Ben Franklin at the Lord’s Privy Council
A few weeks ago, I was one of the headlined speakers at Freedom Fest, the big libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Do I seem an odd choice, given my past thorough and merciless dissections of Ayn Rand?In fact I’ve done this before, showing up to suggest that a movement claiming to be all about freedom might want to veer away from its recent, mutant obsession — empowering and enabling the kind of owner-oligarchy that oppressed humanity all across the last 6000 years. Instead, I propose going back to a more healthy and well-grounded libertarian rootstock — encouraging the vast creative power of open-flat-fair competition……a word that libertarians scarcely mention, anymore. Because it conflicts fundamentally with their current focus — promoting inherited oligarchy.With that impudent, contrary attitude, would you believe I had a fine and interesting time? My son and I dined at the VIP table with publishing magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Along with humorist P. J. O’Rourke and John Mackey (Whole Foods and an avid SciFi reader.) Also at the table? Grover (I kid you not) Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a guiding force beyond the American right’s current-central obsession — that government of/by/for the people must perish from the Earth.Would you be surprised that I was the most-liberal voice at this gathering? And yes, I managed to poke without being rude. (I’ve been known to poke in other directions, too!) I even learned a few things. See an addendum, below, offering more about the Freedom Fest event.Foremost, though, I want to focus on one piece of polemic that Grover Norquist thrust upon us over dinner, concerning the origins of the American Revolution.
“History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme” – Mark Twain.
Brin encapsulates much of what I also feel is true. There were many reasons for the Revolution, but almost all derived from Age of Enlightenment/Reason thought – some of it economic in nature, but not focussed on tax rates per se.
- Monopolies that cut out American merchants and put the yoke of colonialism on American industry while funneling cash to the richest of the British – a process denounced by Adam Smith.
- Absolute control of money by the British, making a robust American economy almost impossible. At one point, the colonies wanted to be taxed so as to have some cash of their own.
- Another thing denounced by Smith – rent-seeking by the British rather than opening up new markets.
- If they were to be taxed, the colonies wanted an equal and representative say in how this was done.
- Control of the frontier, preventing anyone from leaving the rule of the British.
- A primary and radical idea of the Enlightenment era – all people were equal. So why should a hereditary lord have more power than a freeborn American?
All of these deal with the power of inherited and hierarchical authority as it combats a distributed democracy.
If one wants a quick synopsis of the effects these sorts of policies had on Americans, the utter failure of landed gentry and hereditary authority to understand the American spirit, read about Franklin’s hour in front of the Lord’s Privy Council in 1774.
The attempt to utterly humiliate the smartest and most brilliant mind the world knew at the time is shameful. And all it really accomplished was to take that brilliant mind and turn it away from the hierarchical authority of Britain, to focus it fully on the distributed democracy of America.
Franklin was silent in the face of authority but he quickly made his new point of view clear, helping frame many of our most important political efforts. Then, in a truly distributed approach, Franklin would also make sure Britain paid for the insults he took silently when he negotiated the peace treaty.
He found a great way to route around the damage of inherited wealth and hierarchical authority. Destroy its wealth and disavow its authority.
This is a solution we have done again and again when this battle has been engaged.
Today we find ourselves again fighting a battle between hierarchical authority and distributed democracy. Like then it cuts across parties. In the same way Adams and Jefferson could come together, so too will we see something similar happen.
Because this is at the heart of being an American, as Brin wrote: (his bold):
The colonies were already home to a new spirit and ethos – part cantankerous, part ebullient and hopeful, and part-scientific, with all those portions combining to demand one core question:
“Why should I have to bow down, or be bullied, by another mere human… just because of who his father was?”
The irony is rich. Those today citing the Founders most often are folks who are most vigorously helping propel us back into a world of inherited status, dominated by clans and cartels of aristocratic families.
I’d add “ or how rich he is?” We created the first modern democracy – of, by and for the people – not to just see the top 1% control our economic and political future.
As Brin states our ‘secret sauce” is an open and mutual accountability to and by others,. It is a social contract, something that every ruling class has attempted to destroy.
Make no mistake. The Charleston tories became Confederate plantation lords, who aimed to re-establish inherited-landed-ownership nobility, the classic human pattern that ruined competition and freedom and social mobility in every society other than ours.
And that torch is now carried by hirelings of a new oligarchy, diverting libertarian passion away from flat-open-fair competition over to worship of absolute property rights, no matter how inherited or how much this re-creates the Olde Order that sparked our Revolution.
One conflict Brin omits because it was not directly an American civil matter is World War II. Here, in many ways, the battle between authoritarian rule by a fascist elite and the distributed approaches of Western democracies was again won by those who have been winning these conflicts since at least 1776.
So, every 80 years or so we Americans have been involved in a tremendous battle over the same things, over hierarchical authority’s need to destroy the benefits of distributed democracy.
I expect they will lose once again. And lose big because we have new tools that support distributed democracy to an extent not seen in perhaps 10,000 years.