Monday, October 30, 2017

The Significance of the Frontier



A week or so ago in a posting on how to make tax reform even worse, we noted that when the State starts to take over more and more control over people’s lives, not only the State becomes overburdened with duties, but the citizens become overburdened with taxes.  Somebody, after all, has to pay for such things, such as universal basic incomes; money just doesn’t appear out of nowhere.

Nor is that all.  A burden also falls on consumers as a result of inflating the price level by the government emitting debt to finance social programs and raising the costs of production by increasing wages.  As the solidarist labor economist Goetz Antony Briefs (1889-1974) noted regarding this transformation,
Goetz Briefs
It is a fact that large groups of workers today have no objection to raise against propertylessness — provided their jobs are secure, their wages sufficient, and provisions are made through social insurance for old age and unemployment.  To meet these requirements the economic system has had to shoulder increasing burdens and to put up with an increasing amount of social legislation, which, of course, implies additional regimentation.  As long as the risks of a propertyless, dependent life were private affairs of the worker, it paid to transform work more and more into wage work.  Now, however, since the concomitant costs of this process are gradually being made public costs to be carried through taxes levied upon business and the general public, it is becoming questionable whether or not the aforementioned process was always as economical as it seemed to be. (Goetz A. Briefs, The Proletariat: A Challenge to Western Civilization.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1937, 273-274.)
After World War II, the United States relied on the reformed capitalism of the New Deal both domestically and internationally in an attempt to ensure post-war government-sponsored economic prosperity and full wage system employment.  It could therefore be argued that the Allied victory in World War II was in spite of, not because of, the Keynesian economic policies of the New Deal. 
Alexis de Tocqueville
The “Frontier Thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) offers an explanation why the New Deal and its underlying philosophy were the antithesis of everything that had contributed to the unique American character.  That character had impressed such diverse commentators and authorities as Alexis de Tocqueville, William Cobbett (1763-1835), Michel-Guillaume-Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur (“J. Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur,” 1735-1813), and every pope since Pius VII.  As Turner noted in 1893 in his paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” —
American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area.  American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier.  This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.  The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. (Frederick Jackson Turner, “XVIII. — The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893.  Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894, 200.)
The American character thereby developed out of a situation much closer to nature — human nature — than was possible in Europe with its entrenched economic, political, and social élites.  This situation was not the result of the wilderness, per se, but the opportunity the wilderness represented for anyone to make his or her own way, freed from artificial and nature-stifling constraints.  This was the opportunity to gain ownership of a reasonable amount of landed capital, and the power that necessarily accompanies such ownership.
Personal empowerment through capital ownership and the habit of forming private associations for every conceivable purpose led to the development of democracy of a different kind than was possible in Europe, as Pius IX discovered to his cost.  American democracy inspired European democracy, but the latter was a pale imitation of the former based on different (and, according to the Catholic Church, erroneous) assumptions about human nature, both individual and social.  As Turner noted,
Frederick Jackson Turner
[T]he most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe.  As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism.  Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family.  The tendency is anti-social.  It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. . . . The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy. . . . So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. (Ibid., 221-223.)
Nor are the effects of a frontier limited to individual economic and political power:
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. . . . That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.  Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. (Ibid., 226-227.)
With the closing of the frontier, democracy in the United States began to shift away from its uniquely American and natural character based on the sovereignty of the individual and the dignity of the human person with an appreciation of people’s political nature.  Democracy gradually began transforming into the European model based on sovereignty of the collective and the dignity of the State.
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