I’ll return to my series on Texas Education soon, but I want to share some thoughts after digesting the rhetoric from both national political conventions.
My first and over-riding thought was how baffled Adam Smith and William Jennings Bryan would be if they had somehow been able to return to this world for the last two weeks and had attended these conventions. Neither would understand the split that has occurred in American politics over issues they studied and championed, and both would be shocked at how misunderstood and misapplied their ideas have become.
Smith, the Scottish professor of Moral Philosophy, built his ideas about economics and government in his Wealth of Nations on the foundation of his description of the inherent moral nature of man in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For the last 250 years, both proponents and opponents of the system of capitalism and free markets that evolved from Smith’s writings based their viewpoints on an analysis of economic behavior that was independent of the morality so central to Smith’s theories. Smith would not have understood either Marx or Rand. To him, the individual pursuing his or her self-interest did so within a context of morality and responsibility. Smith’s total view, in turn, was consistent with the type of system that developed during the 18th and 19th Centuries in the United States—the one de Tocqueville observed and explained in his Democracy In America.
But today, we are more the children of Marx and Rand, than of Smith. So, we see the answers to our problems solely through the lens of rugged individualism, or social-justice collectivism, when both individualism and community are needed for a society of free people to thrive using capitalism and free markets. In essence, our misreading of Smith has set up a false choice between individualism and community that de Tocqueville believed we had avoided.
As a self-proclaimed answer to this false choice, William Jennings Bryan emerged as a political force of nature in the 1890s. Arguably, as one of the early proponents of a form of Progressivism, he was the most influential politician from the 1890s to the 1920s who never became President—though he tried four times. He set out to impose community on rugged individualists through his “applied Christianity,” which was derisively called “Bryanism.” Bryanism called for the federal government to become the source of social justice through interventionist and redistributionist economic policies, and by enforcing a common standard for public and private moral behavior. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Democratic Party abandoned the social conservatism of Bryanism, while fully embracing the economic portion of his social justice views.
Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, the social-conservative heirs to the morality of Bryanism turned to the Republican Party to promote their agenda, and they joined economic conservatives to support Ronald Reagan’s “New Republican Party” plan to re-establish a modern society upon the Smith/de Tocqueville model of society. In fact, what Reagan understood was that the real choice for sustaining and improving our free society is not between individualism and community, but between the role of individual morality and responsibility and government regulations and programs in creating and maintaining community among free people. The Smith/de Tocqueville model that Reagan tried to reinvigorate provided the right answer for that real choice.
But instead of disappearing into history, the remnants of Bryanism are alive and well. They are divided into two warring camps still trying to resolve the false choice between individualism and community with wrong or incomplete answers that depend on the exercise of federal government action, and that create strange fissures within both Progressivism and Conservatism in this country.
President Obama’s acceptance speech doubled-down on the economic social-justice model of Bryanism. He recognized that our society is built on both the freedom of the individual and the interdependence of communities, but he embraced the false choice between the two. Then, he sought to answer the false choice by providing community artificially through more government interventions, while rejecting any role for private, individual, moral character and responsibility in shaping and preserving a community. Such an approach provides a wrong answer to the false choice, which will worsen all of the social pathologies that have arisen over the last century, and further isolate neighbors as autonomous wards of one or more federal government programs.
Where are the Republicans in this debate? Unfortunately, we are still arguing between the social conservatism of Bryanism and the economic conservatism of traditional and libertarian Republicans, when Smith, de Tocqueville and Reagan would have told us the choice we are arguing about is false, too. Both are needed for our model of government to work, and we need to stop fighting among ourselves over this fundamental point.
Instead, we need to come together and seize the opportunity we’ve been given to change the debate in this election. By shaping the debate around “community” and the social-justice model, Obama has handed us a rare opportunity to break out of the old paradigms and to reveal the false choice between individualism and community that we have been given over the last century. As we reveal the false choice, we must argue for our Smith/de Tocqueville/Reagan model of a free society and government—an argument we have not made coherently for at least a generation because of our own internal arguments. We need to take the “You did build that” theme, and expand on it with our ageless ideas of creating and maintaining “community” through individual, private, and local action; by showing that the individualism of moral people creates community among neighbors, and that such communities are protected and promoted by local private and public entities, rather than by a federal bureaucracy.
All of the groups we need to persuade to vote for our ticket need to hear the falsity of the choice and answer the Democrats have long promoted, and hear the real argument for the Smith/de Tocqueville/Reagan model that made us exceptional: Latinos and other new immigrant groups who have come to this country to build a better life; African-Americans who have been abandoned to under-education, under-employment and over-incarceration; and women and young people, whose prosperity depends on the economic growth and support that strong neighborhoods provide.
Unless some whiz kid around Romney and Ryan figures out how to make this argument effectively, Obama’s argument will win by default because the false choice has become engrained in our national thinking, and the mood of the country is looking for answers. They’ll embrace even wrong answers to false choices if we don’t show them the choice is false and the answer is wrong, and what is really the right path. We won’t just win this election by doubling-down on social conservatism or rugged individualism, nor do I now think we can limp into the election just focusing on jobs, the budget and government reform. Instead, we need to show why our answers to jobs, the budget and government reform will improve the condition of this country, and to do that we need to address the interrelationship between basic morality, individualism, and strong communities for the success of our model of society and economic growth—an interrelationship that our founders, Smith and de Tocqueville understood and promoted. Then, we need to challenge our neighbors to rebuild this model of society with us.
If Romney articulates the Smith/de Tocqueville/Reagan model effectively, shows why it is relevant to the problems we face, shows how it can work, shows how it will improve lives in the 21st Century, and challenges us to embrace it, he’ll win in a landslide. If not, the public may decide to let their money ride on the wrong bet they made four years ago.