Monday, February 27, 2012

Government as Preventer of Tyranny

Many in America tend to pine for the old American West.  They look back at a day when all men were equals.  They look back upon a day when any man could live off the fat of the land.  They look back to a time where men organized themselves into communities and ran justice on a local and fair scale.  They look back to a time when they didn't have to worry about interference from the federal government.  They look back at a time when they didn't have to fear the machinations of East coast financiers.  In short, they look back upon a fantasy.

The American West was like most any despotic society.  In Montana, you had a handful of rich cattle barons who dictated the terms to everyone else.  In New Mexico, the real story of Billy the Kid was really a sub plot in a civil war.  In history it was the Lincoln County War, and it is described as a range war.  That range was about a quarter of New Mexico.  The parties of the war were represented by two wealthy families.  In the southwest, there were countless injustices against the native Hispanic farmers.  Of course the majority of cowboys were also Hispanic.  Most everywhere the justice system had to be funded.  The people funding it  weren't folks who traded wheat or corn for implements.  They were of course the wealthy, and it was their interests they served first.  In other parts of the West, land was expropriated from people who tended it to pay for transcontinental railroads.

The real West is of course not that different from all of human history.  It is only when the common people have interests and rights for which they demand acknowledgement do we see modern government come into being.  As long as the people are under the thumb of the powerful, whether they be actual slave holders or de facto, there is no need for government.  In fact the first governments were to mediate disputes between the wealthy.  The Magna Carta was not about recognizing the rights of every man but it was about recognizing the rights of the near nobility vis-a-vis the king of England.  This idea of governance versus people allows you to claim that at a point and time in history almost all of Europe was Christian but only a minority of her people had heard the Gospel.


  1. The Anglo-Saxon mind has a hard time grasping what even those in the ancient Greek and Roman world knew: that the polis or civitas was the sine qua non of freedom, and not its antithesis. To be free was to be part of the city; indeed, even the image of the heavenly Jerusalem is of a city and not of the cottage or house of the yeoman farmer. One wonders where they get such romanticism of the countryside, and the adjunct idea that freedom means being left alone to your own little kingdom of the home. One wonders if the suburbanization of America, seen in the abandonment of cities to blight and neglect, is really a turn to decadent barbarism: capital turning against civilization itself since the organization of people into cities is the root of people realizing themselves as Subjects, at least in many cases.

  2. First, thanks for stopping in my new home. It has been a particular point of frustration for me since I come from this culture. The ideal country life was what one dreamed of even if you weren't going to be a farmer when I was growing up. Thankfully I didn't hit a Wendel Berry phase, but I was indeed sucked in by the agrarians. You are absolutely right that this conception of happiness is not universal throughout history. I also think that you are correct that suburbanization is a turn to barbarism. While I would never idealize the ghetto, there is more of a willingness there for the community to intervene with a problem which I think counts something for humanity. In the suburbs, people feign concern if they accidentally happen upon it and then scurry back to their cul-de-sac.


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