Back on April 20th I presented my introduction to a book by Will Hutton: The Writing on the Wall.
First, the book is 334 pages. The list of references 39 pages. There is a lot I could cover. But this is the Angry Bear which I view as being about US(of A). It is this part of Mr. Hutton’s writing that caught my attention. As much as I am interested in China’s life influencing ours, I am more interested in understanding what happened to us.
I presented his concept of values coming out of the Enlightenment as being the basis for what the USA (as a stand-in for referencing Western processes) had achieved and what China has to move more toward. It is not that China must model us exactly, but that it’s current structure is limited. It needs to be more democratic based on values from the Enlightenment. Mr. Hutton presents the democratic Enlightenment concepts as four: “accountability; representativenesss; respect for the rule of law; and the capacity, through free speech, for debate, exchange, and interaction.”
As much as the book looks at China and how it does not meet these concepts sufficiently to allow it to grow such that it will meet the needs of it’s people, I want to focus on his view of us. In this case, the USA specifically. I believe he points to the USA because it was the leader in the world, as he presents the case, for manifesting the democratic Enlightenment concepts. I believe, his view of the Enlightenment is in agreement with Wiki’s presentation:
The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values of society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophes in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change.
The discussion of Enlightenment begins with free trade and that the USA is “not a natural candidate to support an open world trading and financial system…” We benefit, but we are “ambivalent”. “An open trading system tempts every country to pursue strategic trade policies that are much more mercantilist in their rationale…All genuflect to the rules-based openness of the trading system as regulated by the World Trade Organization. But they believe in it more because it is the means to secure their strategic, mercantilist aims than because of any desire to create gains in which everyone would share.”
Mr Hutton is pro free trade. He makes a case that America’s growth was less do to protectionist positions taken early on and more the result of a growing population with access to free land. Space and ambition were the key. As the coasts were joined, we moved to substitute foreign trade for the loss of our frontier. “The aim was not to create an overseas empire but to export the American idea…” unlike the European expansionism. And as expected, he flatly states that free-trade is not the cause of the condition we find ourself in currently. Though he thinks both sides, one portrayed by Lou Dobbs and the other by Friedman need to be “cooled down”. They are both “vastly exaggerated”.
The source of our mis-thinking is found in how we view liberty. “Liberty, in the American narrative, is the sun under which everything flourishes. Liberty permits individuals’ hard work, courage, and application to produce wealth and happiness. Government should not get in the way…Liberty and the American dream are linked…The great conservative counterrevolution …has been grounded in its brilliant capacity to exploit these cultural icons to support its own cause.”
But this is an error of our self perception. It is more correct to view liberty as a goal within “…a highly sophisticated Enlightenment political infrastructure.” “Look at the United States…and you will see an economy and society characterized by pluralism, diversity, and investment in individual capabilities.”
He bolsters this view by presenting Alexis de Tocqueville’s work about America. “Public engagement and never-ending argument leavened what otherwise might have been a culture of egoism…and transmuted it into a culture in which egalitarianism and individualism enriched each other. Self-interest was not only a matter of bettering oneself; it was also a mattter of ensureing that there would be a vigorous public life and opportunity for others…The same impulse–wanting the best for oneself and for others— prompts much of American civic activism.” Our liberty “always included conceptual egalitarianism, which provided the tension between the ambition and appetites of the propertied rich and their accountability to society.” “This is not the egalitarianism of income or opportunity; rather, it is the equality of self-esteem, self worth and possibility…there is no obstacle of title, birth, accent or social rank…”
It make you feel proud, does it not? Unfortunately he notes we are losing it through “neglect and willful disparagement of their importance, in particular by American conservatives.” We are losing the “fecund interaction” of markets and the price mechanism with the Enlightenment infrastructure and resultant culture. Mr Hutton states it was our genius.
This is where I will go next. What has changed. I believe it was my very first post via an invite from Cactus (he posted it for me) that I made the statement that we had changed. We no longer were making money as we had. We no longer were focused on what we use to. It was more than just tax rates that changed in the Reagan years.