What I'm Reading
By Arnold Kling
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.