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The Genius of Self-Government

by Christopher Chantrill
August 28, 2004 at 8:00 pm


ISN’T it convenient that Speaker Hastert’s book came out the week before the Republican Convention with a juicy quote about Senator Clinton? She thinks that the federal government spends money more wisely than people spending their own money.  Oh really. There are some of us, Senator, who think that the opposite is true.

You could call it the difference between the German model of politics and the All-American model.  Over the last two centuries, the Germans have come up with one brilliant idea after another: Kant’s philosophy, modern psychology, the research university, socialism, relativity, and quantum mechanics—even the modern army.  But one thing they really screwed up:  Self-government.  Again and again they blew it until the world’s foremost experts in self-government thoughtfully conquered them and gave them, finally, the Rechtstaat they had been philosophizing about since the early nineteenth century.  You could think of it as a thank-you gift from Uncle Sam for the brain drain of brilliant Germans sent to the United States in the 1930s.

Self-government has always been the great American achievement.  We all know this, of course, but we don’t really know it.  Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto didn’t really know it either.  Then he tried to find out why the United States has a functioning property system and Peru had a profound disconnect between the formal government sector and the informal, extralegal sector. He found, in The Mystery of Capital, that back in the nineteenth century the U.S had the same kind of property mess that Peru had in the mid twentieth century.   

Starting from the early years of European settlement in North America there had been a conflict between the formal law of property that generally benefited the landed elite and the informal rules, the living law, developed by migrants and squatters.  By the 1820s, legal experts were close to despair.  It seemed impossible to reconcile the warring interests.  To the Peruvian de Soto, this sounded familiar.  It was just like Peru where the informal living property law in the villages was at war with the written law of the land.  How then had the United States solved its land tenure problems?  The answer was that the suits had capitulated to the squatters.  The landmark Homestead Act of 1862, he realized, essentially encoded the living law of the squatters.  If you worked the land, the law now said, you got to own it.

Then there were the miners.  In 1848 gold was discovered in the state of California, the spoils of the Mexican-American War of 1848.  The 49ers discovered when they got to the goldfields that the suits back in Washington DC had omitted to provide the United States with a comprehensive and mandatory National Mineral Rights Act.  Rather than throw their hands up in disgust, they set to work forming mineral districts and developing a living law of mineral rights as they went along.  In 1866 and 1872 when the suits finally got around to drafting a national mineral law, Congress essentially encoded the living law that the miners had put together in their individual mining districts in the high Sierras in the intervening years.

When there is a disconnect between the living law of the people and the formal law of the suits, de Soto realized, the fault usually lies with the suits.  At the very least, the suits should think long and hard before imposing their lofty ideas upon the common people.

But Senator Clinton doesn’t care. Back in June she told a meeting of rich Democrats: “we’re probably going to cut that [tax cut] short and not give it to you.  We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.”  Or the First Lady Clinton who told Denny Hastert ten years ago that, in Hastert’s words: “she felt if money goes to individuals and they have control over it, then that is money that the government doesn’t have.  People wouldn’t spend their money as wisely as the federal government would.”

The Clinton Way is the German way, the vanguard elitism of Karl Marx, the paternalistic social insurance of Bismarck, the one-size-fits-all way of Prussian state schools, the cradle-to-grave mothering of the “social market.”  It is based on the German cult of genius in the elite and the presumption of helplessness in everyone else.

But there’s another way.  It’s called the American Way, and it works.  It’s based on an assumption of competence, that ordinary people can govern themselves—without the constant interference of self-nominated geniuses.  Again and again, Americans have demonstrated their competence at self-government, but some people just don’t get it.   This Fall, let’s all send a message to our overweening elites.  We believe in the American Way, not the German way.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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