The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man. He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God. The maxim he had proclaimed on his first trip back from London –“Man is a sociable being”– was reflected not only in his personal collegiality, but also in his belief that benevolence was the binding virtue of society. As Poor Richard put it, “He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone.”
This gregarious outlook would lead him, as a twentysomething printer during the 1730s, to use his Junto to launch a variety of community organizations, including a lending library, fire brigade, and night watchmen corp, and later a hospital, militia, and college. “The good men may do separately,” he wrote, “is small compared with what they may do collectively.”
Franklin picked up his penchant for forming do-good associations from Cotton Mather and others, but his organizational fervor and galvanizing personality made him the most influential force in instilling this as an enduring part of American life. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations,” Tocqueville famously marveled. “Hospitals, prisons and schools take shape this way.”
Tocqueville came to the conclusion that there was an inherent struggle in America between two opposing influences: the spirit of rugged individualism versus the conflicting spirit of community and association building, Franklin would have disagreed. A fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life, and of the American society he helped to create was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory, were interwoven. The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community. Franklin was the epitome of this admixture of self-reliance and civic involvement, and what he exemplified became part of the American character.
This echoes my own view of the mutually reinforcing relationship between individualism and community involvement, and explains why I don’t find the two impulses to be at all at odds with each other. What I like about Franklin’s version of collective action is that each effort arose at the level of the local community; each was formed to address a specific, real problem the community faced; and they were largely private and voluntary organizations. To my mind this kind of flexible, ad-hoc local arrangement is the right way to get things done collectively.
What saddens me about American society is that we are losing our will and ability to solve problems this way. More and more we are approaching collective action on the European model, putting all our resources in the hands of the government and asking them to do all the thinking for us. This results in bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all solutions which tend to linger on long after the original problem has gone away. But more importantly, I think it’s destroying a vital and unique aspect of our national character. As
the other day, a lot of people either believe they aren’t capable, or simply can’t be bothered, to take society’s problems into their own hands.
I get the impression that people look at libertarians (and Objectivists, Anarchists, etc.) and think that we have simplistic world view that is focused single-mindedly on looking out for the near-term interests of number 1, and is constitutionally opposed to all forms of cooperative action. I don’t know, maybe this is true of some libertarians. But my own view, and I suspect that of many other liberty-lovers, is not so black and white. It’s not so much that we despise all forms of cooperation; it’s that we want to get back to the very American value of solving the problem at hand (rather than all problems anywhere, ever) privately, voluntarily, flexibly, at the community level.
Some might say that in a globalized society, this kind of community-oriented thinking is no longer practical. But the community hasn’t vanished; it has just changed shape and become less bound to geography. In fact, we have better tools than ever before for spontaneous grassroots collaboration.
I think one of my New Years’ resolutions will be to participate in at least one community project or organization designed to address a concrete problem without recourse to government assistance. And I think I’m going to start taking other people’s politics seriously in direct proportion to their willingness to participate in local solutions, as opposed to lobbying for legislative change.