George Packer rediscovers four traditions

He echoes David Hackett Fischer and Walter Russell Mead

In a recent essay drawn from a forthcoming book, George Packer says that American society has fractured into four groups. But David Hackett Fischer noticed these same four traditions, dating back to the first English settlers, in his carefully-researched book, Albion’s Seed. Fischer’s concept then became the basis of Walter Russell Mead’s book on tensions in American foreign policy, Special Providence.

Packer divides American society into Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. Free America means the libertarians who favor limited government. Smart America means the management elites who favor economic and technological progress. Real America means the blue-collar Americans who favor dignity and patriotism. Just America means the progressive “woke” who favor economic equality and moral rectitude.

Fischer would trace Just America back to the Puritan settlers of New England. He would trace Smart America to Quakers and other dissenters who settled in Pennsylvania. He would trace Free America to the Cavaliers who settled Virginia. He would trace Real America to the Scotch-Irish borderers who settled Appalachia.

Mead would refer to Just America as Wilsonians. Their foreign policy concerns are morality and human rights. He would refer to Smart America as Hamiltonians. Their foreign policy concerns are with expanding trade and commerce. He would refer to Free America as Jeffersonians. Their concerns are with keeping America out of foreign conflicts. He would refer to Real America as Jacksonians. They want America to fight fiercely if provoked, but to stay home otherwise.

Packer, like Mead, sees imperfections in all of these traditions. He sees America as needing to find ways to blend them constructively, rather than fall under the sway of any one tradition.

But Packer’s strongest criticism is of libertarians. He writes,

What distinguished libertarians from conventional, pro-business Republicans was their pure and uncompromising idea. What was it? Hayek: “Planning leads to dictatorship.” The purpose of government is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies. A 1937 Supreme Court decision upholding parts of the New Deal was the beginning of America’s decline and fall. Libertarians were in rebellion against the mid-century mixed-economy consensus. In spirit they were more radical than conservative. No compromise with Social Security administrators and central bankers! Death to Keynesian fiscal policy!

For Packer, the history of the 1980s is that this libertarianism took hold, with dire social consequences, especially increased economic inequality.

My reading of history is rather different. The high unemployment and double-digit inflation of the 1970s seemed to discredit left-wing economics, and a reaction began under President Carter and continued under President Reagan. This reaction produced some deregulation and tax reductions. But if the trend toward government control over the economy was slowed, it certainly was not reversed. The 21st century finds social welfare spending, central bank intervention, and deficit spending at their highest levels ever.

I would be more critical of the other three groups. Just America is Puritanism at its worst. The original Puritans wanted a separate community where they could live according to their doctrine. The latter-day Puritans instead are animated by the desire to identify and punish heretics among the rest of us.

Smart America thinks too much of itself. The institutions controlled by Smart America are in disrepute, and deservedly so. The elites performed poorly in the financial crisis of 2008. Higher education has absorbed more and more resources while departing from its mission to pursue knowledge. The press has become blind with bias. Smart America is not really so smart, after all.

Real America takes distrust of elites too far. It resists hard truths (about the pandemic, for example). It puts too much faith in Donald Trump.

Free America has become the scapegoat of nearly everyone. Conservatives blame libertarians for social and economic disorder. Progressives blame libertarianism for inequality and injustice. Populists dream of taking power from the elites. But I believe that we will see in the rest of this decade that big government only exacerbates the disorder, inequality, and power imbalances that it purports to solve.