While working out each day, I’ve been watching Niall Ferguson’s series from a few years ago, Civilization: Is the West History?, and just finished with episode 3, which mainly addresses the “killer app” of property rights and the way in which different views of property and voting rights led to dramatically different results in North America and South America after the Age of Revolutions.
The series has made a number of interesting points, but one thing toward the end of this particular episode struck me as indicative of an error in thinking — a flaw in the narrative, so to speak.
Giving multiculturalism and racial narratives much more weight than they deserve, Ferguson touts the fact that North American cities are now beginning to resemble South American cities in their racial makeup. He makes much of the “original sin” of the United States, meaning slavery of course, and the legacy of segregation and racial division that held strong (particularly among Democrats) well into the 1960s. But I think the rut of modern thinking on these issues causes Ferguson to miss an important point.
Of itself, diversity is nice, and the intermingling of races is a fine development in the degree to which it indicates that people are seeing each other as equals and inasmuch as invidious discrimination is a useless burden on economic and social development. But there’s another, more-critical consideration that has been parallel in the United States that Ferguson misses entirely.
That consideration has two components, the first being Ferguson’s handling of the United States as a monolith of a country, when it’s really better seen as a federation of smaller governing entities (states) that found a way to work together while respecting each other’s differences.
The distinction between those two models is important in the assessment of the United States’s handling of slavery and segregation because it highlights another “killer app” of Western Civilization: the rule of law. The states agreed to work together under certain rules, and that agreement required some to accept that others maintained the historical practice of slavery. This toleration of abominable behavior proved too big, and too contradictory to the nation’s founding ideals, to stand for long, and the cultural and economic investment in slavery was too strong to allow change via the hearts-and-minds strategy.
Unfortunately, after the resolution of that conflict, the United States went too far in attempting to correct the error and eroded the principle that we are united primarily by a structure of law that respects fundamental differences in worldview. The rule of law, in this sense, is supposed to be slow to resolve differences — that’s one of its key benefits — because you can’t truly respect people’s right to have a different opinion and also believe that a single election or judicial ruling ought to be able to impose one side’s view on the other from coast to coast.
The forces of tyranny that set South America on its less fortuitous path some centuries ago are now exploiting America’s big exception to its rule of law for their own benefit. Indeed, Ferguson cites the changing demographics of the United States, but a major contributor to that shift is the failure of government at multiple levels to respect the rule of law and property rights. Immigration laws are poorly enforced, and there seems to be no outer limit to the amount of money that some factions believe may be confiscated and redistributed. So, we get the “company state” model, whereby the ruling class imports a dependent class as leverage against those whom it can force to pay.
Ferguson lauds the development whereby the two American continents are converging in their socio-economics, but too much of that convergence involves North American decline, rather than South American ascendancy.