Those who throw up a stop sign before the ill-considered remark, “This nation is a democracy!” tend not to follow with a very helpful qualifier, it seems to me. “No, it’s a democratic republic,” they amend. Well, okay; but the distinction can be almost pedantic. Certainly the risks of democracy do not disappear just because popular will is channeled through a series of narrowing chutes. In some ways, those risks are magnified. How is it that blackguards ranging from Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters to John Cornyn and Lamar Alexander rule their electoral fiefdoms year after year without challenge? Because “elections”, in their case, are mere formalities. “The people” have grown as used to seeing these timeworn names in print and hearing them on local TV as an Irish tenant of two hundred years ago was accustomed to having Lord Clanricarde’s bailiff demand the year’s rent.
In a democracy, “the people” sometimes haul off and make very foolish choices. The classic Hollywood Western features a preeminent example of popular will in action when the concerned townsfolk get liquored up and then storm the jail to lynch Injun Joe. On the other hand, democracies can grow paralyzingly torpid, as I have just suggested. Voters can be hazed and herded into uninquisitive, even fatalistic habits due to the cumulative effects of despair. In recent years, I myself have tried—with mixed success—not to be one of those who just stays home and doesn’t vote. What’s the use? Obamacare versus Romneycare… open border versus a few miles of border wall and skyrocketing numbers of H-1 visas. Why waste gas and stand in line for choices like those?
Communist dictators, of course, draw heavily upon the latter kind of “support” to retain power in their ongoing crusade of megalomania, having exploited the former “lynch mob” kind, usually, to vault into the authoritarian saddle. As has been known since the days of Plato, a tight correlation exists between a riotous mass uprising and the ascendancy of a dictator. Mussolini and Hitler were both put in power by a majority vote; they both stayed in power because the majority saw Stalin’s nihilistic, cutthroat brigades as the lurking alternative.
In the case of our republic, democracy (i.e., a one-man-one-vote selection of local representatives) worked well as long as people enjoyed the freedom to market their talents. We all had a real stake in daily events, and so we formed communities of distinct individuals rather than a restless mob. If you loved to bake cookies and cakes, you could hang a sign before the ground level of your home on Main Street and open the door to customers. If I enjoyed tooling leather, I could hoist my own sign across the street from you and strew my front room with belts, boots, and baggage. You and I, and all our neighbors up and down Main Street, didn’t need government at any level to do a whole lot for us. We needed police to keep thieves from breaking our windows at night and snitching our cash. We needed garbage collectors to keep litter and refuse from piling up noxiously. We didn’t mind paying a small tax for such services. Just as we gave value for the prices we sought from customers, so we willingly paid the costs of security and stability.
It’s been said that industrialization, soon accelerating into high-tech uniformity, tragically undermined this pastoral idyll. I’ve said it myself several times in the past. On those occasions, I’m afraid I may have oversimplified. Yes, the Industrial Age wreaked havoc on quaint rural communities: witness Oliver Goldsmith’s long poetic indictment, “The Ruined Village”. In the British Isles, the Enclosure (which Thomas More’s Utopia had roundly condemned early on) forced crofters into congested cities as monied interests sought to turn acreage to greater profit. Similar imbalances resulted on our side of the pond, though less plainly (at first) an opposition of landlord to tenant or of robber baron to factory worker. Railroads and canals determined how quickly farm produce could reach lucrative urban markets. More remote locations tended to struggle unless a new industry (mining, smelting, railheading cattle, etc.) could reanimate the not-quite-self-sustaining township; and such transformation, of course, would have turned any small-town economy on its ear.
For a while, the agricultural South offered a fairly coherent contrast to the industrial North… but even though Spartanburg and Athens weren’t buzzing with steam engines and telegraphs in 1850, the cost of doing a more native kind of transaction had soared. The influence of Yankee ingenuity and industry did not remain up-river. Items that required artificial processing were seldom local products, and grew pricey. Class distinctions were magnified by a more complex marketplace. Many of the largest plantations, for instance—with their huge rosters of slaves—were founded by Northern transplants who had shifted their wealth to exploit cheap land down South. The generator of this inequity was the protectionist tariffs demanded by the industrial North to favor its infant enterprises, whose captains as yet had far less interest in exporting than in staving off competitive imports. The little-attended consequence was diminished receptivity in foreign markets to the relatively unprocessed riches of the South—as well as, paradoxically, higher prices on manufactures now shipped from Ohio and Indiana rather than Europe. (Interstate freighting expenses often exceeded those of foreign importation.) Our Civil War, frankly, rooted much more deeply in such disruption of local harmony than it did in slavery (though to say as much is to contradict “public school mythology”).
Though I lay no pretensions to being an economist and have sketched out a complex historical situation very crudely above, I’ve seen the effects of national trends in industry and technology on Southern landscapes with my own eyes, over and over. No, I wasn’t personally present to observe the post-war degradation of early Southern townships: vibrant communities once sustained by small farmers (few of whom had owned more than two or three slaves, if any) that collapsed into “mill villages” of helots—wage slaves white and black—ruled by one or two elite families. Yet I have lived and worked in and around many such mill towns. Most of them, significantly, had already shut down their special industry by the time I arrived, their economy having been undermined a second or third time by interests with deep pockets that chose to move plants (now to Mexico or China). I could usually discern just enough lingering ancient history to appreciate what had been lost from long, long ago: congenial lanes of tiny shops catering to farmers who might visit town twice a week—on market day and Sunday. A smattering of these, most boarded up, hadn’t been worth the cost of razing when the carpet mill or the meat-packing plant came to gobble up 60 percent of the workforce at a paltry, unstable wage.
The moral of the story? That macro-economic movements can topple the intricately balanced, serenely purring micro-economies of peaceful communities in a million ways… well, let’s call it a dozen. A great stone plunging into a lake can capsize a small boat along the far shore in mere ripples. This phenomenon, indeed, continues to be repeated sometimes as once-coherent settlements struggle to revive after each dousing under the hand of external exploitation; and every revival, it seems to me, is a little less convincing, a little closer to final, irresistible lapse into the swamp.
As a child in post-war Texas (post-World War Two: I was alive for some of the Eisenhower decade), I remember a Fort Worth where we could easily, quickly drive to the zoo or Will Rogers Coliseum or Safeway on Camp Bowie or Carswell Air Force Base. That day is gone forever. I can recall, too, an Austin where my grandparents could walk me from their home on West 14th and San Antonio to the Toy Palace (just beyond the Austin School of Beauty), thence another couple of blocks to the capitol grounds, and perhaps from there to Lamme’s Candies and a movie theater (not to mention innumerable haberdasheries and jewelers) up Congress Avenue. All gone now… except for Lamme’s (which may or may not still occupy that corner across from the Capitol—but the patented praline pecan formula sells very well on Amazon).
Why did those streets of individuals, tending their fathers’ businesses or starting their own, yield to lofty bank buildings, parking decks, and international franchises? Not because of the Internet: the reference points of my childhood had vaporized by about 1970 in downtown Austin, and probably before that in greater Fort Worth. Why?
Because of zoning laws. Because of city taxes. Because of all that local government was now “doing for” every resident over and beyond mere policing and cleaning (duties which, indeed, were increasingly neglected). Because of state and federal regulations, as well, that would have required small operators to supply wheel-chair access, multiple exits in case of fire, a minimum wage, insurance for employees… not to mention the exploding urgency of being covered against all varieties of lawsuit, imaginable and unimaginable. Would your grandma baking cookies for her little storefront on Broken Antler’s Main Street ever have dreamed that she might be sued for not creating “gay” wedding cakes, or perhaps (as happened lately to a decades-old German bakery) for applying chocolate-icing smiles to her macaroons in a way that reminded someone of “black face”?
Do you see the pattern? It took me years to make it out—and we can hardly blame our children, who’ve lived so much less of life than we and have been water-boarded in so much more “education” of such polemical furor, for not suspecting it. Capitalism, it turns out, doesn’t grow from a tadpole to a trout to an all-devouring, self-devouring Loch Ness Monster. No. Prepare thyself. Capitalism eventually morphs into Nanny State socialism; socialism is the torpid, horrid final phase of capitalism. Marx’s dysfunctional utopia (a.k.a. dystopia) is not the new day that dawns over a hellish night of capitalist tycoons slaughtering each other: it is the long, pitch-black sleep that receives capitalism’s greedy, suicidal dusk. Big businesses drive small businesses under by banning your bakery from your residence, by condemning my leather work for employing tools too sharp for OSHA standards, by fining Peter’s Tax Service for not having wheelchair access, by shutting down Paul’s casual for-cash computer repairs because the kid didn’t get an EIN. Big business loves big government. Bill Gates loves it when federal bureaucracy mandates Microsoft programs for use in the public school system. Jeff Bezos loves it when Homeland Security elects to incorporate Amazon’s network for its binges of information-gathering. What CEO of what mega-corporation wouldn’t want to be locked into a long-term contract with a national government whose audience is captive?
But what has this late-stage capitalist empire-building to do with free enterprise? It has everything to do with a micro-managing Big Brother state that will require all to have flu shots (happy pharmaceutical companies!) paid for by mandatory insurance (happy, happy insurers!). It has nothing whatever to do with freedom: with consumer options, with rewarded innovation, with competitive market forces, with daring maverick start-ups. It’s the very antithesis of our pioneer tradition and our individualist ethic. It’s what makes the corporate elite and the ruling elite fabulously wealthy out of the same slop-bucket… and, I believe, it’s a major part of what young people see when they claim to hate capitalism. What they really hate is socialism operating covertly through final-stage capitalism—which may, alas, be the same thing.
We need to recognize, at least, that the two are close enough to the same thing—the Loch Ness Monster’s ravenous, filthy teeth and his stinging, excreting tail—as to justify our going on high alert. Trust neither teeth nor tail. Fight the creature by resisting all government intrusion into our personal lives. Millennials, you know, have a strong libertarian streak. We tend to associate their “lawless” streak with a craving for free weed… but consider, for that matter, just how well our avuncular government is policing the flow of marijuana right now, and extrapolate the effects to the fully legal, hyper-regulated mega-industry that Bernie Sanders longs to create. A Vietnam War’s worth of our children die each year now of drugs smuggled in by Mexican cartels whose toxic impurities result from their manufacture in China. And our federal government… is not securing the border, is condoning “sanctuary cities” through insistent inaction, and is deploring Donald Trump’s (periodic and inconsistent) efforts to minimize our dependency on Chinese products. The open border supplies Big State capitalists with an limitless stock of slave labor, Chinese “interdependency” supplies them with limitless markets for their gadgets and gismos, and the presence of illegal residents by the million supplies them with assured electoral victories in the future for their congressional stooges.
What’s not to love about such capitalism?
Our kids just need to learn, somehow, that this stinking cesspool of the soul is not merely the look of capitalism without make-up: it’s also the carefully concealed face—the Janus/Judas flip-side visage—of socialism. We older types need to learn that, too. After all, if we’ve had longer to ferret out the truth, we’ve also been exposed much longer to the pious lies concealing it.
(See my video introduction to a series of forthcoming talks about libertarian alternatives at this YouTube location.)