life, cannot realize those virtues except vicariously on vacation trips or upon retirement, when small towns, small cities, and retirement enclaves beckon.

At any rate, the eclipse of Old America owes much to the bad guys — especially leftist “educators,” so-called intellectuals, and politicians who have conspired with intolerant minorities in the effort to overthrow Old America. But Americans who long for the Old America must also blame themselves and their forbears for its eclipse because of urbanization — a (mostly) voluntary movement. Nothing could demonstrate more starkly the saying that “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

All of the foregoing might lead you to think that I am incurably pessimistic about the possibility of a resurgence of Old America. I am not. For what I have said, up to this point, is merely prologue. For one thing, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Americans still live in rural and semi-rural places. (See the statistics and definitions on this page of Nor has the core of Old America has shrunk; it is relatively smaller than it was in, say, 1900 — but it is absolutely larger. In fact, the number of persons living in a rural place (defined by the Census Bureau as having a population of less than 2,500), grew from 46 million in 1900 to 59 million in 2010. And in 2010, another 30 million persons lived in a so-called urban cluster (a place with a population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000).

Of course, not all of the 59 to 89 million persons represent Old America. But surely a lot of them do; and a lot of urban dwellers long for Old America. Just look at the number of States that are Red and getting Redder, despite predictions of a permanent Democrat (i.e., leftist) majority. Have adherents of Old America been let down by Republicans? Of course they have. Have some adherents of Old America been tempted to join the statist brigade, and sometimes succumbed to temptation? Of course they have. But would Old America prevail, and attract new followers were those who preach its values to hold sway in Washington long enough and securely enough to stay true to those values? Of course it would.

Before I leave this topic, I must address the fallacy, propounded by “liberals” and libertarians, that a return to Old America would mean a return to the bad old days of Jim Crow and subservient women. Such a claim is nothing more than a smear on liberty-lovers. “Liberal” fascists have no shame and will resort to any distortion of truth and logic that might help them to retain their hold on power. Libertarians — I should say, pseudo-libertarians — have proved themselves no better. But they, at least, are powerless.

Would the resurgence of Old America transform America into a society? Of course not. A society, as I have described it, cannot be as extensive as a nation the size of the United States. But the resurgence of Old America would enable societies to flourish again in America, and those societies — with their many common values — would form the backbone of a nation that is far less fragmented and far freer than the America that arose in the 20th century.

The third installment is here; the fourth installment is here.

Related reading:
Arnold Kling, “Enrico Moretti on Mobility,” EconLog, July 28, 2012
Bill Vallicella, “Systematic Deracination,” Maverick Philosopher, August 5, 2012
Russell Nieli, “Religion as a Public-Bonding Fiction,” The Public Discourse, August 9, 2012
John Derbyshire, “Si Jeunesse Svait, Si Viellesse Pouvait,” Taki’s Magazine, August 9, 2012

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?