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What Liberals Know That Isn't So Letter to Howie

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Middle Class Self-Government

by Christopher Chantrill
April 03, 2004 at 7:00 pm


AMONG THE STARTLING claims made by Lee Harris in his Civilization and its Enemies is the idea that one day in 1500 the German bourgeoisie woke up and decided that they didn’t need any more priests or warrior princes ruling over them.  They had been “making almost all the decisions about their own affairs... without the continual appeal to [a] decision-making authority.”  Waking up to what they had achieved, “they decided to make an issue of it, that is, to turn it into a principle that could be applied more generally,” for instance to self-government in politics and religion.

What does it take for this self-governing principle to work?  Two things, according to Harris.  It takes trust and conscience.  You are qualified for self-government if you are trustworthy, and you are trustworthy if you have a conscience.  The bourgeois merchants developed this in the course of business because it had immense practical benefits in lowering transaction costs.  For instance, they developed the bill of exchange so a merchant could pay another merchant on the other side of Europe without having to send any actual gold or silver.  It could only work if two banks and two merchants all trusted each other. 

When the rising bourgeoisie rose to political power it naturally started to implement upon the rest of society the trust paradigm that had served it so well, and was shocked to discover that plenty of people didn’t like it.  Why not, they wondered?

There are two groups of people who feel they don’t stand to gain in a middle-class culture of self-government.  There are those who are not yet ready for self-government, who need the safety net of status rather than the rigors of contract, and who must scrabble a living from the world as peasants or workers as best they can.  And then there are those who stand to be out of a job in a self-governing society.

Uncomfortable as they were with the bourgeois ethos, the nineteenth-century workers found a way to obtain for themselves a degree of security and independence, by building their own labor unions and fraternal associations.  They built their authentic social organizations with blood and toil—and with immense pride.  With their labor unions they could negotiate with the bosses and with their friendly societies and fraternal associations they afford death benefits and sick pay.  They could enjoy the pride of independence and self-government in their own way.

But the political classes felt left out.  Since time immemorial they had occupied the commanding heights of society and didn’t see why they should allow a self-governing society to reduce them to irrelevance.  So they offered the working classes a deal.  They would expropriate some of the moneys extorted from the workers by the evil capitalists, and pay it out to the working classes to raise their standard of living much faster than the slow road of union solidarity and fraternal mutual-aid.  All they needed to do the job was votes.

In Europe, the workers never had a chance.  The socialist sons of the middle class ganged up with the reactionary sons of the old aristocracy and gave the workers the welfare state.  In the United States, the workers stuck it out longer, led by men like Samuel Gompers, who didn’t trust the middle class bearing gifts.  In the end, they succumbed too.  Their fraternal associations withered away and their unions turned into public employee lobbying groups.

Why did so many sons of the middle class conspire to wreck the self-governing culture of their fathers?  Perhaps because many prominent lefties never achieved a robust independence in their own lives, and never came to value the miracle of the self-governing society.  Marx was the son of a successful lawyer and sponged off Engels most of his adult life.  And Engels was in England to work as Daddy’s representative in Manchester and keep an eye on the other half of the textile firm of Engels & Ermen.  In England the Fabian Society was inspired by William Morris, the son of a businessman and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the mid-nineteenth century.  Angered that Art was thwarted at every turn by commerce and “its sneering question ‘Will it pay,’” he became a socialist and influenced Hubert Bland, son of a businessman, who founded the Fabian Society in 1883.

  But despite the scorn of the elite classes, every generation in the United States brings a new cohort to proud middle-class independence.  They ask the same questions that the German burghers asked half a millennium ago.  If I can run a business, meet a payroll, and satisfy my customers, why do I need experts and politicians to tell me how to run my life?  Why indeed?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

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Francis Fukuyama, Trust

Hugo on Genius

“Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns... ” —Victor Hugo
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E. G. West, Education and the State

Faith & Purpose

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Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy

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China and Christianity

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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