Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Microcosm

I am pleased to help to publicize this important piece by the esteemed Hans at NC Renegade about Americans' gradual loss of liberty over the decades. He traces the process through a number of non-obvious stages, with a gradually tightening focus on freedom as a consequence of localism, a condition we have lost with the development of the technological supports of long-range commerce:

Prior to the Civil War, courts in the northern States began to re-define law from its historical focus on private rights in an attempt to establish and mandate public duties that accommodated rail operation.

Expansion of commerce via rail was accompanied by a belief that society must change to embrace technological progress. This may well be the roots of the American progressive movement.

“… the railroads of the 1850s transformed the patterns of social and commercial interactions in two critical dimensions: speed and scale. … The world of commercial interactions was standardized, rationalized, and reshaped in accordance with new forms of industrial production, transport, marketing, and management.” (5)

“Traditional, local conceptions of the public good were inconsistent with a world-view that began with the assumption that long-distance rail traffic was the condition of commercial activity, the route to economic growth, and the measure of human progress.” (6)

“The railroads were recent arrivals, whose rights should have been subordinate to the timeless truths of property usage. … (but) speed was now invoked as the positive good that everyone had a mutual duty to promote, or at least to avoid impeding.” (7)

Railroad law in the northern States was an artificial political construct to accommodate desired technological and economic progress. In the southern States “… adjudication of cases would continue to take as its starting point a comparative evaluation of private property-based rights, … conceiving of economic activities – whether carried out by business corporations, towns, or individuals – as exercises in private interest rather than as instruments bound to the pursuit of public good.” (8)

After the ‘war of northern aggression’, as railroad commerce was expanded across the agricultural south, Reconstruction drove changes from the north into the law of the southern States.

Localism in this context is a matter of orientation: the attitude that puts the highest priority on persons, things, and events nearest to oneself. When Adam Smith noted in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that it is natural to prioritize one's own hangnail over the death of a multitude in a faraway land, he was speaking of that orientation and the consequent system of priorities.

The federal structure originally given to the United States by its Constitution implicitly recognized the naturalness and power of localism. For there is this about what is natural: One sets it aside, or attempts to thwart its operation, entirely at one's own peril.


What struck me most powerfully about Hans's thesis is how "obvious" (i.e., overlooked) it is -- and how I had been working from it unconsciously as a novelist for many years before this.

In the foreword to Freedom's Fury, I wrote:

In [our] world, peopled by men such as ourselves, anarchism—the complete abjuration and avoidance of the State—is unstable. In time, it will always give way to politics. Hammer it to the earth as many times as you may, you will never succeed in killing it permanently. The State will rise again.

However, as we’ve learned to our sorrow these past few centuries, the State is unstable, too. It always deteriorates and falls, though not always swiftly. What follows it varies from place to place and era to era.

The Spooner Federation novels are obsessively localist in their focus. They concentrate almost completely on one district, populated by a few thousand persons, on a planet populated by many millions -- and on the actions of one family, the Morelons, within that district. Yet in the conflicts that embroil the Morelon family, their titans, and the district of Jacksonville can easily be found exactly the seeds to which Hans has pointed in his essay: the emergence of the facilitators of long-range commerce, and their ascendancy as instruments for the enrichment and aggrandizement of whoever can dominate them.

The second and third novels of the Spooner Federation trilogy, Freedom's Scion and Freedom's Fury, employ struggles over the control of air travel and access to space as elements of emerging political power. The potential for enrichment from dominating those elements motivates the Morelons' antagonists. Ultimately, the competition for wealth embraces the usual elements of political strife: force and subterfuge. The conclusion gives the reader a glimpse at an embryonic State: a development, no matter how inevitable in the circumstances, the Spoonerites of Earth and the First Settlers of Hope would have condemned without qualification.

Long-range commerce isn't necessarily a negative development. It takes unrestrained, amoral avarice and callousness to make it so. Unfortunately, Mankind is copiously supplied with both.


Long-range commerce inevitably brings about long-range movement of persons. Population mixing is no more necessarily pernicious than commerce itself, but it has had pernicious consequences in the past, most notably slavery and colonialism.

Hearken now to the inimitable Fred Reed on the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri:

Whites with university educations, who read five books at once, who have never been in a police car, cannot know who the rioters are, cannot imagine how the world seems to them. Black physicists do not loot shoe stores. Those who do tend strongly to be functionally illiterate. The rest have probably never read a book in their lives. They live in a mental world unknown to most whites. They will never live amicably with white cops....

The obvious, inexpensive, simple, practical solution would be to have only black police in black neighborhoods, and white in white. This wouldn’t end shootings because it wouldn’t end crime, but it would end the consequent racial riots, looting, and burned cities. I suggested this when I was police writer for the Washington Times, but was told that it ran against the policy of compulsory integration. Black cops didn’t like the idea because it would leave them in the most dangerous jurisdictions.

The first Negroes in North America were purchased from black African tribal kings by white slave-ship captains and sold to slaveholders in the south. There is no evidence that they volunteered to be parted from their homelands and everyone they knew. It was the slave traders' willingness to violate their rights for a profit that made them Americans. But Reed has a larger point to make than the cultural divide between the races:

Note that the togetherheid pushed endlessly on us is almost entirely rhetorical, preached by people who mean that others should practice it. I lived for years in the city with many liberal, racially correct friends. They spent all their time with other whites, and the restaurants and bars they patronized seldom had more than a token black, if that.

Ethnic mixing doesn’t work, gang. Not Moslems and Parisians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Shias and Sunnis, Indonesians and Chinese, nor even New Yorkers and Alabamans. We think it should work, insist that it will, punish those who observe that it doesn’t. Yet still it doesn’t work. The greater the difference between groups, the less well it works. If we realized this, and let people do as they choose, the country would be much better off.

I cannot disagree, despite my own lifelong wish that it should be otherwise. But more important than anyone's anguish over the matter, whether nurtured in secret or openly proclaimed, is the importance of compulsory population mixing in the genesis of political power.


Vanishingly few of us actually like conflict. When conflict arises among us, we immediately look for a countervailing force. In today's America, we tend to look to the State.

It was not always thus. The State's exercise of the "police power," by which it claims the privilege of coercion and constraint in anticipation of a judgment, is somewhat younger than the country itself. Before the organization of "public" police forces, maintaining public order and apprehending offenders against the law were responsibilities of the common citizenry.

I cannot say of my own knowledge whether that previous state of society was in any objective sense "better" or "worse" than what followed, according to any pertinent standard. But the dynamic of delegation -- the transfer of an ongoing responsibility to a hired agent -- has certain consequences that can only be negative:

  • The delegator swiftly feels relieved of all aspects of the job except paying the agent.
  • The agent, being a hired hand, has less of a commitment to the job than to his own well-being.
  • The two are more likely than not to squabble over:
    • The scope of the job;
    • How well it's being performed;
    • The appropriate remuneration for it;
    • The appropriate metrics for adequate performance;
    • The appropriate degree of latitude of action to be afforded the agent.

The case of Ferguson, where a nearly pure-white police force is responsible for maintaining public order in a two-thirds black community, offers an even greater hazard, owing to the influences Reed cites in his essay. That the shooting of junior-varsity thug Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson brought matters to a head should surprise no one except the excessively multiculturally credulous. Neither should the rapidly intensifying arguments over the use of military-grade gear by the understandably fearful Ferguson police, and the governor's invocation of the National Guard to reimpose order, given the immediate eruption of violence under the guise of "protest."

Worse is in the offing as National Guard troopers from all over Missouri flood into Ferguson, a place to which few of them will have any ties. The chasm between the "forces of order" and those they're intended to watch over will grow wider as the freedom of action of Ferguson residents is circumscribed further. It could only get worse with federal involvement...and that, frighteningly, now appears to be on the horizon.


There's much more one could say about this, but my duties beckon. The key lies in localism: essentially, the attitude that "our problems," for the most geographically concentrated meanings of "our," are properly ours to cope with, and not to be handed off to hirelings who might botch it. The fatuity of discarding localism, such that everything becomes everyone's concern and everyone's responsibility to fix, becomes ever plainer as racially, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous population nodes reassert local prerogatives, effectively walling themselves off from the surrounding nation. Some such become exclaves, where the writ of law as the rest of us understand it does not run.

The most vivid illustrations involve Islamic populations imported into historically non-Islamic nations. France has its banlieus. Britain has Luton and similar districts. America has Dearborn, Michigan. But though the cleavage in Ferguson is racial rather than religious, the dynamics driving local sociopolitical developments are much the same.

I might return to this. Stay tuned.

2 comments:

  1. Hello Fran

    With regard to your article above, I believe you extracted significantly more content than I put into my post ... :>)

    My exploration was simply an attempt to identify an "inflection point" which signified a legal departure from traditional common-law.

    Your observations regarding the effects of "localism" and freedom are well beyond the limited goal of my essay and a delight to contemplate.

    Thank You,
    Hans ... in the NC woods

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  2. In my old age, having lived through the civil rights movement, I have become a segregationist and a White Nationalist. I believe each people has a right to its own goverment, territory, and culture. This would require, of course, large scale racial transfers and the elimination of the federal government. So be it. I am no longer an American. I am a White Man.

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