The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

I was reading more of Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. The latter part of the book is getting more to what personally interests me. He has a detailed discussion about equality, equity, and fairness. This leads him into the issues of private property and the commons.

I’m learning much from this book. It focuses on these ideas, both as discussed by early thinkers and how they have developed over time. One thing I learned was how central the idea of equality was to so many early thinkers. Even before the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes and other more religious thinkers were arguing about equality, what it means and where it originated (and, of course, what became of that original state). Hobbes saw equality in a state of nature with Death as the great equalizer. Others saw it as coming from God.

John Locke made a different argument than Hobbes. He relied on a more religious argument. Schwartz goes into great detail about Lockean rights. He makes it clear that Locke left many gaping holes in his logic. He goes even further in seeing all rights talk as being problematic. It poses questions it can’t answer and makes assumptions it can’t justify. Instead of focusing narrowly on rights,  especially natural rights, some of the early thinking on equality might give us a stronger foundation for understanding the values that will better serve us, in our aspirations for a just and moral society. Equality was always an important concern in Western thought. It’s just that we Americans have come to overlook its importance and forget the role it once played.

I was also thinking more about the cultural angle not covered by Schwartz. Locke grappled with both the issues of rights and equality. I was wondering about his background. Maybe I should read a good biography of him one of these days. The detail of his life that has caught my attention is his having spent time in Netherlands, in order to escape repression back in England. Some have conjectured that he might have been influenced by Spinoza or else by the same atmosphere that helped to shape Spinoza’s thought.

That is an interesting conjecture because of the important role Netherlands played in British history. It was a relatively short distance across the channel from East Anglia. The Puritans also had left England to escape repression, some going to Netherlands. When they returned, many settled in East Anglia. The Puritans then carried a particular tradition of egalitarianism to America. This was the foundation of the regional culture of New England.

Following different pathways of influence, other regional cultures developed quite differently.

“The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame.

“These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism—even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales, American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

“Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support. The Quaker vision of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy.

“But each of these four libertarian traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England’s Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller’s words, “a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind.” Virginia’s cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania’s Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology.

“Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world.”

Fischer, David Hackett (1989-10-19). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) (Kindle Locations 14541-14561). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

See also:

Liberty and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations
by Colin Woodard

Revolution of the Mind
by Jonathan Israel

5 thoughts on “The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

  1. Ultimately, liberty requires a certain degree of knowledge, responsibility, and willingness to change. I fear that there may not be those combination of elements – or at least not enough in a large enough percentage of the population to sustain true democracy.

    Certainly, as it stands, we are economically slaves to the corporate world which has way, way too much power.

    Another problem I think among American right wing libertarians is that blind desire for liberty for the rich and the corporate world has become an end unto itself above all practical considerations.

    • The future of American liberty will be uncertain.

      I don’t see the problem as sustaining true democracy but as creating true democracy. We are still in the process of moving from the ideal to the reality. I have some hope that we are getting closer to the reality. It may seem a slow process and with no guarantees, but more Americans are free and with a franchise than a century ago. That is real progress, not to be dismissed out of hand.

      I see some game changers in the works. There is going to be a major reordering of society that no one will be able to control, not even the ruling elite. Anything could result from that, maybe just as likely fascism as democracy, but still i wouldn’t count democracy out yet.

      Democracy is a young idea in the world. I want to give it a chance before calling it a failure. Many ideological systems took longer to become established and dominant than democracy has so far existed in modern society. I’m more a student of history than a student of politics, and so I take the long view of social development.

      • What kinds of game changers are you thinking?

        Perhaps technology? Or the emergence of generation Y as a major force in politics?

        It would appear that as it stands, the US is taking a few steps … backwards. It’s getting closer to a police state, a surveillance state, while civil liberties are curtailed. Economic freedom is limited for most as are opportunity. Meanwhile there has been a dangerous concentration of wealth and power on top, which wields it to the expense of the rest of society.

        • “What kinds of game changers are you thinking?”

          That is a doozy of a question. I see so much changing in almost every aspect of American society and the larger world. It isn’t one thing, but the aggregate impact of a million factors, influences, trends, and shifts.

          A lot of it has to do with demographics and public opinion, and that for certain is tied up with generational changes, some of them maybe being cyclical. It will also be technological, economic, political, and environmental. The various protest movements worldwide will also play a major part, for Ferguson is greater than just issues of racism and police brutality.

          The changes happening will be immensely disturbing to the status quo. The social order will be challenged at its foundation. This will lead to a backlash from the ruling elite that will almost certainly be violent and oppressive, maybe like nothing before seen in US history. We are going to have a revolution, whether peaceful or violent, probably the latter at least initially.

          But so much will make the social dynamics different. Social media by itself has been a game changer. Right now, the mainstream media is being led by social media and barely can keep up. That is a dynamic that has never before existed. There will be attempts to shut down or control the internet, no doubt about that.

          The general public is beginning to feel desperate. We are close to an uprising in this country. It is a powder keg that wouldn’t require much to light on fire. The American Revolution didn’t require much to get started, but once set in motion something like that is not easily stopped.

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