Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Part II

As I wrote in part I of our series, Americans have become bubble-conscious and bubble-shy. A tech bubble in the nineties, a housing bubble in the aughts, and fear of a massive fiscal bubble soon to come have temporally darkened the horizons of the world’s most optimistic people.

Not that bubbles are anything new. Black Friday popped the stock market. Eighteenth century bubbles burst on the Mississippi and in the South Seas. Tulips even made one bloom in Holland. Whenever greed and mania combine, bubbles beckon.

In part I, we mentioned the First Bubble Pathology  -- social pressure differentials inside and out lead to an overly universalized sense of trust. The Second Bubble Pathology is this: Too great a distance separating circumference and point of origin leads to historical amnesia. The success of our free civilization in producing wealth and smoothing social frictions has allowed it, despite its attendant weaknesses, to flourish and endure. But in so doing it has moved further and further away from the circumstances out of which it arose. Just as a gap between social pressure within and without risks bursting its protective envelope, so too may the increasing disparity between its period of origination and present state.

Freedom arose in a process of sanguinary struggle, the fact of which, in classroom and public commemoration, our culture once continually reminded us. The politics of medieval and early modern Europe, whose jealous rivalries pitted prince against prince, church against crown, town against lord or neighboring town, estate against estate, and estate against crown, engendered a lively sense of liberties (then understood largely in reference to caste and corporation) to be preserved as necessary, and with little apology, by menace and might. And that necessity was frequent, leaving dividing lines between adversaries etched in blood, yet, simultaneously, creating a rough and ready diffusion of power prefiguring, both causally and conceptually, modern constitutionalism. Survey the history of the Magna Carta, the investiture controversy, the tense and violent politics of a Flemish or North Italian town, and try to conclude otherwise.

The particular line of institutional development that led to modern America wended its early way through more than a few such fraught episodes, allowing little forgetting that the price of liberty, now seen in personal and private property terms, was anything less than eternal vigilance. No such naivety, certainly, was present in the deliberations, or actions, of the Founders, or, for that matter, during the tumult of the republic’s first century or so. Liberty though a natural right wasn’t assumed to be a natural state, but something that required courage and alertness to guard. Debates in Congress over banks, tariffs, expansion, to say nothing of slavery and Reconstruction, bristled with invocations of the right of free men to resist illegitimate power, sometimes punctuated by personal clashes between legislators, bordering or even crossing into violence, when procedural rights and individual honor were thought to be under challenge. Power in the hands of others, and most especially in the hands of government, was deeply distrusted. While this made for an exercise of liberty that could be fierce and disorderly, it preserved, even in parliamentary settings, a muscularity that connected it to the rough circumstances of its birth.

That was then. Today we blanch, or affect to, over the unconscious use of military metaphors in routine political discourse. Men no longer call each other out and rarely go armed, relegating law enforcement to uniformed professionals. Our military has become sexually polymorphous, with manly jocularity a possible career-ender. We agonize about eroding civility, but manage to settle our debates over matters of far wider sweep than any taxes on tea, with little more disturbance than those wrought by peaceful demonstrations and a few exercised words.

In most respects this state of affairs represents an immense social triumph, affording us an existence luxuriantly buffered from the endemic political violence with which humanity has mostly had to live. But, together with the perceived benefits of the welfare state, it has also diminished our fear of power, now commonly looked upon as an instrument of compassion. Representative institutions were originally thought far less a vehicle for ensuring that government did what its citizens bid -- it was assumed they could generally take care of themselves -- than as a means of keeping it from doing what they feared -- interfering with their rights. Government was a necessary evil, more likely, once loosed from its restraints, to be an agent of servitude than redemption.

The rise of the welfare state and of the progressive outlook has turned this understanding on its head. They haven’t led to tyranny. Representative processes, our tradition of civil liberties, a pluralistic culture, and the lubricant of a prosperity of which the Framers never dreamed have thus far preserved most of our personal liberties and political freedoms intact. But it’s worth considering whether there are limits that even a two-hundred-year-old constitutional system crosses only at its peril. The bigger government grows the more difficult it becomes for the best informed citizens, even elected legislators, to monitor its activities and restrain abuses. Politicians armed with powers over agencies like the IRS, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Elections Commission, to which the government has just added vast new authority over health care and financial institutions, can recognize this altered equation. This alarms many, but does it alarm enough? Do we still have that salutary fear of power that the framers would have regarded as the heart of republican virtue? Or does this now seem like something that belongs to a remote, archaic past of no particular interest today? Are we, along with Europe, drifting towards an acceptance of Tocqueville’s soft despotism?

One remedy might lie in an educational system and civic culture insistent on overcoming amnesia: one that transmitted an account of American history respectful of the Framers' wisdom -- helping their past to live once again in the minds of our very different present. But that’s hardly the approach of academic multiculturalism, inclined to equate their singular tradition with that of many other times and places. Perhaps we’re now witnessing a political overreaching that will remind us again of those ancient political lessons America’s Founders never forgot -- wealthy white slave owners though many may have been -- and even rekindle among educators a strong interest in conveying them. It remains to be seen.