In his learned excursus on American history in Cleveland last week, President Obama made a big deal about the things we Americans have done "together:" railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.
We got where we are today "not by telling everybody to fend for themselves, but by coming together as one American family, all of us pitching in, all of us pulling our own weight," said the president. The president used the word "together" ten times in his speech.
It's a pity that almost everything the president has done in the last three years has divided Americans and replaced "together" with big government and special interests. Maybe it's time we thought about what "together" really means.
It just so happens that the life work of America's only woman Nobel economist, Elinor Ostrom, who died last week, had something important to say about this "together." Ostrom, who was not an economist, did groundbreaking research into the ways that humans manage common resources, a.k.a. the "tragedy of the commons." In other words, she worked on the science of "together." She asked the question: How do humans manage things that they own "together?"
Ordinary humans, it turns out, have succeeded in managing common resources like common grazing land and common fisheries despite the "tragedy of the commons." They have done it with systems of shaming and rewards. Good people, who do the right thing, get praised and honored in their communities; bad people, who sneak off to fish or graze more than their share, get named and shamed. I suspect that a critical part of this system is frequent community meetings, where members of the community know that they have to face their neighbors in a public forum.
You can see why we moderns talk about the "tragedy of the commons." We look down on guilds and village councils that "together" used to reduce the freedom of their community members. Instead of naming and shaming we prefer the impersonal hand of the regulator and the bureaucrat. But politicians and bureaucrats aren't very good at managing common resources from Washington DC. Under their management common resources suffer waste, abuse and neglect.
Elinor Ostrom represents a generation of scientists that has been doing yeoman's work in exposing the noble lies and oversimplifications of the last two centuries, the sort that politicians like President Obama use to justify increased government power. You could run human society purely on the basis of utility, said the utilitarians: "happiness of the greatest number." You could run society as a communal village writ large, said the socialists. You could run society with rational educated experts, said the Progressives and the Fabians. You could even run society as an evolutionary survival of the fittest, said the entrepreneurs, but everyone agreed that was social Darwinism.
But just as we know now that the design and operation of the human body is complex and sophisticated far beyond our imaginings, we are coming to understand that our life as social animals has a depth of complexity and sophistication beyond the naive simplifications of the philosophers and political activists. For instance Alan Page Fiske in the early 1990s developed a four-dimensional "relational model" of human society, humans doing things together as social animals. There is Communal Sharing, which was Elinor Ostrom's area of specialization. Then there is Authority Ranking, President Obama's favorite approach to "together". Then there is Equality Matching: that's the idea of taking turns, of returning favors, of tit-for-tat. Finally there is Market Pricing; we know all about that.
The reality of humans as social animals is much more complicated than a four-dimensional model: of course it is. At least the model shines a light on the horribly cramped and bigoted philosophy of President Obama, whose "together" means liberals inventing bureaucratic programs and calling it "community" as they force everyone onto a one-size-fits-all idea that just happens to create easy, lifetime-employment, supervisory roles for educated liberals.
Let us celebrate President Obama's use of family togetherness, for he is paying tribute to the conservative vision, that there is something more than politics and programs. As Catholics believe in "subsidiarity," conservatives believe in civil society, the empowerment of the "little platoons" in society in which everyone can make his or her responsible contribution to society.
It's a shame that the president and his political party really don't really believe in "together" outside of presidential framing speeches. A stimulus program filled with moneys for the president's supporters isn't "together." A top-down bureaucratic monster health care program isn't "together." A green energy program doling out favors to the president's contributors and issuing draconian regulations to shut down coal production isn't "together."
Maybe the president and his top aides should spend a bit of time reading up on the science of human sociality. Then they might learn how very far the program of President Obama and his political party is from "together."
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.