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(The following is a quote posted on Facebook and the exchange that followed it)

“We’re coming to a tipping point… there’s going to be a huge conversation; is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse?” -Aaron Sorkin

DK: Each person in our great country gets to reach for something bigger or not.

SH: We are far too individualistic a society. First, our individual welfare depends heavily on how well developed are our institutions for cooperation and coordination of our efforts. Second, our liberty is a function of our unity and social cohesion, not of our disunity and social incoherence, because government isn’t the only potential agent for depriving one of one’s liberty (or life, or property, or happiness), and it’s absence ensures that other, more diffuse predators will plague everyone incessantly. Third, we are primarily expressions of a historically produced collective consciousness, thinking in languages and with concepts, operating through social institutions and utilizing technologies that we did not individually invent, but rather collectively developed over the course of generations. Our “individuality” is a unique confluence and marginal variation of both genetic and cognitive shared material. We are part of something bigger than us, and as big as it, for it flows through us and we flow through it. Government is not arbitrary; it is one valuable social institutional modality, evolved over millennia, to be refined and utilized in ever more useful and liberating ways.

DK: I grew up in a small MA community that still made decisions during annual town hall meetings. There was a strong sense of community and neighbors took care of neighbors. My grandfather was the town’s tax collector (thirty-five years) and he provided that service evenings and weekends from his home (his day job was being a shop foreman). It was very efficient as were many of the other town services, like fire and police (volunteers). Today in that same town many of these same services are full-time and the town has buildings to house them. Is there better service? Nope. But that’s small town America. My point is the closer the government is to the people the better. Our founders knew this and tried to set up a system that limited federal authority. It does allow more individualism, versus collective authority and remote control. In my opinion collectivism just doesn’t work very well (Russia). I don’t want you or anyone else bossing me around. I’ll take care of myself and do more than my fair share to help others who are in need. Only independence leads to self-actualization. As a former trust officer I saw this with trust babies. Money isn’t everything.

SH: If you’re saying that the disintegration of our communities has been horribly bad for America, and that we would be better off working toward recreating such communities again, I not only agree with you, but it is a topic I write on often, and in very specific ways. When I talk about my ideal social movement (which I do at length, in dozens of essays on my blog, Colorado Confluence), reconstructing a specific, modern form of local community is one of the three components I emphasize.

If your suggestion is that the growth in the federal governmental role in our lives is incompatible with this, or the cause of this, then I couldn’t disagree more. The primary causes of the disintegration of local community have been: 1) increased geographic mobility (and the economic incentives for it), 2) increased options for associating with people remotely (thus decreasing the need to associate with neighbors who are dissimilar to oneself), and 3) the same rise in hyper-individualism that is responsible for our diminished willingness to consider government a tool of collective action and collective welfare.

A sense of community may well have been at its height at precisely the same time that we were most willing to utilize and rely on Government as a tool for taking care of one another: During the Great Depression and the New Deal. This is because the two are more inherently compatible and mutually reinforcing than inherently incompatible and mutually inhibiting.

I agree: The closer government is to the people the better. But that’s not a geographic thing, but rather an emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral thing. First, let me point out why it’s wrong as a geographic assertion, and how our history has been, in one sense, the ongoing discovery of why it’s wrong as a geographic assertion.

At the founding of this county, many (not all) of the Founding Fathers were concerned about the potential tyranny of a more remote government, and took for granted that the more local government was more a thing of the people. In many ways, this was a very nationalistic notion, because they thought of their state as their nation (that’s how we came to change the meaning of the word “state” as we have), and they considered governments that weren’t their own true ”national” government to be imperialistic and foreign.

But our history has been one of successive increases of federal power either to increase the federal protection of individual liberty from more local government (e.g., the abolition of slavery and the 14th amendment, which catalyzed a gradual application of the Bill of Rights to state and local government as well as to federal government; the Civil Rights court federal court holdings, federal legislation, and federal enforcement), or to increase the federal role in facilitating individual liberty by increasing opportunities to thrive economically (e.g., the New Deal, the Great Society).

But a larger role for federal government does not have to be an emotionally or socially remote thing. I feel a personal connection to my two U.S. senators (one more than the other) and several of my state’s congressmen (as well as many in the state legislature and state government). In a different way (i.e., without the benefit of actual, personal interaction), I feel a personal connection to President Obama. And all of us who feel that we are in a shared national community feel that we are also in a shared local community. We tend to be more involved locally as well as nationally. I, for instance, made an effort once to reinvigorate my community, to get my neighbors more involved in our local schools and local businesses, to become more of a community. (Ironically, it is in the strongly Republican/Conservative/Libertarian enclaves such as where I live where local communities are weakest, and in the strongly Democratic neighborhoods where local communities are strongest, suggesting again that the correlation you identified is the inverse of reality.)

“Collectivism,” like “socialism” is an inherently overbroad term, and even more so in the way that it is used by modern conservatives. It is used to simultaneously refer to a set of failed totalitarian states, and to the entire corpus of modern developed predominantly capitalist but politically economic hybrid states that are the most successful economies in the history of the world. Every single modern developed nation, without exception, has the enormous administrative infrastructure that invokes those terms from conservatives, and every single one, without exception, had such an infrastructure in place PRIOR TO participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity (pre-empting an insistence that it is an unhealthy and self-defeating by-product of such wealth). In reality, the political economic form that you insist doesn’t work is the only one that ever has, on the modern scale, and the one you insist is the best imaginable has never actually existed and can never actually work.

(Sure, before the New Deal we had a much smaller federal government, but we were already using it in multiple ways to address social problems, including child labor and anti-trust laws. It only resembled the conservative ideal when we lived in a historical period that did not support any other form, due to the state of the economy and of communications and travel.)

Our founders set up a system that had the potential to articulate with and evolve according to the realities of lived history. The Constitution is brilliantly short and highly general, except in the exact design of the governmental institutions, which remain as they were outlined, with some Constitutional modifications since (such as the elimination of slavery and of their infamous designation as 3/5 of a human being, and the direct election of U.S. senators). Our nation is not some stagnant edifice following nothing more than a blueprint which perfectly predicted and mandated every placement of every brick, but rather an organic articulation of our founding principles and documents with our lived history, creating something that is responsive to both simultaneously.

No, this isn’t the America envisioned by Jefferson and Madison. It is a bit more like the one envisioned by Hamilton and Adams, and, in some ways, not nearly as “collectivist” as the one envisioned by Franklin, who considered all private wealth beyond that necessary to sustain oneself and one’s family to belong “to the public, by whose laws it was created.” But, more importantly, it is the one that the articulation of foundational principles with lived history has created. None of us can read the minds of historical figures, or impute to them with confidence what they would think today, but for everyone who says that Jefferson would be revolted by modern America, I say that it may well be that he would be delighted by it, for the ideals he helped to codify gained fuller and deeper expression, through the unexpected mechanism of a stronger rather than weaker federal government, than he was able to imagine possible. (And it was Jefferson; after all, who insisted that our social institutions have to grow and change with the times, for to fail to do so is to force the man to wear the coat which fit him as a boy.)

Community, like a well-functioning and substantial federal government, is, to some extent, all about us as a community, as a people, limiting one another’s actions and pooling resources for mutual benefit. You may not want a government bossing you around, but I don’t want corporations poisoning my air and water because they can increase the profit margin by not “wasting” money on avoiding doing so. You may not want a government bossing you around, but I want a functioning market economy rather than the undermined and unstable one that occurs in the absence of sufficient governmental regulations to ensure that centralized market actors don’t game markets to their enormous profit and to the public’s enormous, often catastrophic, detriment.

Are there challenges to be met while doing so? Does the resolution of problems create new problems to be resolved? Absolutely. Does that mean that we should rely on the never-adequate system of private charity to confront deeply embedded and horribly unjust poverty and destitution, rather than confront it as a people, through our agency of collective action, our government? Absolutely not.

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  • sblecher:

    Did you get a reply from DK or did you hammer him into the ground? It seems that DK is a thoughtful person, and I would like to see more comments back and forth

  • DK and I have had a continuing exchange, both there and elsewhere. Here’s the remainder of that particular exchange:

    DK: Wow, this is a great deal of information. Thank you for taking the time to respond in such depth. My office is next door to Sen. Bennet’s office and Jerry, Sen Udal’s chief of staff here is someone I just bumped into in the elevator. I know him very well. I try to understand both sides of issues. You know that we are both products of our upbringing and experiences and we will continue to have different views. I worked briefly with the FDIC and saw up close how government beuraracy works. It’s not much different in big corporations, but in time it catches up with them and they shrink and go out of business if they don’t re-invent themselves. The venture capitalists have helped many companies get themselves back on track. There is no such control in government, aside from the will of voters. General terms are always spun to support a bias. Socialism in Sweden has done very well. China has it’s own unique blend of capitalism and communism. Me, I’m happy to live here and appreciate the upward mobility I’ve enjoyed. I still maintain that self-actualization is the key to happiness and that requires an individual taking responsibility. It’s a step you can’t skip. A government often helps, but it can hinder too. You’ll never change my mind on this core principal. I’ve lived long enough in different places to see how true this is. That includes the liberal hotbed of Boston, although in my unbiased opinion, “it’s” more open minded than “Boulder”. For example, you don’t see the same attacks on charities or churches in Boston. It’s more the old fashion blue collar liberal thinking that seems to be slipping away. That’s not to say I don’t have good friends at Harvard. I’m a fiscal conservative who supports the individual’s right to be free of social pressures to conform. It’s fair to say even the government has to pay its bills and collectively we get to prioritize that spending. The majority still rules. You are free to make your pitch for different priorities. It’s the USA.

    SH: Thank you, as well, David. it’s a healthy dialogue, and one which challenges us either to hone our ideas and the expression of them, or to allow them to be smoothed and even transformed on the lathe of human discourse and human history. We are certainly products of our environments, of the context in which our minds were cultivated, but are not only that; we are also capable of enormous growth and transformation, the more we release false certainties and embrace wise uncertainty, filling that healthy void with the products of reason and imagination applied to both precise evidence and the rich narrative of our existence.

    There is no institutional form that is unproblematic. There are differing strengths and weaknesses to be found in governmental and market organizational actors, and the goal is to create checks and balances among them much as we do with our formal branches of government. In both government and private corporations, there is a lathe of evolutionary pressure at work, though they operate on different time scales by different dynamics and to different ends. We should not encumber the effort to participate in spinning that lathe of reason in service to humanity as deftly as possible by presuming too much, or imposing too much oversimplification on how to go about it.

    One mistake is to reduce societies to overbroad terms like “capitalism,” “socialism,” etc. In reality, societies exist in locations in a political economic space defined by multiple axes, and it is the combination of characteristics, and what they in fact produce in terms of desirable or undesirable outcomes, that matters.

    No one is arguing against “self-actualization.” We are debating what shared cognitive landscape, what set of social institutional arrangements, and, more basically, what attitude and approach for continuing to discover and develop an ever-more conducive and robust and fair and sustainable shared cognitive and social institutional landscape, best facilitates and coordinates it.

    “Centrisms” exert a constant pull on us. There is a tendency toward egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and species centrism that is a constant force in human history and human affairs, and constantly challenged by the growth of our consciousness and our enlightened self-interest. The powerful, pernicious meme of “American Exceptionalism” is an expression of such an impulse. It is a classic in-group/out-group attribution bias. And it serves neither ourselves nor our world.

    There is MORE upward social mobility in the Western European social democracies than in the United States, again, as a statistical fact. America rates poorly on many measures. We have often been international aggressors in actions that have been unjust and predatory (one of the classic examples being our assistance in the military coup against the democratically elected and relatively benign Chilean democratic socialist president Salvador Allende, in order to replace him with our brutal and vicious client, Pinochet, who promptly established death squads with which to exterminate his enemies). There are many wonderful things about this country. But our most exceptional quality may well be our unusually high degree of traditional nationalist chauvinism in an era when other developed countries are increasingly shedding it.

    DK: Discourse is important to our survival. It’s really not more harsh these days. it’s never been PC. I lived in Worcester MA for years just up the street from the American Antiquarian Society who housed the pre-revolution papers.

  • sblecher:

    Thanks, Steve. It looks like DK can certainly support his side of the discussion, and that makes me feel a lot better. I think I’ll make a few more comments from time to time

  • Steve, DK is certainly more moderate and rational than the norm, but, after some time interacting with him (more than I’ve reproduced here), I’m starting to doubt his sincerity. He speaks in the form of moderation and civility (which, of course, is great), and holds some legitimately moderate views (such as belief in some social welfare spending and some publoic investment), but he still manages to complete disregard opposing arguments without ever actually addressing them. That last componenet is really essential: Good, productive public discourse has to be something other than talking past one another; it has to be a dynamic exchange in which each side actually responds to the other.

    I just posted another conversation with him: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=176958.

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