Thursday, December 12, 2002
Paul Cella sends me a link to a piece by Fred Reed about how freedom and self-reliance ultimately and naturally evolves into conformity and subjugation. He laments the loss of the world of the rugged yeoman farmer and the arrival of the world of the highly-regulated suburb.
Ah, phooey. As I blogged last month (more recycling!) in discussing the "master-narratives" that animate this country's two major parties, there's a basic dispute at the heart of the American story about what constitutes freedom. Jefferson thought freedom meant being an independent yeoman. But your typical yeoman farmer was crushed by debt and a slave to the land; farming was and is some of the hardest, least profitable work there is, and it gives you no vacation. The only ones who were really "free" were the planter class of gentlemen farmers, and their lifestyle was underwritten by slavery. Although Hamilton is the one usually opposed to Jefferson, he's not a great exponent on the meaning of freedom. Rather, the man who articulated a different idea of what freedom meant was the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln. In his view, freedom meant getting off the damned farm, getting yourself some education and going to the city to make your fortune. Freedom meant not owning and working one's own plot of land but climbing the steep and slippery slope to prosperity and accomplishment, and the best way to do that was in the marketplace and in the city.
I think both these visions of freedom are valid, though my own interests and concerns incline me to Lincoln's vision rather than Jefferson's. But the story Reed recounts, of the closing of the frontier, is over 100 years old. This land is settled. You want to homestead on prime real estate? Get on the bandwagon for terraforming Mars. After all, what opened the frontier in the first place for all those rugged individualists was the combination of the British Navy and the American Army. If the 22nd Century enjoys a renaissance of rugged individualism, it'll be because of the combination of the U.S. Air and Space Force and the kinds of multi-national corporations that Reed complains about.