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