Arnold Kling  

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Empire of Liberty, by Gordon Wood. Part of the Oxford series on American history, it focuses on the period 1789-1815. So far, I find myself thinking about it in the context of the Cowen-Hanson theory of political behavior and also my own Most Wrong View.

The Cowen-Hanson theory is that politics is not about policy. Rather, it is about the relative status of groups.

As Wood begins his history, he describes the status conflict between the "gentry" and the "middling sort." The gentry are men, such as landowners, who do not have to work for a living (they may be lawyers, but that does not count as work). They see themselves as fit to serve in government, because they are well cultured and free of the taint of special economic interest. The "middling sort" are an emerging class of independent farmers, merchants, and tradesmen. They see themselves as just as fit to serve in government as the gentry.

Wood points out that in the Colonial era, state legislatures were dominated by the gentry. However, in the Revolutionary decade (1776-1787), the middling sort began to play an increasing role. The result, as viewed by James Madison, John Adams, and other Federalists, was a descent into chaos, with policy dominated by factions (what we would call special interests) and offices held by unfit, poorly educated rubes. The Constitutional Convention will be in part an attempt to re-assert the power of the gentry. Of course, we know that any such attempt will ultimately fail.

Where this intersects with My Most Wrong View is as follows. My Most Wrong View is that until the past few hundred years we did not have anything close to a market economy. Instead, we had the Protectors and the Protected.

Protectors are men with the skills and values that we now associate with criminal enterprises. They have military prowess. They are loyal to their friends and ruthless to their enemies. They live off of protection money (or tribute) from people in their territory, and they fund their organization with this protection money.

The Protected are people who farm or work in productive trades. They may include merchants. They do not choose their occupations freely. Instead, their occupations are dictated, mostly by tradition and otherwise by the Protectors. The Protected, including merchants, earn only subsistence. All profits go to the Protectors.

The people that Wood calls "the middling sort" are the first large class of people who are neither Protectors nor Protected. They are discovering new forces of social cohesion, including clubs, associations, and--most importantly--independent participation in what we now think of as the market. Wood points out that as men developed faith in "sociability," they became less enamored of what I call the skills and values of criminal enterprises. The occupations of politician and soldier are no longer reserved for an elite, leisured gentry. They are accessible to the middling sort.



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Zdeno writes:

Question: What differentiates the provision of security, i.e. Protection, from the provision of food, shelter, clothing and iPhones?

The stationary bandits, of whom I doubt you think highly of, are in fact providing one of the most essential of services to a market economy - preventing a descent into anarchy.

The emergence of the "middling sort" just reflects the diminished proportion of a society's resources that must be devoted to security, as technological growth advances. The situation is analgous to the decline of agriculture in many ways.

Of course, this leaves the question hanging: Why, in this age of abundance, is our personal security - as measured by incidences of crime, and the ability of our government to win wars against disorganized and poorly equipped insurrections - so dismal?

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "Protectors are men with the skills and values that we now associate with criminal enterprises. They have military prowess. They are loyal to their friends and ruthless to their enemies. They live off of protection money (or tribute) from people in their territory, and they fund their organization with this protection money."

What about telling the truth? Criminals are of necessity more or less liars: they can't go around telling everyone their business or they'll end up in jail. Kings and aristocrats could be comparatively truthful, no? This is a big enough value difference to make the comparison in the above quote inapt.

Isegoria writes:

Society abhors a power vacuum, so I think it's wrong to emphasize the banditry of the stationary bandit, when the alternative is not no banditry but rather roving banditry.

Yes, sheep dogs are more like wolves than sheep, but the differences are still very, very meaningful.

woupiestek writes:

Doesn't the market economy have anything to do with the way societies have always been organised?

The technologies for controlling the markets have become increasingly better. So weren't the markets more free, before these technologies existed?

George writes:

Nathan,

Kings and aristocrats could be comparatively truthful, no?

Having just watched The Lion in Winter, I have to strongly disagree. I'm still not sure what to believe, or what each character believed.

To take another approach: if you ask a mob boss why you should do what he says, he'll say something like, "Because if you don't, I'll kill you," which is truthful. Ask a medieval king the same thing, and you'll get a speech along the lines of, "The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, etc., etc.," which is a load of crap: the real reason is the same as the mobster's.

Anyway, I don't think Arnold's talking about criminals embedded within another government; I think he's talking about situations where they are the government: medieval kings, Somali warlords, Chicago politicians....

phineas writes:

I assume Arnold calls it his "My Most Wrong View" because he's come across so many people with a good knowledge of history who think it's wrongheaded. I think it's wrongheaded as well.

Douglass Holmes writes:

We need Protectors. However, we need Protectors who don't believe in legal plunder. The American tradition had managed to get the military and police under reasonable civilian control. Now, if we could just get the lawyers under control.

There is always a balancing act between a government that is powerful enough to protect you but refrains from plunder, a government that plunders to stay in power, and a governmnent that is too weak to protect its citizens. When discussing slavery, Thomas Sowell pointed out that the Africans from the coastal areas were able to make slaves of Africans from the interior, because the Africans in the interior had no government powerful enough to protect them.

And the government can't plunder forever. Eventually citizens will fear the government they know more than the barbarian that they don't know.

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