A while ago, I was driving back to Indiana from the place of my birth and America’s most dysfunctional city, Chicago. As thoughts of Greek-style pensions for public employees, exorbitant property taxes, and sky high murder rates were passing through my consciousness, my car began emitting a strange noise on the expressway. It grew louder, and my stomach sank. It was a flat. The car wobbled onto a nearby exit ramp, and I slowed to the shoulder cursing my lousy luck.
Thankfully I had just renewed my Triple-A membership (after debating to myself whether or not the fee was worth it), so my luck held in the end. The incident led me to ponder the fact that it would not have occurred to me in my distress to try calling a real estate developer, a neurosurgeon, or a former CEO for help. That is to say, anyone lacking a background in auto repair.
The riots in Baltimore only highlight the complicated and distressing issue of the recent killings of blacks by the police. The issue involves so many different matters and is so complicated that one hesitates to even discuss it in print. But it is an important matter that cannot be ignored.
The different cases of killings illustrate the variety of circumstances involved. While it is hard to know for sure about what happened in these cases, the recent killings in Ferguson, Staten Island, South Carolina and Baltimore all seem quite different. In Ferguson, it appears that the police officer was justified. In Staten Island, the crime was so minor that the death, whether justified or not, seems all the more tragic. In South Carolina, the killing seems obviously wrongful. And in Baltimore, while the facts are not entirely in yet, it seems clear that the officers behaved wrongfully in failing to provide medical attention (and have now been charged with murder).
When the delegates were departing the Constitutional Convention, a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin outside Independence Hall and asked the Pennsylvania delegate, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Political journalist Jay Cost believes we didn’t. His new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, is a highly informative and at times deeply dispiriting account of how we failed Franklin’s challenge.
One problem with the political decisions, including those in a democracy, is the importance of special interests. Special or politically concentrated interests have an advantage in the political process and therefore are able to obtain special privileges and advantages that impose inefficient costs on the society. This is, of course, an old story. But the world seems to be more complicated than this. Sometimes one wonders why special interests do not seem to be pursuing their interests. And as a result, other special interests prevail when it seems they should not. I thought of this the other day when I picked up…
As a counterforce to government intrusions, technological advances have generally promoted liberty. Among the most powerful of these forces is the internet—the medium of this blog. In the book Technologies of Freedom, Ithiel de Sola Pool showed how the printing press was indispensable to the transformation from monarchy to democracy. The printing press was certainly essential to creating a constitutional, continental democracy in the United States, for, as de Tocqueville observed around that time, organization for the public good “cannot be conveniently and habitually done without a newspaper. Only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before thousands of readers.” In 1789 the printing press fostered the most widespread deliberation on fundamental law that the world had ever known.
The history of liberty has been in no small measure the struggle between diffuse and encompassing interests, on the one hand, and special interests, on the other. Through their concentrated power, special interests seek to use the state to their benefit, while diffuse interests concern the ordinary citizen or taxpayer, or in William Graham Sumner’s arresting phrase, The Forgotten Man. When the printing press was invented, the most important special interests were primarily the rulers themselves and the aristocrats who supported them. The printing press allowed the middle class to discover and organize around their common interests to sustain a democratic system that limited the exactions of the oligarchs.
Bu the struggle between diffuse and special interests does not disappear with the rise of democracy.