Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Selection: "In Pursuit of Happiness" by William B. Scott

This book is sufficiently obscure that it is not even mentioned as a used book on Amazon, but it exists — and I’m lucky Helen spotted it on a shelf at the Strand used books store. In it, William B. Scott (not, as far as I know, the same one who writes about aviation and technology) traces changing “American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century,” ending with continuing tension between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians in his own day, a few years prior to Reagan’s election.

The book is a fantastic overview (that some enterprising libertarian group should republish) of something I’ve mentioned a few times recently: the almost sci-fi like rapidity with which the modern world has changed, shedding philosophies and worldviews rapidly while still tending to treat each worldview as if it’s timeless while it’s dominant.

We’ve cycled through successive debates over (seemingly-eternal but in truth often new-fangled) property issues. In each case, by the next round of debates, people could scarcely imagine the issues that were previously in contention had so recently been up for debate (or else that they’d ever seemed relevant at all): whether to respect feudal/aristocratic claims, how to parcel up newly-found land (or land newly-liberated from the aforementioned aristocrats — or from government), who really owns publicly-chartered corporations, whether we own our entire incomes, and perhaps next whether and when intellectual property should be (or can be) enforced.

Impatient people inclined to think we should have settled the IP issue by now, for example, might want to consider that a mere two centuries ago in America, there was still vigorous debate over whether one could meaningfully own land one had not farmed. We’re still startlingly new at all this (something to keep in mind when condemning people for trying that little experiment gone awry called socialism that, perhaps understandably, seemed like a good idea for a few short decades, for instance).

It’s all happened so fast, really, in the grand scheme of things, and that’s both encouraging and alarming. It also renders both right-wing and left-wing narratives a bit ridiculous. The left because they would have us believe they’ve already learned to predict and outwit the ever-evolving market, the right because so many of the ostensibly-ancient traditions to which they pledge eternal fealty have in fact often arisen and faded away in mere decades, while society was drastically transformed by processes that had little to do with right-wing or left-wing ideology, such as railroads and chemical fertilizers.

Even today, little the Democrats consciously do to deform society can have the transformative impact of going from a nation of self-employed, self-sufficient farmers to a nation of industrial employees, for instance. And if we turn our eyes away from mere political squabbles for a moment, we must ask: Who really knows what things will look like in another fifty years, despite people’s chronic lack of imagination and attachment to the status quo?

Tomorrow, on a related note, a look at the interplay over these same few centuries between almost-utopian reformer impulses and the gridlock of ordinary democratic politics, in James Morone’s Democratic Wish — and on Monday, still more on property rights, from Kerry Howley, Dan McCarthy, and me in the pages of Reason, followed two days later by a Nov. 4 Debate at Lolita Bar on socialism in Latin America — for which I should pick a defender this weekend SO LET ME KNOW IF YOU ARE OR HAVE ONE, PLEASE.

P.S. Ali Kokmen notes that, per this NPR broadcast, we’re even learning new things about economics from monkeys these days.

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