Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Price of Social Mobility

Here are some musings on the Anti-Federalists and a guy named Christopher Lasch who has written some interesting books on American things that can educate and enlighten. These musings are based on his book The Revolt of the Elites" and these musings were made for a class in American government I am teaching this semester where I "work." Herbert Storing was the best professor I ever had the pleasure to learn from and, by the way, play handball with. If you wish to know more about the Anti-Federalists, a great place to start is Storing's little monograph titled, What the Anti-Federalists Were For. There is, I am now convinced, more to say about the Anti-Federalists but Storing says more than anyone else and he takes the AF's seriously.

Even Some More Musings on Anti-Federalism and the “Mobile Society”
P. Schultz
Fall 2009

“Madison’s argument [for a large, commercial society] rests on a doubt about the efficacy of securing liberty by relying on the moral, religious, and patriotic sentiments which were supposed to characterize the small republic. A better, more reliable, base is a wide community of industrious men with much opportunity to gratify their private desires and little opportunity to combine unjustly with others. [Such an arrangement creates an] “intricate net of calculation….” [Herbert Storing, “The Problem of Big Government,” in Toward a More Perfect Union, ed. by Joseph Bessette, p. 292]

Thinking about Lasch’s critique of the concept of “social mobility” and the Anti-Federalists, it occurred to me that there is another dimension to the concept as the principle of what Madison labeled “a large, commercial republic.” As Lasch pointed out in his book The Revolt of the Elites, the principle of social mobility as the linchpin of the American Dream may be contrasted with an earlier principle which might be called “social competence.” That is, when the aspiration that characterizes social life is to climb up “the ladder” of “success” and achieve a higher or even the highest socio-economic rung, education is seen as, in the words of our current president, Obama, “a race to the top.” However, as Lasch notes, this is a relatively recent understanding of the American Dream, the earlier version of which saw education as a means to rendering all Americans competent or independent. So, even though those in the “lower classes” would not be as “well off” as those in the “upper classes”, all would be competent or able to participate intelligently in society, both socially and politically. As Lasch notes, it would not be amiss to call such a society “classless” because all classes of society are deemed equal in the crucial measure of “competence” or “independence.”

This is all well and good. But think also of the implications of social mobility for the character of society from another angle, viz., the angle of mobility itself. In a society that aspires to social mobility, mobility itself, moving about, is embraced as an offshoot of the aspiration to “rise.” When social mobility is the standard society turns into little more than a competitive arena where the struggle for distinction predominates – which only a relatively few can obtain for otherwise they would not be “distinct” – and people accept society as such an arena and not as, say, a nurturing place or perhaps even a settled place. Hence, such a society may also be described as “rootless.” That is, in such a society people are literally “unsettled” or “homeless.” So, not only is a society built on the principle of social mobility one that devalues or denigrates “competence” or “independence,” it is also a society where no one feels “at home.” People are said to be “restless,” “always on the move,” and this way of being in the world pervades society until the concept of rootedness looks more and more like a vice, e.g., like parochialism.

And in the society built on the ideal of social mobility, society itself is viewed as an arena which people use to “rise up,” to achieve “distinction” in one way or the other. This would also be an accurate characterization, as Lasch points out, of a “merit based society,” which is a society where people pursue “merit” [another version of “rising up”] at the expense of other phenomena, one of which would be “rootedness.” And this could mean “rootedness” in either or both places or institutions such as the family. A merit based social arrangement conflicts with and undermines a social arrangement that is based on what today are called “family values,” something some supporters of both a merit based society and a family based society have not noticed.

Moreover, Madison’s “wide community of industrious men…gratify[ing] their private desires…” begins to look more and more like a society of rootless, even homeless people whose lives are characterized not only by the gratification of their private desires but, more importantly and more dangerously, by the pursuit of their ambitions which can only be satisfied by the manipulation of the public and of government to become “great” or achieve fame, the only kind of immortality human beings can be certain of. Insofar as this is correct, there is a greater danger than a socially mobile, merit based society descending into a paltry kind of hedonism that undermines such institutions as the family and churches. There is also the danger that such a society will seek to be “god-like,” seeking to satisfy its longing for immortality by saving or redeeming the world, thereby leading it into adventures that are not only bound to fail but to be inhuman as well.

Gee, and we all thought the argument for a “small republic” could be consigned to the “dust bin of history.” Of course it can but if that is done, we all might be surprised at the price we will pay. Or is it the price we are paying?

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