Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thomas Jefferson's Dilemma: Appealing to Second Order Wants

In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis considers Jefferson's curious attitudes towards slavery, which vacillated from abolition advocacy in his pre-Declaration days to active indifference in his later years. Jefferson knew that slavery was inimical to the republican principles he espoused. Why did he countenance it - not only through political action, but through his own ownership of people?

One reason was that Jefferson was in a severe debt hole, and only slave labor could dig him out. Ellis:

As the depth of his own indebtedness began to sink in, there were three ways to raise large amounts of capital to appease his creditors: He could sell off land, as he did somewhat reluctantly by disposing of holdings in Cumberland and Goochland counties; he could sell slaves outright; and he could rent or lease the labor of his slaves to neighboring planters. He expressed considerable guilt about pursuing the last two options, suggesting it was a betrayal of his paternal obligations to the black members of his extended "family." (p. 175)

Jefferson eventually found a fourth way of securing income, according to Ellis: using slave labor to manufacture nails.

There was, to be certain, other factors that pushed Jefferson later in life to push a strict "state's rights" interpretation of the Revolution that served as a Southern defense of slavery. For Jefferson, abolition and expatriation were tightly coupled. Whites were superior to Africans; the races could never intermingle. There could be no freeing of the slaves without a massive, financially ruinous scheme to ship them back to Africa. (A smaller-scale effort at expatriation led to the formation of Liberia.) But on a personal level, it's worth considering the degree to which greed and fear kept this radical idealist from winnowing down his holdings and living a simpler life, unsupported by human bondage. Like many of us today, Jefferson was enamored of the material life. His superiors in Philadelphia scolded him for living beyond his means while ambassador of France (Ellis, ibid., p. 135). He remodeled Monticello, even though the project guaranteed he would leave his children no inheritance. These choices left Jefferson with a stark dilemma: betray his anti-slavery ideals, or watch his creditors liquidate his legacy. So he kept Monticello and auctioned off his ideals instead.

The sad reality was that Jefferson died a debtor anyway. Even the sale of his library wasn't enough to throw off the yoke of his creditors. Jefferson betrayed his republican principles for nothing.

I don't raise this point to damn Jefferson ex post facto, but to draw a parallel between Jefferson's dilemma and our modern politics. Republican and Libertarian political demagoguery is built around the same material fear that led Jefferson to betray himself to save himself. If a Democrat proposes new taxes to fund public transportation or health care, Republicans decry it as thievery. "They're taking YOUR hard-earned money!" If a Democrat proposes caping carbon emissions or raising fuel efficiency standards, Republicans damn it as an assault on individual freedom and economic prosperity. "Who are they to tell you that YOU can't drive an SUV if you wanna?"

These aren't fears based on any foreseeable threat, such as an environmental catastrophe. These are primal fears, designed to leave the listener feeling as though his very existence is under assault.

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin R. Barber draws a line between what we want and what we want to want. What we want, says Barber, are our "first order wants," which are usually selfish and self-serving: we want to drive that big car, to have the best insurance plan money can buy, to build a high-powered career in marketing. What we want to want, our "second order wants," speak to the type of world we'd prefer to live in: we want to care for our planet, to ensure everyone has access to decent care, to protect our kids from coercive advertising. Rather than call these "selfish" and "altruistic," Barber calls them private and public. First order wants are what we want for ourselves; second order wants are what we want for all of us. (Barber, p. 136)

Barber contends that modern consumer capitalism encourages us to indulge our private wants at the expense of advocating for our public wants. Like Madison Avenue before it, the political Right in America has mastered the art of appealing to our first order wants. Universal health care? But there will be long lines! And you'll lose your top-flight private insurance! Social saftey net? We don't want some welfare queen living off of our hard work! Public transportation? They're making you pay for someone else's bus ride! Global warming? It's a hoax - those tax-and-spend liberals will say anything to fleece you!

(Rightists may complain that I'm saying government is the only solution - that I'm not "open to free-market solutions," which they honestly believe to be the best approach. Well, they're right. "The free market" is an abstraction. The real system we have, with its various laws and restrictions on commercial behavior, is what constitutes our capitalism. And our capitalism is what created these problems in the first place. The idea that doing nothing and praying for corporate beneficence constitutes some sort of solution is laughable.)

The Right wants us all trapped on the horns of Jefferson's dilemma, pitting what we know (or at least sense) is right and just versus our short-term gain. They have been playing this game for decades - and winning it. They have an entire class of voters insisting on their "right" to first-order wants, successfully short-circuiting any dialogue on how best to address the issues we face as a country. The reflexive hatred of the government nurtured by the Right leaves these problems up to "the free market" - i.e., the powerful, multinational corporations that manipulate our economy. In the name of preserving our "freedom" as spending consumers, we are robbed of our freedom as voting citizens.

It's all done in the name of fear. And it's the same sort of fear that kept our Founding Fathers ensnared in the gross contradiction of slavery. It's high time we citizens broke free of this legacy of fear and gave a little of ourselves so that everyone may prosper equally.