Several years ago, a former neighbor, Joe Abraham had an idea. He wanted history taught backwards. Instead of starting with past events and coming to the present, he suggested starting with current events and working backwards. As a professional historian, this method just didn’t feel right. My training at USL and LSU had always focused on the move from old to new.
I’ve come to realize that “Dr. Joe” had a good point. Most people look at history and ask, “How did we get here?” In 2011 this question is always on my mind. How did we, as Americans, end up with a powerless government? How did the country, which had put millions of people to work during the Great Depression, had defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, had built the world’s first middle class society, had put a man on the moon, and had cleaned up a polluted environment, descend into bickering and helplessness?
For nearly fifty years the United States had built a world class society from the bottom up. How did Americans forget Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 call to collective experimentation and action?
The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.
FDR embraced 400 years of American history. Good government and experimentation could make life better for the average person. America’s collective amnesia wasn’t an accident.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan turned his back on FDR and led a conservative revolution. He wanted to restore traditional America. During his inaugural address, Reagan declared “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” With this Big Lie, Reagan set America down the path to self-destruction--stagnating benefits, mounting public and private debt, and an ever increasing culture of cynicism, alienation and fear. Reagan’s dream, however, wasn’t based on traditional American values. Americans have always been critical of government, but he encouraged Americans to despise it. He presented an image that resembled one found in a carnival fun house--distorted and good for laughs. We have come to see, however, that the results of the conservative revolution are no laughing matter.
Reagan’s Big Lie has made modern conservatives fail to appreciate America’s true cultural heritage. Our founding fathers were Renaissance men, looking to the lessons of the classical world for guidance. One of the most important Greek ideas was arête, striving for excellence. Greek gods expected every individual to develop his/her own mental, physical and spiritual abilities. Self-development enabled the individual to better serve the community. The goal was not self enrichment, but community service. In fact the Greeks also developed a negative counterpart to arête called hubris. Hubris is false pride. The Greek gods punished individuals who believed they achieved success on their own, hoarding their riches and neglecting their neighbors.
These Greco-Roman values found a “rebirth” in the Fifteenth Century Italian city-states. Renaissance scholars challenged the primacy of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Since the fall of Rome, the Church had stressed the importance of theology and the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love. The Church’s focus was literally “out of this world.” Society and individuals were instructed to seek eternal life. This world, the material world, was of little consequence. Medieval Europeans used the dream of salvation to escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Salvation provided an excuse for pope and monarchs to do little about poverty, or worse, as an excuse for self enrichment.
Renaissance civic humanism challenged medieval conceptions of virtue and the nature of scholarship. Civic humanists argued that scholars had to be actively engaged in this world, not cloistered away in a monastery. Intellectual development was not a private matter, divorced from current events. Rather, scholars needed to put their knowledge to use and improve their community. Consequently, humanists studied oration, the key tool used by politicians. It was the public servant, not the cleric, who mattered most. Politicians needed to identify social problems and use persuasion to unite a community behind the general welfare. Rhetoric encouraged civic participation and moved a community forward. Humanists rejected brute force and blind obedience, preferring civil debate and compromise.
The Italian interest in ancient sources sparked a Christian humanist movement in Northern Europe. Christian humanists searched the archives of Europe for the earliest copies of scripture and letters by Church fathers. These scholars came to realize that Christianity had much to say about improving the conditions in this world; it wasn’t simply a dream of eternal life. Christian humanists shifted the emphasis from the sinful, or broken, nature of man to the dignity of man. In the beginning God had created man in his image and designed all of nature to support the multitude of humanity. The message of Jesus provided a tool to restore those original conditions. In Utopia Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) argued society ought to be organized around the dignity and worth of everyman, providing each person an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. He ridiculed the use of political and religious authority to divert resources from the average worker to princes and bishops. Everyone who worked and played by the rules could expect a decent life. Political leaders had the responsibility to create these conditions because they would not happen by accident. Christian humanists showed that good government could play a positive in society and do more than control a sinful population.
This reevaluation of religious and political traditions led to the greatest cosmological revolution in world history. For thousands of years humans thought the sky was “the heavens.” God and the angels lived in the perfect world up there; humans lived in the broken world down here. Instead of assuming that tradition held all the answers, Renaissance scholars decided to see for themselves. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) took a mundane instrument, the telescope, and pointed it at the second Biblical “great light,” the moon. He found no heavenly body; he found a rock. Next, he looked at Venus and documented its solar phases. Finally, he studied Jupiter and found moons. According to theologians, none of these discoveries were within the realm of possibility. All of them contradicted a literal interpretation of scripture. Galileo’s direct observations opened the door to the systematic challenged of the theological domination of the scholarship.
Another Renaissance scholar, Francis Bacon (1561--1626), took what his contemporaries had discovered and developed a new comprehensive system for solving problems. Today we call it the scientific method. Bacon took the Renaissance to the next level. Instead of simply replicating classical thinking, he identified its weaknesses and corrected them. The key to the Baconian revolution was openness to new ideas. Gone was the slavish adherence to tradition. Humans needed to look at the world around, use their reason, identify patterns and reach their own conclusions. Simply relying on traditional knowledge was not good enough anymore.
Most people know about Francis Bacon’s contributions to science but relatively few know about his contributions to social philosophy. In New Atlantis, Bacon presented a society dramatically at odds with seventeenth century Europe. In this fictional island community—“New Bensalem”—the leaders commit themselves to discovering ways to improve the basic conditions of life. Unlike the Medieval kings and popes, King Solaman encouraged exploration. He established Solaman House, ordering it to find natural causes and knowledge that could make the environment more productive. Bensalem's scholars also left the island looking for riches. Their riches, however, were not spices, gold, silver or jewels for the aristocracy, rather these explorers sought knowledge of "sciences, arts, manufacturing, and the inventions of the world; and withal to bring unto us books, instruments, and patterns in every kind.” For Bacon knowledge was the power to reshape and repair the broken world around us.
As Bacon’s new methodology bore fruit in the natural sciences, Eighteenth century philosophes, or social critics, turned to the Baconian method to solve persistent community problems. If human observation and reason could answer “heavenly” questions, could they answer “earthly” questions”? Bacon had imagined the success of Bensalem as the product of a righteous monarch, but one century later John Locke (1632—1704) dismissed heavenly intervention in creating governments. Rather, Lock developed the idea of a “social contract” to address the problem of tyranny. Without governments, Locke argued, individuals struggled to protect their life, liberty and property from the greed of their neighbors. Individuals joined together to create laws that enabled humans to live longer, to experience greater choice and to improve their material well-being. The purpose of government was to serve man, not gods.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Bacon’s new scientific method was its ability to prophesize. After correctly identifying a behavioral pattern, this new generation of scholars claimed that they could predict the consequences of reforming social institutions. Adam Smith (1723--1790), a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, took the first real steps into the realm of political economy, a science concerned with the general welfare of the community. It supplied actual legislators with policy solutions to promote happiness. Happiness required laws which secured the right of property and checked the unnatural inequality in its distribution. Smith attacked the common eighteenth-century practice of using political power to redistribute wealth from the farmers to the merchants. This practice left the vast majority of the population impoverished while enriching a chosen few. The Scottish professor predicted that removing government favoritism would restore a more natural and equitable distribution of wealth. Smith’s hypothesis, known as laissez-faire, provided the first testable solution to the problem of widespread poverty. If Smith were correct, then a limited government would promote the general welfare. If Smith were wrong, then a limited government would continue to benefit a small elite or facilitate society’s decent into chaos
By the late nineteenth century it was painfully obvious to a growing number of Americans that an unregulated market produced great harm. Before the Great Depression the federal government let corporations grow relatively unchecked. It was a free market paradise. No minimum wage. No workers' compensation plans. No unemployment tax. No bookkeeping rules. No environmental laws. No safety regulations. If the free market myth were true, then this era should have been the greatest time in American history. It wasn't. The Great Depression and the New Deal brought this corporate paradise to end. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew unregulated capitalism hurt average Americans. He embarked on a new economic experiment, using the government to limit the power of corporations. They had to open their books to investors. Companies had to deal honestly with labor unions. They had to pay taxes. Businesses had to pay their workers better. Did the American economy crash? No. In fact regulated capitalism laid the foundation for the post war economic boom.
After World War Two the federal government took an even larger role in the economy. It provided veterans with housing, education and health benefits. The federal government built the interstate highway system. It invested in aerospace, nuclear and computer technologies. Federal regulations required the automobile industry to improve safety and fuel efficiency. Industries were forced to stop polluting our air and water. The Federal government finally started enforcing the 14th Amendment, protecting every citizen from the tyranny of state discrimination. The free marketeers screamed in protest. Liberals were destroying America. Socialists were punishing the successful. Capitalists would go on strike and bring the economy to a standstill. Luckily, no one listened to these Chicken Littles. The sky didn't fall. In fact regulated capitalism produced the world's largest middle class.
Ironically, as the fruits of 400 years of improving government allowed more Americans to live longer and healthier lives, to enjoy greater personal liberty and to pursue happiness like never before, two radical groups of contrarian critics laid the ground work for Reagan’s conservative revolution—the Austrian School of Economics and the disciples of Ayn Rand.
In the closing days of World War Two, an Austrian immigrant, Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), published The Road to Serfdom in England. Hayek argued that, when governments develop economic policies, they unintentionally pave the way to tyrants like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Conservatives in the United States, not only found a simplistic explanation for the rise of European totalitarianism, both Nazism and Communism, but also a tool to attack the foundation of New Deal policies. Hayek himself, however, intentionally sacrificed history and philosophical accuracy to make a simple point–the British Labour Party, by maintaining war planning after the end of World War Two, were creating the conditions for totalitarianism. His warning went unheeded both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Ordinary citizens remembered the dark days of the depression and saw government activity improve the world right before their eyes. No rhetorical magic could undo real progress.
Success did not deter the most radical reinterpretation of western values, however. Ayn Rand (1905–1982) rejected not only the Renaissance conception of civic virtue but also the Christian call to altruism. Rand was an ideological fundamentalist, demanding pure individualism. She denounced the modern Welfare State as immoral; it was a form of theft, stealing from the creators and giving to the moochers. Each person was the creator of their own morality and owed allegiance only to themselves. To place another above oneself was the greatest act of social destruction. Rand elevated Greek hubris to a virtue and denounced arête as a vice. In Atlas Shrugged she predicted a hero, John Gault, would refuse to sacrifice himself on the altar of Social Justice and trigger a worldwide economic, political and social collapse.
These radical social philosophies remained in the shadows until the 1970s. The Civil Rights movement, the failed war in Vietnam, the Arab oil embargo and Watergate all opened the door to an anti-government fever. In this atmosphere Ronald Reagan stepped forward and presented his Big Lie. During the 1976 Republican Presidential debate Reagan retold a moving story that was part of his standard stump speech.
There’s a woman in Chicago. She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000. (New York Times, 15 Feb, 1976)
Reagan pushed all the right emotional buttons at a time when average Americans suffered. There is only one problem with Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” story. It wasn’t true. Factual truth, however, didn’t matter to Reagan or conservative voters. Anyone criticizing Reagan was simply a “heretic.” Reagan told conservatives what they wanted to hear. They “knew” it in their gut: “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Hayek was proved right. Rand was proved right. The government was taking money from hard working Americans and giving it to “those people.” If conservatives didn’t stand up, then America would descend into godless communism.
Reagan’s Big Lie restored the primacy of mythology over observation and reason. Conservatives wanted politicians to act based on gut feelings rather than empirical evidence. This lie shut down experimentation and paralyzed American government to this day. Facts don’t matter. History doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the conservative faith that government is the problem. If we want to solve our problems, we need to confront and defeat this self destructive mentality. We need to reclaim our commitment to solving problems using evidence and reason. The belief that government should solve problems stretches back to the Renaissance and helped make the western world exceptional. As we’ll see, trust in government helped build America.
Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 8:59 PM PT: I've added Part II for anyone who would like to hear the end if the story. I plan on working back to the beginning of American history in future diaries. http://www.dailykos.com/...