No, America Is Not in a Civil War

Just when you think the U.S. pundit class couldn’t get more red-faced with fury, some members always manage to step it up.

The best case I’ve seen recently is Thomas Friedman in the New York Times: “I began my journalism career covering a civil war in Lebanon. I never thought I’d end my career covering a civil war in America.”

Wow, that’s some strong language. He then proceeds to describe what he sees as the current state of life in America. He writes about political polarization, Twitter wars, unfriending habits on Facebook, partisan polling, the collapse of political civility, the political rallies, and, of course, the rivers of rhetorical blood that have been spilled in the confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee.

Spoiler alert: he believes it is all the fault of a certain president, as if life was all roses and rainbows before two years ago.

Here’s the thing about civil wars. You can’t escape real ones. The one that Friedman cites can be made to disappear with some simple steps. Stop checking Twitter, turn off the TV, ignore politics for a few weeks, and stop getting sucked into the vast industry that thrives off conflict and the attention you give it. You will be amazed at the peace you will find in the world outside the screens you stare at.

A friend of mine shut it all down during the month of August. Thirty days of being unplugged. He told me something in words I can’t forget: “I didn’t have a single negative interaction for a month.” He said that he had actually forgotten how glorious life can truly be – and truly is, provided you are willing to embrace it.

Indeed. You can go to any city in America, happen into any restaurant or shopping district, hang out in any coffee shop, and you know what you will find? You will find happy people getting along in mutual cooperation and joy.

Think about this carefully. Why is it that everything related to politics – and so much of what the government touches – turns into a depressing human conflict, even while most of what we associate with commercial culture shows no signs of this at all but rather reveals the capacity for humans to cooperate with each other with mutual respect and mutual benefit? It’s because politics is a zero-sum game that specializes in turning people against each other, whereas commercial culture is about people exchanging value with each other.

This is a mighty difference. If you understand that, you are in a position to make sense of the strange antinomies in our world today: the simultaneity of vicious and daily explosions in politics together with the rise of creativity and prosperity in the market sector. To see this is to provide a map for the way forward for everyone who aspires to see the universal flourishing of human life.

The Case of Poland

By way of example, let’s turn to Krakow, Poland, from where I just returned. I spoke to people there who are pursuing the advocacy of liberalism in economics and politics, which is to say, they have a consciousness of the productive power of freedom in our world. The movement is building, but it finds itself confronting the crazed ideological visions on left and right (and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference).

On the trip, I was able to tour the city, do lots of shopping, and meet many people from all walks of life. What’s most striking about this city are the scars of 80 years of occupation by foreign totalitarian regimes. You take a tour around town and you see the Jewish section of the city, once thriving, happy, integrated. But after all the political tumult, and the political murder of 65,000 Jews in Krakow, we today see only relics of the past.

It’s chilling beyond description. Chilling but also inspiring.

If there is such a thing as experiencing too much history, too fast, Krakow is surely a paradigmatic case. And yet today, we see a flourishing society of commercial engagement, education, music, civic associations, publishing, technology, and general happiness. The key to understanding how this happened is called the “transformation.” It happened in 1989, when the Polish people finally overthrew socialism and dismantled the all-invasive state that intruded into every aspect of life.

Here was a chance to throw off the horrors of the past and embrace a new future.

Resilience and Life

I will tell you what’s inspiring: the resiliency of the social order. This country has faced an astonishing amount of horror for generations. And yet you look around and see a country that survived. You observe deep scars, the memory of incredible suffering, and terrible wounds. What’s impressive is how a people have rebuilt to become great again – not because of government but in spite of it.

When I think about the U.S. today by comparison, we see something similar on a much different level. The state has grown and grown to become a mighty beast over the last 100 years, and fed vicious conflicts between groups: rich vs. poor, black vs. white, old vs. young, men vs. women, natives vs. immigrants, gay vs. straight, professional class vs. working class, West vs. East, North vs. South. Where this conflict is most pronounced is in the political struggle. Take that away and you observe the capacity for social harmony.

The trouble with all the latest writings about the supposed American civil war is that they are filled with piety but lacking in analytical substance. What’s worse, many of the people who are bemoaning the conflicts of our time are also champions of the very institutions that created and foment that conflict.

We need only look at a system like Social Security, which had been promoted as a means of security late in life. What it actually ended up doing was arranging a forced transfer of wealth between generations, pillaging the young for the sake of their parents and grandparents, and in ways that utterly defy economic sense. Had this program never been created, we would have seen the rise of cooperative and productive institutions that care for people in need, instead of a forced system of wealth redistribution that breeds resentment.

The same can be said of hundreds of institutions associated with government. Every line of every regulation turns one person against another, privileges some against others, takes from one sector to give to another, makes some pay for the costs of others. There are no exceptions. Not even seemingly innocuous legislation escapes the problem of setting some against the interests of others.

The result of a century of coerced forms of social organization is exactly what you see and what so many decry as the fracturing of consensus in society. What’s miraculous is that we have somehow survived regardless of the nonstop attacks on liberty, property, and free association.

In our private lives as producers and consumers, most of us don’t steal things and hurt people. We try our best to get along with others. We seek an improved life and an improved world. It is for this reason that we don’t have a civil war in America.

The conflict we experience is the inevitable result from a government that knows no limits to its power. The solution is not for one group to rule and for other groups to obey. The solution is to acquiesce to the only form of social organization that has a proven record of fostering harmony among all peoples.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn