Americans. What is it about us that makes us so anti-establishment and distrusting of elites? So “I’m going to do it my way?” Is it the constitution? Is it our first two amendments? Kurt Andersen has a theory.
In a recent podcast, Andersen spoke with Sam Harris about what makes America so unique in this regard. From the first colonists onward, America attracted a certain type. It drew people seeking the gold of El Dorado, or the Garden of Eden, or a place to pursue their religion, or an economic utopia. In short, America attracted people susceptible to advertising and willing to risk death in order to pursue their fantasies. The title of Andersen’s book is Fantasyland.
Selection pressure put it right into our DNA: the entitlement to interpret reality one’s own way. After generations, it’s evolved into entire ideologies. Today we have four major American ideologies oriented around a subjective interpretation of reality. For the sake of completeness and crystallizing the concept, I will mention them here. They are:
1. The conspiracy right (wary of a secret world government)
2. The conspiracy left (wary of hegemonic global corporations)
3. The evangelical right (wary of the antichrist and Satan’s work)
4. The post-modernist left (wary of categories like ethnicity, gender, and religion as tools of oppression)
But it’s not all dark. There is an upside to an entire nation feeling entitled to their own personal interpretations of reality! We Americans have a knack for self-reliance and self-invention, which makes us the most entrepreneurial people in the world. In business school we learned about how American tax laws are oriented towards the entrepreneur. It’s also easy to hire and fire people here. New companies are arguably the largest driving force in our economy.
This is why proprietism fits so well within American culture. Proprietism is the entire economy as sole-proprietorships, blurring the lines between worker and business owner. A proprietor has more freedom than an employee, but still needs sufficient rapport and acumen to stay in business. Proprietism is the perfect middle-ground (or high-ground?) between a capitalist and a socialist society. It keeps the free-market and meritocracy asupects of capitalism, without the concern of society being torn asunder into bourgeoisie and proletariat. The free-market is obviously essential to American society, and meritocracy is extremely important to Americans.
But there clearly must be limits to how unequal a society can be. Sam Harris illustrates this point by asking whether it would be beneficial for anyone to live in a society where a small group of trillionaires live in utopian fortresses while the rest of us toil about and fight for survival outside. Proprietism also “egalitarianizes” society by decentralizing ownership in a balanced way. Contrast that to a socialist society which promises to indiscriminately redistribute income and wealth from those who don’t need it to those who need it. Who decides who needs money and who doesn’t? Politicians.
Proprietism may not be the perfect system for all cultures, but it is deeply compatible with ours. It’s the ultimate manifestation of our “frontier spirit” inherent within American Exceptionalism.