Delong calls the end of American exceptionalism

A nice Project Syndicate column from Brad Delong. This is how it starts.

When French politician and moral philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his Democracy in America in 1835, he did so because he thought his France was in big trouble–and had lots to learn from America.

The grab for centralized power by the absolutist Bourbon monarchs followed by the great French Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire had destroyed the good parts of the French neofeudal order as well as the bad. In Tocqueville’s imagination, at least, the subjects of the neofeudal order had been eager to protect their particular liberties and jealous of their spheres of independence. They had understood that they were embedded in a nationwide web of obligations, powers, responsibilities, and privileges.

But for the Frenchman of 1835, Tocqueville thought, adopting:

the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions… [has produced] egotism… no less blind…. [W]e have destroyed an aristocracy, and we seem inclined to survey its ruins with complacency…”

To sick France in 1835 de Tocqueville counterposed healthy America, in which attachment to the idea that people should pursue their self-interest was no less strong, but was different. It was, he thought, because Americans understood that they could not flourish unless their neighbors prospered as well: they thus pursued their self-interest, but their interest “rightly understood”.

“Every American”, Tocqueville writes, understands that to get prosperous neighbors he needs to “sacrifice a portion of his private interests to preserve the rest. “Americans”, he wrote:

are fond of explaining… [how it is] regard for themselves [which] constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the general welfare.

In France, by contrast, Tocqueville fears a future in which:

it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their egotism may lead them… into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves, lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow-creatures.

Delong’s hyperlinks are worth following, because they take you to this post, which explains that, according to Jewish Theological tradition, the real trouble with the Republicans is that they are Sodomites.

Makes me grateful for our own conservatives (seriously). Unlike Keating who always wanted to lower the top marginal rate (it just had so much better long clean lines with a lower top rate), Howard kept the top marginal rate of tax at the rate he inherited it, despite finding hundreds of billions of dollars turning up in the coffers he wasn’t expecting. I think Costello wanted to lower the top rate, but the Coalition Government only did it (and only did it by a few percentage points) only very late in the day and only after ALP figures Lindsay Tanner and Craig Emerson started criticising them for not having done it. The ALP then promised to match the cuts announced by the Libs and the rest as they say, is history.

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derrida derider
derrida derider
9 years ago

As we both agreed at the time Emerson and Tanner’s intervention was dumb economics and stupefyingly dumb politics. Given that they were two of the smarter pollies around I can only explain it by unacknowledged self-interest driving their judgement. But of course the point of your post is that the self-interest was a short tem one – a more enlightened self-interest might lead to other positions.

I think we need to frame the economic organisation of society as “the aim is to make it easier for people to build new things (create value) rather than steal existing things (appropriate value)”. That’s certainly the way to phrase, for example, governance policies in Africa, but it’s also true here. And the point in this context is that building, unlike stealing, is necessarily a co-operative venture that requires freely shared effort but also many freely shared resources.

Nicholas Gruen
9 years ago

Thanks DD,

I think you’ve put it extremely well. I think economic development is about a process of mastering progressively more complex and interdependent activity, something which I presume people like Hausmann et al believe.

That means that skills need to be developed in:

* Individuals understanding and doing more sophisticated things – requiring more education and training.
* Individuals being able to collaborate with other individuals to jointly exercise skills which has all sorts of implications for skills, values, morale and legal structures
* Ditto for collective entities, which must be able to collaborate at a range of different levels – up and down the supply chain, across the supply chain and between emergent and established networks and agencies

And very often such processes reach a complete impasse without the recognition of a substantial knowledge commons.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

It’s a pity I haven’t the brains or inclination to add something worthwhile to something like this. Never mind…
Here goes.
I had thought that the USA was the last of the nation states of the modern era. It seemed to me that the process there had been Bourbonised, that indeed US civil society, in keeping with other nation state liberal democracies had been dislocated from any meaningful opportunity to engage with or influence the course of the good ship Global Capitalism.
What we see is only a shop front; that the real decision-making is made by a few in ivory towers in the City of London and a few other European powers, and Wall St?
Isn’t the good ship Global Capitalism a buccaneer, with a multi national crew long since unencumbered of community loyalties and personal loyalties to community?The cognitive home of a new feudal dynasty of mega rich are comfortable enough the facade of normality, although not beyond gated communities (phew!! he says), and their security is backed by some cultural and ideological equivalent to the Aristotelian Catholic church of the Middle Ages through to the Ultraist Europe of pre 1848?
It is only normal this world because people are habituated to the view and not encouraged to look beyond.
But the Melmottes of the new age grasped the inner workings of capitalism whilst on the make, recognised that the ramparts of the new fortress were cognitive rather than material, comprised of banking and legal esoterica, and like good mechanics learned where the levers of real power were and how they connected to the overall apparatus and how to operate them. Eg, remove credit and induce collapse in a recalcitrant or reformist nation state, for example.
Far quicker and cleaner than all that gunpowder, although of course munitions are profitable and good war now and then is also good for business and debt-increase in clients.
Lets presume that power now resides in the (corrupted) Market, beyond the influence of old style politics.
Does civilisation have any point in a closed universe where the system has a life of its own and the only rationale becomes defence of wealth and power of a very few?
The big managers will invest in Monsanto type corporations regardless of whether the activities of such corporations are ultimately toxic to humanity, because they turn a quid and secure the position of proprietors and the big bourgeoisie.
as we see with the example of ecology in general and global warming in particular, there seems no adequate overview and regulation for the greater good, this would provide too much interference in the jostlings for control within the oligarchy.
So how is it different from Feudalism, this modernist/post modernist world.
I think its more to do with Gadarene Swine and a rapidly approached cliff, Personally,it seems to me that the imperatives that drive things are themselves not subject to scrutiny. In that case someone is either asleep at the wheel or the people who should know what they’re doing wouldn’t have a clue.
We (the species) make a big mistake deluding ourselves that we ever left the trees, methinks.