I use Barataria to throw out a few ideas and new perspectives that I’m not entirely sure of myself. I hope you see this as a way of thinking out loud. Difficult social topics are rarely settled in one person’s mind, no matter how much they are mulled over. I want to take the time to tell you where I’ve been going with some of this and see what you think.
I have two central themes when it comes to the economy. The first is that there is no Recovery without Restructuring, the latter being the process of people finding different things to do to make money that is more beneficial to everyone. The second is that specialized skills, the cornerstone of civilization, makes this more difficult – and excessive specialization may even be the real cause of the Kondratieff economic cycle that has plagued humanity roughly every 52 years throughout recorded time.
This has crystallized into a simple realization. The American concept of society, economics, and just about everything revolves around one simple idea – individualism. People, as actors on whatever stage they prefer, get to play their own part because they know better than anyone else what’s going to make them happy. That’s what Life and Liberty are ultimately for, after all.
I’m a proud American, so no matter how much I think that a little cooperation is a good thing I can’t help but always arrive back at individualism. To me, it’s a given – and any judgment of it is pointless. We have it, it’s here to stay, and we have to deal with it no matter what. It’s a matter of perspective and balance, at most.
What I think the problem is that a strong sense of individualism coupled with an economy that relies on specialized skills is a recipe for disaster. Without a central organizing principle of some kind, the two together are unlikely to produce great efficiencies at anything other than a localized level. Specialization requires order, not personalities, if it is going to work.
This debate on this topic is as old as our nation, too. Jefferson argued strongly in favor of a kind of Gentleman Farmer as the ultimate embodiment of freedom – a generalist of the first order who is master of all he surveys. As TJ wrote to David Williams in 1803:
“The class principally defective is that of agriculture. It is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect. The same artificial means which have been used to produce a competition in learning, may be equally successful in restoring agriculture to its primary dignity in the eyes of men. It is a science of the very first order. It counts among it handmaids of the most respectable sciences, such as Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Mathematics generally, Natural History, Botany.”
The view of agriculture as the ultimate expression of individualism dominated the early Republic, and along with it came the notion that the specialized disciplines were all its subjects. Generalization was the order of the day as the open land was tamed and the nation was formed. It wasn’t until we ran out of open land in the 20th century that our transformation to a primarily industrial nation began – increasing the need for specialization.
My argument is this: history has simply caught up with us. Not only is a high degree of specialization dangerous when combined with an emphasis on individualism, when the two are met with rigid costs and rules regarding employment which make changes in the workforce difficult we’re screwed. I find this very troubling.
Sooner or later, a wave of change was bound to come along that tested the ability to relay good information on what is needed to meet the changes on a systemic level. When that was met with institutional needs that were often at odds with personal needs, a collapse of some kind was inevitable. What is interesting is that any change could make this happen, including the arrival of greatly improved access to information and markets through the internet. A Depression is, after all, an excess of capacity.
The way out, of course, it to either modify either our reliance on specialization or our concept of individualism. That is why I think the critical political debate of tomorrow will be different than today. In a sense, it’s the debate of 200 years ago.
I’m going to leave this one here and ask for comments.