George Washington and others led America in not one revolution, but two. The New World offered an opportunity to apply certain ideals being articulated by the European Enlightenment into a new form of self-governance. Those efforts for independence were financed by a fertile new idea about cultivating economic fortune.
North America had a vast expanse, favorable climate, and productive soil. Together, they offered white settlers a new source of incredible wealth. While Europe was hunting for gold and trading exotic spices, Americans were amassing wealth they could grow — sugar, rice, tobacco, cotton, timber.
In one of those accidents of history, patent law was emerging to protect intellectual property just as the American colonies were forming “a more perfect union.” It’s no wonder that America seized the Western imagination as a place where anything can grow — even ideas.
In this way, democracy and capitalism grew up together. Where the world saw intractable contradictions, these United States forged synergy. “One man, one vote” on Election Day. “Every man for himself” on all the others.
Our political system requires and rewards selflessness. Every citizen’s desire can be granted and affirmed only by the majority of others. It’s a plodding and ponderous process.
Our business ethic, on the other hand, can turn on a dime. And it will, when there are enough dimes involved. Selfishness, when uniformly practiced and applied, creates the world’s most efficient trading system. Adam Smith called it “rational self-interest” in Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. (Another accident of history.)
We’ve forgotten these two systems are separate for many reasons. Here are two.
Since we became the world’s first superpower, we’ve insisted that they must be adopted together. We fused these two ideals and reached the pinnacle of power. We believe any nation following our example must do the same. Free trade and free expression have become inseparable.
A hundred years ago, we gave corporations the protections of personhood. Then we gave individuals access to the stock market. Since individuals’ pensions benefit now from corporate wealth generation, it’s become impossible to separate the two. Our responsibilities as citizens and as consumers have become fused.
Remember George W. Bush’s patriotic plea after the September 11th attacks? “Go shopping.”
We may not have noticed the two systems conflicting because consumer economics has been addicted to short-term gains for the past two generations, while political movements have habitually sought changes that would prove more durable.
Those two systems seem to be switching places before our eyes. Politicians have lost any sense of statesmanship, pursuing whatever policy will give them or their supporters an immediate benefit. Meanwhile, corporations are finding that their brand is no longer worth sacrificing for a quick profit. Amazon, Alphabet, and Apple have each taken a turn ignoring quarterly profits, in search of longer-term wealth. These three are racing to be the first company to be worth a trillion dollars.
Senators cannot summon the courage to curb a troubled teen’s ability to buy a semi-automatic rifle. So CEOs are announcing that their companies will stop selling them. This is not how most social changes have occurred in our lifetime, but there’s nothing to keep it from being that way.
In this context, it’s worth noting how guns are situated at a unique intersection of these two systems. The currently prevailing interpretation of our Constitution’s Second Amendment protects the right of citizens to buy and own a gun. Glossy ads promote this protected right to the manufacturer’s commercial benefit — no well-regulated militia required.
Is the person viewing that advertisement as a citizen or as a consumer? If they can’t quite see the difference, it’s because that ambiguity is intentional. If being a good American involves shopping, why not buy the ultimate tool of personal empowerment?
If only books and newspaper subscriptions had appealed to consumers’ patriotism, we might be better off today. Maybe it’s not too late to mount a similar advertising campaign.
“Buy this newspaper or read this book, before the government allows them to be taken away from you.” That message might be too soon effective and true.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.