Are American Citizens Servants or Masters? Needy Suppliants or Sturdy Yeomen?

Ben Peterson’s argument for “national sovereignty” as the “political idea of the year” was so challenging and so persuasive that it seems almost cavalier for me to have observed in commenting upon it that it under-explains the fretwork of national sovereignty. My praise of the argument is sincere, and I do think that it should issue in further discussion. I place at the center of that discussion, however, the urgent necessity to clarify what I have in the past called “political prosperity.”

The idea that people embrace national sovereignty for the sake of national sovereignty, in other words as a mere political abstraction, fails to enlist in its support those political dynamics that give currency to national sovereignty in the first place. Of those dynamics, none is more significant than the conditioning of support for national sovereignty upon the aspiration for humane conditions of life. The nation does not exist for its own sake and, more importantly, in a free society the people do not exist for the sake of the nation.

What, then, are the terms or conditions for the relevance of national sovereignty? I elaborated upon this question theoretically in The Federalist Papers: A Commentary[1], in which I distinguished “political prosperity” and “material prosperity” while nonetheless linking them in a causal relationship. I argue that political prosperity is a prerequisite for general material prosperity in a society. What political prosperity consists in are the institutions and habits of freedom rooted in a due sense of independence and, therefore, agency.

Political prosperity requires a careful political architecture that avoids the emergence of the state as an impediment to the independence of the citizen. In this light, the sovereignty of the nation is nothing other than the correlative independence of the nation that safeguards the independence of the citizen.

It is appropriate to observe that every nation lays claim to sovereignty, while not every nation may lay claim to freedom as its foundation. What does not follow from that, however, is that “the people,” in unfree circumstances, need be understood popularly to embrace the sovereignty of the nation as the condition of their wellbeing. Indeed, the claim of sovereignty in such cases acts with greater force internally than it does externally, for it operates to impose the authority of rulers over the people. We observe the vestigial elements of that practice in claims of “sovereign immunity” in the states of the United States and in claims of “tribal sovereignty” among American Indians. Those cases all invoke an institutional immunity to the claims of individual citizens.

No freedom-loving citizen embraces national sovereignty in order to marginalize his or her own moral and political significance. That was surely the thrust of James Madison’s essay, “Who Are the Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties?” (National Gazette, December 20, 1792). Accordingly, we must seek the reason for the support of national sovereignty in the expressions of the relationship between national sovereignty and individual aspirations that are to be encouraged. This observation, in turn, brings us to the direct articulation of the contrast I drew (in my comment to Ben Peterson) between the sturdy yeoman with the ward of the state.

Let us state simply and concretely what it is that human beings long for and the citizen in a free society has a right to claim. It is this: the fair opportunity to provide competently, by one’s own devices, for the support of a family brought to maturity and, further, to secure an old age unencumbered by material embarrassments. That is the meaning of prosperity for the vast number of human beings and it is the express goal of citizens in a free society. It means not falling into dependence and, therefore, calls for those bourgeois virtues of prudence and fidelity that are necessary in order to the accomplishment of such ends.

In short, the celebration of national sovereignty in a free society is a celebration of the bourgeois virtues and therefore of the ordinary citizen, the sturdy yeoman, who is moved by the protest, “Mother, I’d rather do it myself.” It is not a celebration of the exhaustless search for wealth. It is not a celebration of celebrity. It is not a celebration, even, of genius. While those things will have their place and, in particular, the opportunity to acquire great wealth will be a necessary incident of such a social order, the summit of worth in such a society is independence in character and circumstance.

As George Washington phrased it, “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.” I would maintain, therefore, and for that very reason, that a people who become increasingly wards of the state cannot be elevated by the embrace of national sovereignty. They can only become increasingly subject to dependence and direction. And we may safely reckon that a people who cannot lift their own heads cannot lift up their nation.

We can put “America first” if by that we mean to put Americans first. There will always be politics in the United States as everywhere else in the world. But there will only be American politics for as long as there are Americans. The real political idea of the hour is the idea that there is and must be an American national character, without which, as Washington put it, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”

 

 

[1] W.B. Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Peter Lang, 2000).

W. B. Allen

William B. Allen, Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political Science and Emeritus Dean, James Madison College, at Michigan State University. He served previously as Chairman and Member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Currently he serves as Veritas Fund Senior Fellow in the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University and also as Visiting Professor, Ashland University, Ashbrook Center, Master’s in History and American Government.

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  1. nobody.really says

    Let us state simply and concretely what it is that human beings long for and the citizen in a free society has a right to claim. It is this: the fair opportunity to provide competently, by one’s own devices, for the support of a family brought to maturity and, further, to secure an old age unencumbered by material embarrassments. That is the meaning of prosperity for the vast number of human beings and it is the express goal of citizens in a free society. It means not falling into dependence and, therefore, calls for those bourgeois virtues of prudence and fidelity that are necessary in order to the accomplishment of such ends….

    As George Washington phrased it, “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.”

    I largely agree: Humans long for the fair opportunity to provide competently, by one’s own devices, for the support of a family, etc. It is a powerful longing, perhaps especially so in the US. And it is expressed well in the quote of George Washington—a man who began his military career engaged in brutal battles with Native Americans. He notes the things required for happiness, but glosses over all that is required to secure those things.

    And that is the great lesson: We are all wards of the state. We all live under the protection provided by the military, by police, by courts, by property registries, by intellectual property regimes, by disease control, by regulated utility services, by subsidized research, by courts, etc., etc., etc. But because humans LONG to imagine that they achieve everything by themselves, the state has to do all this stuff under cover, in deep background, so as to preserve people’s prideful illusions.

    Yet because people are kept in the dark about how much they benefit from government, they are prone to turn on government whenever they feel dissatisfaction. Populists are able to make claims and the public is not sufficiently informed to realize the absurdity of those claims.

    Take a simple example: In “unregulated” countries, men can marry (claim) as many women as they can attract. Wealthy, high-status men acquire large harems—with the consequence that many yeomen live a life of frustrated bachelorhood. But in pretty much every advanced economy, men are limited to marrying one woman at a time. This has the effect of shifting the supply of women down the income scale. This outcome is achieved in a manner that is largely invisible to the yeomen. If you told the average Joe that his ability to attract a mate was dependent upon the state, he’d be astonished and offended; it would impugn his dignity and sense of self-worth. So no one tells him that.

    Thus it is that Donald Trump now proposes to help working-class Americans through protectionist policies. He proposes to tax imports, thereby making domestic production seem more competitive. Economist tell us that we could provide workers with the same income more efficiently by permitting free trade to function, but then raising taxes to transfer wealth from the people who benefit to the workers who suffer. But such transfers would not be invisible to the worker. So instead we’ll create protectionist policies that are every bit as manipulative as tax-and-transfer policies, but invisible to the workers.

    Yet the question arises: How much is our pride worth? How much inefficiency can we afford?

    In Washington’s time, the vast majority of US citizens and slaves were employed in agriculture. Thanks to technological changes, we need vastly fewer people to produce vastly more food. So those people have been freed up to go work in other pursuits. Today, technological change is reducing the labor force requirements of pretty much every profession. We simply need ever fewer people to do the work. And in such a world, ever more people will live on government transfer programs of one kind or another. And the cost of keeping all those transfers secret will grow.

    We are rapidly coming to the day when we must confront the question: Even though we all long to embrace the delusion that we’re independent yeomen, how much is that delusion worth?

    • gabe says

      Yep, and we get back to “You didn’t build that”

      Gee, what a surprise that nobody.really believes that nobody is really capable of exercising agency!

      The question is: Who is really being delusional, nobody or everybody!

      I guess because my parents provided me with food as a child and protected me from running out into the streets, that I ought to recognize that I really am not (nor ought I to try to be) capable of exercising independent agency.

      Yo, man, I guess we ain’t yeoman.

      • gabe says

        BTW1:

        It strikes me that nobody. really is, perhaps, the world’s most formidable “slayer” of *StrawMen*, having as he does, a pronounced predilection for proffering and then systematically destroying those StrawMan arguments.

        Again, he proffers a purported belief, by readers of this site, in a view of complete and total independence by citizens from government support / assistance. How easy, it then becomes, by virtue of demonstrating the fallacy of such a position, to then characterize all those who, while actually recognizing citizen interdependence with government, nonetheless, persist in the *delusion* that they are actually free and independent *agents* capable of directing their own destinies. It is not at all dissimilar from his argument in a previous post this week that readers of this site believed that the Declaration was intended as a statement of world / political *fact.*
        Yet, he must recognize that most readers of this site are, at least somewhat, familiar with “social contract” theory which posits a basic trade between security and the ability of the citizen to exercise certain freedoms / liberty. Clearly, we, recognizing, although not necessarily agreeing with, this theory are not likely to “delude” ourselves into thinking that we are TOTALLY free of reliance upon government for our own ability to express/ exercise that same liberty. Yet, as in so many other instances, nobody really wants to take the exception for the entirety of the political condition.

        It does become tiresome this unwillingness to recognize human agency. I wonder does nobody’s pen / keyboard simply script his rather articulate, albeit incorrect, arguments of their own accord. Now that would be DELUSIONAL.

        Awwh! What the heck – nobody. really likes StrawMen anyway!

        BTW2:

        To Mr Allen: A wonderful essay and one that is quite timely given certain reactions / postures of some segments of the political opposition today.

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