Books to read: Jefferson and American virtues (2)

Does the work make the man?  Jefferson thought so.  Can free markets destroy our political freedoms?  Jefferson was sure of it.  Combine these two propositions, and we’ve got trouble.  Americans today work prodigiously at getting and spending; our materialism reaches such heights as to resemble a mystical condition.  Can our morals and our freedom survive?

This is my second post on Jean Yarbrough’s American Virtues:  Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.  The first considered the pursuit of happiness; here I’d like to reflect on corruption.

In Jefferson’s world, farmers make better citizens than bankers or industrialists.  The country is pure, the city sinful; the plowman is frugal, the moneyed man greedy; these are old, widely-held notions, accepted in their day by Aristotle and the Khmer Rouge alike.  I don’t buy it.

Blame my suburban soul, but I can’t see how fighting weevils is more noble or virtuous than, say, building cars or selling insurance.  But there’s a larger point that often gets dismissed along with Jefferson’s agricultural mania.  To maintain their freedom, a people must embody certain specific forms of behavior:  independence, industry, simplicity, as well as justice and benevolence toward others.  Can anyone doubt this?  Jefferson used the virtuous farmer (which he truly believed in) to portray the moral requirements for the character of the American people.

So how can free markets can undermine our character?  Jefferson was a liberal.  He supported free markets.  But unlike Hamilton, he did not consider their consequences endlessly beneficent; and unlike John Adams, he thought, as a liberal, that bringing in government control to shape economic behavior would only make any problem worse.  The battleground wasn’t the Presidency or Congressional legislation, or economic policy; it was individual character.  “Alone among the Founders,” Yarbrough writes, “Jefferson located the heart of  republicanism in the liberty-loving spirit of the people.”

The dilemma was how to sustain that spirit.  Jefferson worried about two possible outcomes of an unbridled market:  one, the division of the citizenry into impoverished servile “sheep” and unaccountable millionaire “wolves”; and two, the embrace of luxury and self-indulgence at the expense of liberty and self-reliance.

Societies divided between sheep and wolves Jefferson had seen in Europe.  Look in the poorer corners of the world today – you’ll find the same divide.  The effect is an inescapable corruption of the spirit.

Some years ago, I spent a few days in Mexico City’s zona rosa.  My hotel looked like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie set.  I had to fight the urge to waltz.  Outside the gilded doors squatted a little beggar family:  an Indian mother with a baby at her breast, and four more children, the oldest not more than five.  They sat there, impassive, not really begging but expecting something from the lordlings coming out of the hotel.  Their silence amazed me.  I felt wretched at the sight of them, but I convinced myself, with little effort, that these children were different from mine – less demanding of happiness and cheerfulness.

On my last day in the city, I spied them in a traffic island of the Paseo de la Reforma, tumbling and shouting and laughing just like my own kids.  The wolf needn’t be a devourer:  he can be an excuser and a self-deceiver.

Can we point to an example closer to home?  Ken Lay of Enron would win the American Wolf Award by a landslide, I suspect, but my own candidate is Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, who borrowed billions from pensioners to finance his private excesses.  On the other side of the divide, Yarbrough mentions the growth of an American “underclass” wholly dependent on government largesse.

Yet all these are examples of lack of freedom in the marketplace.  No company or CEO aspires to become a competitor.  By the very nature of competition, they seek to control and monopolize a market, and institutionalize their hold over it.  Cronyism defined the economies of France and England in Jefferson’s time, and of Mexico when I was visiting.

We have long accepted the premise that, just as government exists to guarantee the pursuit but not the achievement of happiness, so must it ensure the competitive freedom of the marketplace, not the success of any given piece of it.  In this spirit, Enron and WorldCom were allowed to go belly up.  In this spirit, too, Lay and Ebbers are staring at a jury of their peers, distasteful as the notion must seem to an ex-billionaire.  And the American “underclass,” statistically, is a very mobile group.

Wolves prowl among us, always will; but we are not sheep.

The second negative consequence of the marketplace – love of luxury and sensation, what we often mean by “consumerism” – is impossible to dispute.  With wealth comes luxury, and we Americans are the wealthiest people in the history of the species.   We own far more than we need, and we are stimulated by the marketplace to desire more still.

But of itself wealth or even luxury need not be corrupting.  A wealthy family may show more independence and spirit than, say, my beggar family in Mexico City.  What Jefferson rightly diagnosed as corruption was a subjective relationship to money and pleasure, in which acquisition and consumption became an overmastering passion, matched by a “lethargy” with regard to civic liberties and involvement in public affairs.

How can we tell when this subjective state has taken possession of a people’s judgment?  Only concrete examples will do:  when women refuse to have children (or abort their offspring) to preserve their uncluttered lifestyles; when men abandon their families to pursue their own pleasures; when individuals borrow to consume what they can’t afford; when (as Yarbrough observes) they gamble away billions of dollars every year; when citizens are too lethargic to vote – then we can say that the pursuit of happiness has been corrupted into a passion for luxury, character has been compromised, and the freedoms that depend on virtue are in danger of being traded for money.

Such Americans exist, in the millions.  A Niagara of data demonstrates this fact.  Yet I can summon an equal and opposite datafall proving the existence, in the millions, of zealously caring parents, industrious workers and businessmen, and citizens engaged in every facet of public life, from the PTA to presidential elections.

Market-driven materialism and Jeffersonian idealism are locked in a struggle for control of the behavior of the American people.  Some individual Americans incline one way, some the other; most of us look for some middle ground where we can enjoy a few luxuries without giving away our inheritance.  Whether the best outcome is a triumph of idealism or a pragmatic balance, is impossible for me to say.  But there can be little doubt that, as Jefferson warned, a purely materialistic and luxury-loving people will not endure long in freedom.

 

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