The Fourth of July is always an occasion to think about what the United States of America has been, is and will be. A good way to reflect on that is to pick up a copy of “America 3.0” by James Bennett and Michael Lotus and ponder its lessons.
As the title suggests, Bennett and Lotus see the nation as having evolved from an agricultural America 1.0 to an industrial America 2.0 and struggling now to evolve again into an information age America 3.0. That’s a familiar framework.
Where they differ from other analyses is that they see the roots of American exceptionalism, our penchant for liberty and individualism, stretching far back — more than 1,000 years — beyond 1776. Back to the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Drawing on the 19th century historians Edward Augustus Freeman and Frederic Maitland and contemporary scholars Emmanuel Todd, Alan Macfarlane and James Campbell, they argue that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them a unique institution, the absolute nuclear family, “the continuous core of our distinct American culture.”
In nuclear families, individuals, not parents, select spouses; women have comparative freedom and equality; children have no rights of inheritance; grown children leave parents’ homes and are not bound to extended families.
On each point this is contrary to longstanding family patterns in the rest of the world.
This enduring family pattern has consequences. It has made Americans liberty-loving, individualistic, keen for equal opportunity but not equal outcomes, venturesome, mobile and suspicious of big government.
From early on in England and then in America, the absolute nuclear family fostered a market economy, property ownership and the common law, which evolves through individual court cases rather than a rigid code like Europe’s Roman law.
These mores have promoted economic growth and enabled societies to adapt to economic changes. America 1.0 had very decentralized government, with new states left to pursue their own policies and courts determined to protect the common law. It peaked at the end of the Civil War.
Economic innovations required changes. Railroads and giant corporations required military-style bureaucracies. Rapidly booming cities required larger governments.
The result was America 2.0. Politicians experimented with German models but settled in the 1930s for a “Social Lockeanism” that “wisely left room for individual initiative and entrepreneurship.”
World War II policies put 16 million Americans in uniform, rationed food, controlled wages and prices, and converted factories to war production. “The end of World War II,” Bennett and Lotus write,”was the moment of maximal centralism and minimal autonomy in America.”
Wartime success gave great prestige to America 2.0 and confidence that it could continue in place indefinitely. But with economic change it started sputtering. “2.0 corporations, unions and governments,” the authors write, “have been rendered unworkable.”
Big corporations flailed, and government got bloated. Lower birth rates meant there wouldn’t be enough taxpayers to finance benefits for the elderly.
Responses included deregulation in the 1970s, lower tax rates in the 1980s, welfare reform in the 1990s. But that was not enough.
Barack Obama has made the trajectory worse, the authors say. They ridicule “the strange assumption that Americans genuinely want government-run health care.” Polls back them up.
They believe public debt is unsustainable and call for discharging much of it in bankruptcy (“the Big Haircut”). They grant that the Treasury can keep selling bonds, but only so long as other countries’ credit is worse.
They see families moving far out in the exurbs (using self-driving cars) and earning money increasingly from individual enterprises rather than W-2 jobs. Therefore we should abolish the federal income tax and devolve government except for defense, civil rights and free internal trade to states and localities.
Most ambitiously, they would allow states to split into parts or to form compacts with other states, so likeminded citizens can have congenial policies.
Looking abroad, they see “a global collapse of the 2.0 model.” America should continue to purchase weapons (but get rid of defense procurement rules) and maintain our alliances.
But the U.S. should give up on nation-building and democratization. Other cultures — Iraq, Afghanistan — simply don’t share our concepts of freedom.
America’s main task is to police “the world’s maritime and aviation commons” — which Britain or America have been doing off and on for three centuries.
I don’t agree on every point. But I share the authors’ optimism that America can once again adapt consistent with our enduring values.