The Forgotten Power of States

A common, if implicit, assumption is that America’s experience with state-level governance parallels America’s experience with U.S. national governance. The minimal U.S. national government of the 19th century (ignoring the Civil War) is taken to suggest minimal activity in U.S. state governments during this period. Stephen Skowronek, for example, barely nods at state governments in claiming “it is the absence of a sense of the state that has been the great hallmark of American political culture.”

The traditional narrative, on both the left and the right, is that a great turn away from the statelessness of the 19th century occurred in the 20th century. A much more intrusive government rose as a result of the Progressive era and the New Deal, a trend that only accelerated after World War II.

This is true at the national level. But the myth of a stateless America in the 19th century, and earlier, can be sustained only at the cost of ignoring U.S. state governments and their vast and distinctive “police power.” From even before the start of the republic, states were actively involved in the lives of their citizens. This activity was not always wise or prudent, but a “minimal state” parallel to the early U.S. national government never existed in the U.S. states.

This point is of more than mere historical interest. Understanding this, first, introduces us to an older, more robust vocabulary of liberty. Liberty today is conceived on the left and the right almost exclusively as a sphere of individual activity protected against state intervention. This older American tradition, however, understands liberty not merely as the domain of private individual action, but also as the domain that appropriately includes governance by laws to which one has consented individually or through representatives. Like the self-imposed constraints of a private contract, these consented-to constraints are not contrary to liberty, but rather exemplify its very exercise. The American tradition manifestly includes collective action within its domain of liberty.

Secondly, much of the criticism of American constitutionalism advanced recently by conservative postliberals shares, and depends on, belief in a “myth of statelessness” (in William Novak’s phrase). In this reading, the failure of American liberalism, and of America, was built in from the founding. American government ricocheted from Lockean minimalism to Rawlsian maximialism (or, perhaps more accurately, to Rawlsian mini-maximalism), as a result of this failing. Modern America’s troubles, the argument goes, are merely the working out of failings hardwired into America’s politics and culture at the founding.

In truth, understanding what Tocqueville referred to as America’s “complex constitution”—the distinctive domains and content of U.S. national and state governments—belies the criticism. If American constitutionalism be understood correctly, the arguments of postliberals can be properly corrected to be a call to recover important aspects of American constitutionalism rather than as a call to replace it in toto. It is difficult to imagine what more power a government might exercise beyond the police powers exercised by U.S. states in the 19th century (and even after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment).

State Police Powers

While sounding like a reference to police officers, the “police” of a state refers to policies, particularly as adopted or authorized by the legislature. As Adam Smith discussed in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, “police . . . originally derived from the Greek πολιτεία [politeia], which properly signified the policy of civil government.” It is the set of “numerous and indefinite powers” that remain in the hands of state governments, as James Madison explained in The Federalist. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lopez and other cases, even today, despite the 20th century expansion of the U.S. national government, only state governments hold police powers, the national government does not. And this is not the formalistic affirmation it is often taken to be: Even today, in excess of 90 to 95 percent of criminal and civil trials occur under state laws in state courts.

Since the 19th century and earlier, states exercised vast authority under their police powers. The police power is cited in thousands and thousands of court decisions. It authorizes the state to take whatever action it deems needed to advance the health, safety, welfare, and morality of the people. Using this power, states adopted regulations seeking to provide for public safety, public health, regulating markets, building and regulating roads, promoting morality, religion, schools and more.

Alexis de Tocqueville described how local governments applied state police powers when summarizing some of the “important administrative functions” of New England local governments in Democracy in America:

A constable is appointed to keep the peace, to watch the streets, and to forward the execution of the laws; the town-clerk records all the town votes, orders, grants, births, deaths, and marriages . . . the overseer of the poor performs the difficult task of superintending the action of the poor-laws; committee-men are appointed to attend to the schools and to public instruction; and the road-surveyors, who take care of the greater and lesser thoroughfares of the township . . . [A]mongst the municipal officers are to be found parish commissioners, who audit the expenses of public worship; different classes of inspectors, some of whom are to direct the citizens in case of fire; tithing-men, listers, haywards, chimney-viewers, fence-viewers to maintain the bounds of property, timber-measures, and sealers of weights and measures.

Similarly, in his book on “law and regulation in nineteenth-century America,” William Novak reproduced a list from 1837 of powers the Illinois legislature provided to the city of Chicago. Noting only a few powers from that list: Chicago was provided the power to prevent and punish price gouging (“forestalling” and “regrating”), to prohibit gambling and liquor, to require the “owner or occupant” of any “grocery, cellar, tallow-chalder’s shop, soap factory, tanner, stable, barn, privy, sewer” or any other “nauseous house or place” to “cleanse, remove or abate” as “may be necessary for the health, comfort and convenience” of the city’s inhabitants. The state empowered the city to “regulate gauging, the place and manner of selling hay, of selling pickled and other fish, and of selling and measuring wood, lime, coal, and to appoint suitable persons to superintend and conduct the same.” The city would “regulate and license ferries,” “establish, make and regulate public pumps, wells, cisterns, and reservoirs, and to prevent the unnecessary waste of water.” The city could “abate and remove nuisances,” require landowners and residents to keep “snow, ice and dirt” off the sidewalks on their property, and even “prevent the rolling of hoops, playing at ball, or flying of kites, or any other amusement or practice having the tendency to annoy persons passing in the streets or on the sidewalks of said city.” And much, much more.

The point of noting these functions and regulatory scope is not that any particular exercise of a power on these lists was necessarily wise or necessary. Rather it shows the vast regulatory edifice authorized by state police powers from the earliest days of the republic. While there may have been a minimal national government presence for much of the 19th century, state and local governments were very much present in the lives of their citizens and residents. The 20th century obsession with national-level politics and history obscures the state government half of America’s “complex constitution,” a half that was never close to being “stateless.”

Additionally, as foreign to the 21st century American ear as the existence and exercise of these vast and indefinite state police powers in the 19th century might be, also perhaps suprising is that their exercise was understood actually to exemplify the exercise of liberty, not its constraint.

Collective Self-Government as Liberty

Part and parcel with the hyper-individualism of the 20th and 21st centuries, the modern American ear hears “liberty” in early American history in a distinctly individualistic key. And there certainly existed a commitment to individual liberty. But liberty at this time also naturally included the collective action of individuals acting in their corporate capacity as part of a political community, giving their “consent” to laws through their elected representatives.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why this corporate dimension of liberty evaporated from the American understanding. It might have resulted from the rise of hyper-individualism in American society. Concomitant with this social shift was a jurisprudential shift in the legal understanding of “liberty.”

This understanding of liberty existed from the start. Even before the start. Often ignored, for example, is that the list of complaints asserted by Americans against in the King in the Declaration of Independence begins with complaints of the King’s imposition on the exercise of the Americans’ collective liberty—that is, preventing actions of corporate self-government through representative legislatures. Consider the list of the very first complaints the Continental Congress advanced against the King in the Declaration. These presumably are the leading criticisms of the King:

[1] He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

[2] He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance . . .

[3] He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature . . .

[4] He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

[5] He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

[6] He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise . . .

[7] He . . . obstruct[ed] the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners . . .

[8] He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

Item [5] almost certainly includes complaints regarding what modern Americans would recognize as individual rights. Yet it certainly also includes the collective right of consenting to the laws by which one is governed. By and large, however, the very first complaints against the King draw attention to his interferences with the collective self-government of Americans through their legislatures, and the enforcement of those legislatively-adopted laws through the judiciary.

Just as the binding law of a contractual agreement exemplifies the exercise of liberty between two individuals, exercise of the police power via the consent of republican self-government exemplified liberty in 19th century America and before. James Fenimore Cooper, for example, observed in the mid-1800s that:

[I]t is a common error to suppose that the nation which possesses . . . laws that impose the least personal restrictions is the freest.  . . .  [N]o country can properly be deemed free, unless the body of the nation possesses . . . the legal power to frame its laws according to its wants.

Critically, the individual and collective aspects of liberty are a both/and, not an either/or. To be sure, it would be as incorrect to read an overawing communitarianism into this period as it is to read an overawing individualism into this period.

Yet it is a both/and, not a narrow understanding of liberty as an exclusive domain of individual rights. Tocqueville accurately captures the both/and nature of the collective and individual interests:

If [the American] be a subject in all that concerns the mutual relations of citizens, he is free and responsible to God alone for all that concerns himself. Hence arises the maxim that every one is the best and the sole judge of his own private interest, and that society has no right to control a man’s actions, unless they are prejudicial to the common weal, or unless the common weal demands his co-operation.

To be sure, a part of traditional state police powers is that their exercise be “reasonable.” This was understood even before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The rise of substantive due process later in the 19th century only channeled this existing understanding, it did not create it. And even then, often forgotten is that even with heightened application of the doctrine of substantive due process under the Lochner Court, Federal courts nonetheless regularly sustained state legislation imposing on liberty and contract as constitutionally reasonable exercises of the state police powers. (“Reasonable” police regulations were basically those that could be understood as Kaldor-Hicks improvements, with the addition of a fit criteria as a component of reasonability. For example, funding a Kaldor-Hicks improvement with a racially discriminatory tax or regulation would not be constitutionally “reasonable.”)

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why this corporate dimension of liberty evaporated from the American understanding. It might have resulted from the rise of hyper-individualism in American society. Concomitant with this social shift was a jurisprudential shift in the legal understanding of “liberty.” This shift can be seen in the move from the traditional legal understanding of liberty, in which “liberty” is defined in necessary opposition to “license,” to the anomic, modern understanding of liberty in which “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, or meaning, or the university, and of the mystery of human life.” The old liberty/license dichotomy invites a corporate understanding of when and how liberty contributes to human flourishing and when actions cross the boundary into deleterious “license.”

This shift could also be related to the evolution of bureaucratic governance in both state and national governments: through the insulation of executive administration from democratic accountability since the rise of the merit system and the limiting of the role of elected executives in bureaucratic administration and governance. These all gave rise to a sense that Americans are ruled by a government over which they exercise no effective control; that we are subjects rather than citizens. These possible explanations are not mutually exclusive, and are not necessarily the only possible explanations.

The myth of America’s stateless past can be entertained only by ignoring the experience of the U.S. states and the exercise of their vast police powers. To be sure, the 20th century did press novel questions of state development, at both the state and the national level. Not least the consistency of American self-government with an executive bureaucracy insulated from direct electoral control as well as insulated from control of an elected executive. But that question differs from recognizing the exercise of state police powers long before the rise of the bureaucratic state, and the recognition that the exercise of those police powers represented the outworking of a collective dimension of American liberty rather than as an imposition on liberty.

Reader Discussion

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on October 27, 2020 at 09:39:23 am

The "statelessness" argument, even about the federal government, has always been most persuasive when focused on how our governments were structured and how they took action, not just on what they did. It is also a comparative argument, comparing our government structures to those of Germany and France, with their elaborate civil service structures and traditions. Continental Europe had the "State" in the sense that Progressives wanted for this country, so to fully refute the statelessness argument at the state level one would want to look not just at what the states were doing with their police powers, but also at when they began using civil service bureaucracies to do it.

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John Ohnesorge
on October 27, 2020 at 09:47:51 am

This is a very thoughtful, historically-informative essay, one of Professor Rogers' best, indeed, one of L&L's best.

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on October 27, 2020 at 12:02:14 pm

Agree with Paladin. This is a fine essay by Rogers; in fact, his last several have been quite good. Hats off!

I would like to link a comment from Rogers essay above with a thread that R2L, Z9Z99 and I had on the "Clash of Constitutions."This thread revolved around a pendulum that served as an analogy for cultural change. As with the movement of a pendulum, cultural mores may be said to move left and right and back and forth and will, if not aided OR impeded, by outside force return to equilibrium. This was Z's pendulum. I modified the pendulum to position it upon a ball bearing embedded rail that was cantered ever so slightly to the left to represent the actual movement of the cultural pendulum. I argued that the Constitution may be viewed as such a pendulum and that our current difficulties stem from excessive energy at the extreme limits of the pendulums arc. I further represented the extreme limits as States and countered with Madison's description of his compound republic as having (or supposed to have) maximum energy at the center (or Central government) and minimal energy at the limits (or State governance).

Here now, Rogers:

"Not least the consistency of American self-government with an executive bureaucracy insulated from direct electoral control as well as insulated from control of an elected executive. "

Both Z and R2L properly made note of certain inherent human characteristics (see Z's last reply to me) that may be determinative in understanding swings many cultural mores.
"The equilibrium points are determined not by political movements or social fashions but by the interaction of inherent, some may say instinctive, characteristics of human cognition. Jonathan Haidt mentioned some of these in his writings on moral foundations theory. Some of these were care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, and liberty /oppression. Note that these are pairs of opposed concepts that are inherent in nearly all humans. The pairing of these traits, as well as others; e.g. fight or flight, risk aversion/risk-taking, etc., are the actual motive forces that produce the cyclic nature seen in human politics and human experience."

Let us accept this as a fair description of human motivations and the resultant cultural outcomes / swings. Let us further assume that this has, or had been true of American cultural and political development. Let us further accept Z's assertion that the 'arc of history" DOES lead toward human improvement.
Now let us consider Rogers' argument that the apparent statelessness we now experience has lead to the phenomenon of the "atomistic" individual, of the "mystery of life" conception of purely individualized liberty.
If Z and R2L are correct in asserting that certain inherent traits in humans affect cultural mores and responses and if Rogers is also correct in asserting that "rabid" individualism is, or may be the result of the loss of connectedness with representative governance, by that I mean, as does Rogers, that understanding AND willingness to recognize the mutual limits citizens will, and must place upon their own liberties in order to achieve comity and not descend into license, then we must condemn the " excessive energy" exercised by both the Central government and the Judiciary at the extremes, i.e. State exercise of its police powers (as in Bostock, Roe, Casey, etc).
It would appear to me that the resultant dynamic of the Judiciary's, as well as various Admin Agencies, incursion into State powers AND the Fed Admin Agencies (also State Admin Agencies) is to forcibly dissever the psychological link / understanding, previously resident in the citizenry, between reasonable legislation limiting freedom of action / liberty enacted by THEIR elected representatives and their own consent on matters of general concern.
What is left then is only those entirely (as some would suppose) personal matters and one then feels free to exercise those liberties to their fullest extent.
There are several unintended consequences that result.
We are no longer beholden to our neighbors for much of anything.
We are islands unto ourselves in matters of policy, belief, etc.
We are free to profess even the most outlandish beliefs and fantasies and demand that they be accepted as either proven or equal to others.
As a corollary, we are not required to accept, or even respect the opinions of others if they offend us.
We, and we alone are the arbiters of comity, justice, not to mention science.
We are now free to imagine ourselves to be something other than our biology dictates.
And we are free (and willing) to impose upon others those rather peculiar beliefs or practices that are justified in our eyes simply because we hold those beliefs. Ahh, the sweet mystery of life!

See how the pendulum swings AND slides upon the ball bearings as "excessively energetic" governance at the margins induces and enables rabid individualism as this energy sunders the connectedness between the citizens consent and proper limitations upon liberty.
I think rogers captures the "cultural" problem Z, R2l and I considered when he frames it as the difference between liberty and license. Is that not what so much of what we observe today is really about in the culture wars?
Is this not what SCOTUS has further propelled by its relentless incursion upon State police powers. One must ask: "Just how much energy (force) has SCOTUS applied to the moving pendulum.

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on October 27, 2020 at 13:08:14 pm

Oops! I am a forgetful sort.
As to Arc of history bending toward human improvement.
Yes! but....
Far more often than not, this is a function of happenstance and human response to those unforeseen changing circumstances rather than the execution of some inspired plan, divine or otherwise.
All the more reason for SCOTUS, and other governmental adjuncts to desist from implementing their vision for human improvement.
Rather let the citizenry in their own manner and in their own time "bumble, rumble and stumble' their way to the new "nirvana."

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on October 27, 2020 at 21:20:53 pm

"...unforeseen changing circumstances rather than the execution of some inspired plan, divine or otherwise." One idea that makes history appear to improve in a planned way is Richard Dawkin's concept of cultural "genes" or memes. He suggests successful ideas find ways of surviving and adapting and evolving as they prove beneficial to their "hosts", so some changes are not as unforeseen as might be thought. And this is clearly accelerated by the development of spoken language, writing, the printing press, and the internet as modes of information capture and communication, especially across time and peoples.

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on October 28, 2020 at 11:25:20 am

Yep - history may "appear" to proceed in a planned way; and in some instances it may. consider the concept of a "planned march through the institutions." clearly, this cultural destruction was intended and was made successful by a seemingly endless cadre of ideologues critically placed as 'influencers" of young minds. This "meme" has been forcibly (albeit with a velvet glove) inculcated into the minds of young university students. So, yes, some changes are planned.
BUT not all:
Consider our own independence movement. Had Prime Minister North NOT been such a "hard-ass", had he been a little more Burkean in disposition toward the colonies, the Colonists may very well have remained content to remain British subjects.
My point is that much, BUT not all is unforseen. The reasonable mind, being uncertain as to ultimate outcomes, ought to be restrained when planning and implementing societal / cultural change and not issue diktats, i.e. SCOTUS, aimed at implementing the new cultural nirvana.

BTW: "says the engineer who has never taken a psychology, sociology, or anthropology course."
And Thank God you have not abused yourself with such mish-mash! Ha!

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on October 27, 2020 at 21:11:14 pm

The analogy of a pendulum to represent cultural changes probably has limitations related to the time span under consideration. Some changes potentially occur over generational spans, as suggested by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Generations. For example, there we may see returns of Great Awakenings in the 1740’s, 1830’s, 1880’s, 1970’s or so, interspersed with more riotous generational actions/behavior (1920’s, 1960’s, 2020’s?)*. Other swings are shorter term, such as our surges and retrenchments on race, where overly aggressive “silence is violence” type views lead to a backlash while the overall social attitude becomes more and more accepting and accommodating of racial and interracial relationships. The issue we are facing today involves the successful ratcheting of the Leftist positions that then do not swing back to also reincorporate more conservative views and their related social and experiential baselines (i.e., Burkean generations past, present, and future). When you add “energy… extreme limits … states” to this model, maybe we are trying to stuff too much into it for coherence? Or we need multiple pendulums? [*these years are notional and may not be in strict alignment with the information in their book.]

The moral dichotomies presented by Haidt and extended by Z9Z99 exist as ends on a set of spectra (spectrums) such that we each exist with inherent positions along those opposing concepts/explanations, with a complex mix within each of us and across all of us when considered as a group(s). Presumably our reason can help us move to a different position in practical terms, but that is basically an “override” of our inherent preferences/ attitudes. Thus I would like to clarify that when you say “If Z and R2L are correct in asserting that certain inherent traits in humans affect cultural mores and responses…”, it is not that one “affects” the other (as in changes or creates the other) but that inherent and cultural elements both interact to establish what a given society identifies as it’s respective moral criteria. So we have honor killings and FGM accepted in some societies and not ours; we have variations on severity of libel law in the US vs. Europe; Islamic husbands can have four wives at one time while Western societies limit men to one; etc. We need to recognize that some of our moral and legal positions (or selected aspects) result from our Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman and Enlightenment cultural heritage in the West and not postulate and posture that our views are “self-evident” in all cases. But they work well for us and are offered as successful examples to the world if others want a comparable level of liberty and prosperity.

I agree whole heartedly with you that liberty-license means citizens have responsibilities for their internal moral character (See John Adams, George Washington) and for the superintendence of their public servants, both as to practical results and to their observed comity and integrity as well. The rise of the administrative state and judicial activism make such superintendence impractical or absent entirely, thus meriting the “look out for yourself” mentality. But other factors have also contributed to this sense of separation and loss of impact that you have described so well. I am thinking of things such as the increase in population leading to 600K persons per House representative instead of the original 30K or 40K persons, and the Big Sort type of economic and social movements and settlements across the country (see also Coming Apart and Bowling Alone).

Professor Rogers' essay thus shows we need to pay as much attention to our local and state political contests as we do to the national ones, especially if we want to rejuvenate and recover greater federalism and subsidiarity at the expense of excessive centralized dictates and controls. One idea that would help in this regard would be if the regional news organizations parked a dedicated reporter in each congressional office and state house to monitor who “our servants” have met (lobbyists, et al.), what they discussed, and if subsequent legislation and voting positions were proper or not. We hear more about executive and judicial branch activities but the foundations for what they do or fail to do usually comes via the legislature (the “prime” branch). That would in turn require that said “reporters” be objective and competent and complete, even if not neutral, in what they sent to the folks back home. Much of what we get instead is occasional franked letters from our congress critter extolling his/her merits and achievements, but little countermanding information.

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on October 28, 2020 at 10:22:52 am

Thinking about it a little more, and I may have to back away from what I said about instinctual feelings "affecting" cultural actions, behavior, and solutions. Our inherent and instinctual feelings will require some form of response, so in that sense they will affect what we do in a cause-effect type way. But the cultural solution that develops may not be obvious, based on the feelings to which it is responding (e.g., shame in cultures that do or don't accept honor killing.) Or: Hume's "reason slave" may not react in support of a person's "passion" the same way in all of us. Or Haidt's "rational rider" may still direct his "emotional elephant" in different directions. I suppose it is fair to say that any given cultural result is also impacted by the many other cultural components present in that society, as well as environmental features such as desert vs. tundra vs. forest, etc. [says the engineer who has never taken a psychology, sociology, or anthropology course.]

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on October 28, 2020 at 16:24:20 pm


I find this discussion worthwhile. I note that the topic seems to be relevant to at least three different essays here, including today's offering by Sukhayl Niyazov, in which we find the sentence:

We can fully understand the properties of a subject only when comparing and contrasting it with its opposite.

This seems to fit cleanly with the ideas that you, Gabe and I have been discussing, specifically how human conduct and interaction is affected by inherent traits that exist as pairs of opposites. As you correctly point out, these pairs are not points, but extremes of continuous spectrums. If I may be allowed to analogize further. (This may make our political science and law-oriented colleagues eyes glaze over, but whaddayagunnado?)

The necessity in human life for confronting novelty and uncertainty, by definition, requires requires responses is settings of incomplete, unfamiliar, and ambiguous information. Human cognition must deal with this, and does not have the luxury of returning a 404 error in such circumstances. When an engineer designs a control system, he can model the situation and provide a deterministic outcome based on the input data, or perhaps provide a logistic estimate of probability based on preceding assumptions. Human cognition must contend with the environment where there is no basis for the assumptions. The way the human mind does this is to have the capacity to default to one action, or its opposite, with such response biased by the environment.

To illustrate, consider our pre-historic ancestors. They could have their behavior dictated exclusively by concerns for safety, and starve to death by not hazarding the necessity of obtaining food, or they could perish with foolhardy risk-taking. How responses are biased on the spectrum between these two extremes depends on the environment; periods of stress and scarcity incline behavior in the direction of greater risk-taking, and periods of plenty bias in the opposite direction. These ideas in turn affect the non-deliberative choice between fight or flight when encountering a previously unknown animal, or perhaps people from an unknown tribe. Similarly, if one is holding on to a structure that moves suddenly, there are oppositely-directed responses, i.e grasping tighter or letting go altogether, that do not depend on detailed calculations of the available data. These are inherent reactions that are enabled by a robust survival strategy that is influenced by the environment.

As you note, these responses represent spectra between extremes. In a given group, people will be found found all along this spectrum, which is a pretty good survival strategy for the group itself. Gotta hand it to nature for that one. We could, if we were nerds, construct a histogram along this spectrum and note that there is an average, mean, standard deviation etc., and understand that these are determined by the interaction of these people with the environment; i.e. external conditions. The distribution thus obtained can be thought of as a micro-culture with respect to the particular trait that is involved. When we aggregate a whole bunch of these traits, we get what we commonly think of as "culture." The key point: culture retains the underlying bipolar structure, which is responsible for the cycles that we observe in various cultural and political phenomena. As you keenly observe, these cycles have different characteristics, periods, amplitudes, and so forth, and do so because they arise from different traits.

Now as regards out political and social life, it is perhaps useful to identify those traits that seem to have prominent influence at the moment. I would suggest that a key one is a dichotomy (i.e. bipolar trait) that has dominance and submission at its extremes. Most people are capable of behavior that represents either end (or any point in between) of the spectrum, just as most people are capable of hating some people and loving others. I would conjecture (without proof) that the current social environment makes people more or less receptive to move along the dominance/submission spectrum, to advocate simultaneously for the right to oppress others and also a willingness to submit to a tyranny that such a condition implies. Philosophers may wonder whether this is a moral issue.

The key points, I think, are that people's receptiveness to certain public innovations in law, economics, warfare, etc. are the result of individual biases that are immutable results of evolutionary psychology, and that these change more or less continuously. As a result, theories such as public choice theory and notions of justice must contend with moving targets. This invites the fallacy that befalls Marx, and anti-racism, and "equity," and so on, and that is that you can simultaneously change not only the environment, but also the way people respond to it.

To sum up, "culture" reflect the composite tendency of groups of people to favor one end of these biploar spectra or the other, without the ability to create monopoles. Jonathan Haidt's list of pairs is illustrative, but might also include such dichotomies as mercy/justice, skepticism/credulousness, affection/aversion, thrift/profligacy, and so on.

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on October 28, 2020 at 18:13:31 pm

Z: )and cc to R2l):
I think we three are in both general and (largely) specific agreement.
Yes, cultural attributes are a "composite" of collective (and varying differential) responses to perhaps innate bipolar response mechanisms or survival biases from pre-civilizational times.
Now while I will not accept the unproven concept of a cultural gene ( as some have postulated), I am open to the concept of a "cultural meme" if it be accepted as something "socially" transmitted / inherited. In the past, we called this "moral instruction."
I do not believe that, as some suggest, that, except in the broadest of terms, morality is genetically transmitted. It is not immutable. As an example, empathy, a noble trait found in most humans, may be absent in some. So too, it may be bred out of some humans. Thus, serial killers or Stalins.
So we agree that environment factors in quite substantially in determining the individuals location on the spectra.

"that you can simultaneously change not only the environment, but also the way people respond to it. "

here is where we "appear" to differ (although I suspect that we do not and that it is only a matter of degree). I have argued that we CAN change the way people respond to the changed environment AND, further, that we (at least some) are doing a damn fine job of it.
Never before have we had the capacity AND the willingness to so color the intellectual, moral and cultural environment as we now do. See today's hearings on Big Tech.
It strikes me that the ability to a) deny access to countering opinions / facts and b) the shaming of those viewed as recalcitrant bigots, etc provides some evidence that we CAN change human responses.
Let us bear in mind that one of the bipolar traits is fight or flight. Most people are content to exist in their own little sphere of friends, family; play golf or tennis, etc etc. Far too many, true to the old book, "The Economics of Democracy" weigh the costs of social / political involvement and decide to pass. They neither read books, articles or engage actively in politics. They take flight. This choice of flight also makes them far more susceptible to flight when it comes to arguing against the latest fantasies of BLM, income inequality, etc etc. They will not voice opposition and in so doing they only encourage further destructive dialogue and behavior on the part of the more socially active. Indeed, many may simply accept the new "scientific" paradigm as valid simply because of the credentialed "many" (not few) who advocate and proselytize it.
I believe that mere unwillingness to confront falsehoods propagated by the Proggies is, in itself, evidence that we MAY change human response. As an example, consider the differing response in the 1960's to the antics / politics of the left. Do we observe similar responses? - No!

Additionally, the average citizen, absent any legal training or inclination is far more likely to accept a newly divined conception of rights IF advanced / supported by a Supreme court decision. The deference afforded to SCOTUS by the average citizen is far greater than the deference (if any) that you or I would afford our Black Robed oracles. This enhanced deference is compounded by the initial choice of flight and transforms into passivity on the part of the average citizen whose sense of helplessness in the face of cancelling, shaming and ridicule is only exaggerated.

We must recognize that this, culture, is a "closed loop" system with various feedback mechanisms. It would appear that the only viable feedback mechanisms now are in the hands of the Woke.
Anyway, great discussions.

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