If Only: the Founders and Income Inequality

Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. Continue reading

Facebook, Locke, and Privacy


It cracks me up — though it doesn’t appear to amuse John Locke, left — that Facebook users are expressing privacy concerns.

Of course every site of which you’re an active user, and to which you provide billing and credit card info, location, various statuses, and so forth, makes you vulnerable both to theft and to having your personal info sold, legitimately or otherwise, to spammers, junkmailers, market researchers, and others. If FB’s security around that stuff is weak or its policies lax, that’s mildly unfortunate, and with a site so big — really, a kind of ad hoc and rapidly developing platform — there’s no way for FB to handle everything that happens on FB.

But since when did the ultimate purpose of privacy come down to keeping your personal data secret? The real theory and practice of privacy has played a critical role in creating the liberal, Western culture that everybody using FB reflexively relies on. And FB is the biggest reflection yet of our collective urge to demolish that theory and practice.

The amazing thing about FB is that instead of asking 50 [UPDATE: I mean 500!] million people to take a moment to respond to a marketing survey — which of course would be impossible to do, would get a 2% response rate even if it were feasible, and could pose only a very limited number of questions, providing dumb, crude results — FB has inspired all 50[0] million actively to publish, on their own hook, a vast, developing, daily and hourly proliferating and self-perpetuating body of extraordinarily detailed information about themselves. This is not about your name (please!) but about your and everybody’s else’s “likes,” keywords in posts, and perhaps most importantly, [UPDATE: or maybe not?] digitally networked relationships. That’s a 100% response rate from 50[0] million people on a kind of info that has never been imagined before.

ZuckerbergNobody planned that. The whole point is that only we who joined FB could have done it.

The real value of that info lies not in what we like to think of as the personal. As usual, FB users aggrandize themselves, placing importance on their individual preferences and choices (without self-aggrandizement, no FB!). Actually nobody significantly cares what you, in particular, “like,” or who you, in particular, are particular “friends” with. (If you’re using FB to start a loose association of terrorist sleeper cells, you’re the exception that proves this rule.) The value of the data lies in how an extraordinary multitude of factors of your personal info relate to those many factors of the other 49[9],999,999 active FB users’. Pattern-making has only just begun, and so far what’s known about it looks pretty crude to me, but I think the possibilities for vastness, nuance, and kinds of reporting look, literally, infinite.

OMG, what if this capability falls into the wrong hands?

It’s already in the wrong hands: ours.

Real privacy was never supposed to be about mere sneakthief prevention or avoiding irritating solicitation. And it actually was individual — in a way that FB, for all its titillation of “you,” and “your” supposedly individual “likes,” overwhelmingly is not. FB may be the biggest collective action ever taken, though in service of ends that we in the collective — and maybe even the inventors — know not of. Which may make it merely the biggest mass hysteria outbreak of all time. And time alone will tell.

In liberal Western thought, however, the very justification of private property, over and against those who have called property nothing but theft, has been that liberty, and thus genuine, responsible contribution to the public good, is possible only in a condition of personal independence from excessive influence. The one way to limit the power of the sovereign, back in the day, was to create private spheres where the sovereign could not legally enter (without consent). Those rights are held individually, not collectively (even though representative bodies may be elected to enforce them). Hence this post’s reference to Locke, but he was far from alone.

Publishing — public speech, one of the key liberties — has always involved a tension: it sacrifices a portion of the privacy that enables it. People used to publish anonymously, and nobody would have published at all except for some benefit (money, glory, controlling or insulting other people, attracting sex partners) that appeared to outweigh the awful sacrifice. Publishing involves compromises of which FBers, a new kind of publisher, appear largely oblivious. When you blithely publish a picture of my vacation house without my consent, for the public ooh-and-ahing (and possibly the private disdain) of your 4000 FB “friends,” you’ve violated not only my privacy but much more importantly 1000 years of the hard-won liberty you rely on both to travel to my vacation house at all and to publish at will.

Turning what should be private into something obsessively, self-consciously public — written conversation, in particular, whether one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many, seems to me the most revolting example of this phenomenon on FB — is part and parcel of a retreat from genuine public engagement. And that retreat includes ranting on FB, and soliciting signatures and votes, regarding whatever’s bugging you politically. Real engagement is only truly possible, according to the old rad Whigs on whose thinking our entire culture is so problematically based, where privacy is not only maintained but also understood. Our understanding of what privacy is, as both FBing itself and FBers’ worries about security show, has been undermined, possibly fatally.

Those Whigs were not democrats. They feared social “levelling” in part because they feared and loathed the classes beneath them and wanted to protect their property (secretly suspecting, perhaps, that property is theft, and that the laborers might someday try to get it back!). But on the highest levels, they at worst rationalized their elitism, and at best transcended it, by warning against the absence of political independence that can come with the democratizing spirit. They feared political machines and parties and demagogues.

It’s an irony — polite word for “OMFG, now we’ve totally ruined everything” — that the virtual-world take on college elitism that was the original FB has so democratized publishing, while so quickly demolishing general understanding of privacy, that our political machines might look benign by comparison, to the old 17th C. liberty crowd, without whom none of this stuff would have developed in the first place.

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