On The Idea of America

The Fourth of July is upon us again and a couple hundred million people in the middle latitudes of the North American continent are going to celebrate the birth of the United States. Most of them assume that this means they’ll also be celebrating being American, but that’s not necessarily so.

The United States is a political thing, one heir to the typical failings of politics, and the almost imperceptibly slow decay of republican virtue into nanny statism and imperial hubris.

America, however, is something different. It is not the same thing as the United States that seek to overlay it and to smother it. America is an idea that precedes the US and, we like to believe, both transcends the nation-state and will outlive it.

As Thomas Paine says:

“Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”

The new version of The Idea Of America: What It Was and How It Was Lost collects in one volume the greatest essays about what America means. It is something undeniably anarchist, resolutely independent and demanding of personal liberty no matter the cost in inconvenience and even in the face of mortal danger.

As stated before America precedes the US, but from the founding of the political version of the nation, a dozen generations have sequentially sacrificed more liberty, more of the uniquely American independence for perceived expedience, convenience and security.

“The desire for material ease long ago vanquished the spirit of ’76,” writes American Anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre.

The Idea Of America co-editor Bill Bonner adds, “People in the land of the free and the home of the brave will go along with almost anything. They are perfectly willing to give up almost every trace of freedom as long as they have security and economic comfort.”

I don’t know many books that can hook the reader so powerfully just with the introduction, but that is exactly what The Idea of America does.

Co-editors Bill Bonner and Pierre Lemieux start out strong. I was actually worried that there would be no way for the book to deliver on the promise offered by such a strong start. I needn’t have worried. I mean, really how could you go wrong with Murray Rothbard, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, and other such luminaries?

Lemieux’s introduction begins the book with a tour of American history that smartly highlights how the forces of liberty have vied with those of state intervention. The book then continues with selections from Murray Rothbard, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Lord Acton. An entire section is devoted to selections from Alexis de Tocqueville. The rest of the book features Jefferson, Franklin, Thoreau, Mencken. This new edition also has selections from Emma Lazarus and Rose Wilder Lane. The book is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choice quotes.

Take for example this one from Alexis de Tocqueville defining the totalitarian nanny state, devoid of outright despotism, but destructive nonetheless. From his essay on democratic despotism:

“…[T]he species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

“…After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

“…I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.”

Then there’s Benjamin Franklin’s “To Those Who Would Remove To America”, as classic a description of the essence of the true American. Franklin asks of any man would start fresh in America:

“…[W]hat can he do? If he has any useful art, he is welcome; and if he exercises it and behaves well, he will be respected by all that know him; but a mere man of quality, who on that account wants to live upon the public, by some office or salary, will be despised and disregarded. The husbandman is in honor there, and even the mechanic, because their employments are useful.”

Franklin also provides a lesson in capitalism, finding a need and filling it and of the economics of early America, what sort of person and skills would flourish in the new country.

In the next essay, the equally inimitable H.L. Mencken puts it so: “All our cities are full of aristocrats whose grandfathers were day laborers, and clerks whose grandfathers were aristocrats.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson adds:

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

“Consider what is happening in public finance,” Bill Bonner asks of the reader in parting.

“An individual might say, ‘This country must stop spending so much money.’ But he will not want to give up his own public benefits-his Social Security, his Medicaid, all his government checks. He has no reason to give up his benefits, because it wouldn’t make a dent in the problem. It is as if the whole nation had a single credit card. It does not make any sense for a single individual to take himself off the Social Security rolls. Thus, mass institutions have no way to correct their own courses; they must continue down the path to ruin.”

It seems like a lost cause. As if things must simply run their course. As if the idea of America must decline and die like everything else.

There’s an undeniable tragedy to this Fourth of July. The decay has become too advanced for anyone not in denial to ignore: The foreign entanglements, the innumerable tendrils of state intervention, the advancement of the police state…

As we mark the birth of the Republic this year it has never been easier to think about its death. It’s no random republishing that brings this new edition of The Idea of America to us now.

I am going to give away the ending, but I think it’s worth it…

Bill Bonner paraphrases Ghandi when he concludes, “America is a very good idea. Somebody ought to try it.”

Who can argue with that? This book will certainly make you want to try.


Gary Gibson
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning