Studying the seals of four states might help.
Brinkmanship is a bad way to resolve our budget crisis. It is however indicative of a broken system. Fixing the system as well as resolving our debt crisis might benefit from studying the seals of four states—Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky.
Pennsylvania (1787), Massachusetts (1788), Virginia (1788), and Kentucky (1792) were incorporated as commonwealth states. Commonwealth is a combination of the adjective “common” (“public welfare, general good”) and the noun “wealth.” Wealth comes from the Old English wela, meaning “welfare or well-being,” shalom in Hebrew. Well-being was considered communal, the flourishing of all. As economists are inclined to say, a rising tide lifts all boats.
This understanding of flourishing was institutionalized in the early 1500s, when commonwealth came to include the state and was applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660. Commonwealths understood affluence as the preferred condition for all and money as a commodity that made this affluence possible. This rising tide required virtuous people, however, as observed by Adam Smith.
Adam Smith is widely recognized for his revolutionary 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In it, he asks a radical question: how is “real wealth” created? Radical means from the root and Smith, not a religious man, rooted his definition of wealth in the Bible. His title, The Wealth of the Nations, is drawn from Isaiah. “The riches of the sea shall be lavished upon you and you shall possess the wealth of nations” (60:5); “you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations and in their glory you shall glory” (61:6) and, “Rejoice with Jerusalem… I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations…” (66:11-13). Smith’s conclusion is that real wealth produces well-being, the flourishing of all. But this required virtuous people, as noted in Smith’s lesser-known book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith asks an equally radical question: what kind of individuals produce human flourishing? Smith’s answer is when “the best head is joined to the best heart.” He noted however that this kind of “wise and judicious conduct” is only possible “when directed to greater and nobler purposes.” Shalom is such a purpose. It’s why virtuous people view the best wealth as commonwealth.
This enlightened way of seeing wealth explains why Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky chose to be designated as commonwealths. But it doesn’t explain why no other state chose this designation. Alexis de Tocqueville might have an answer.
In 1831, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to resolve a series of questions. The American Revolution had produced liberty. The French Revolution had produced the guillotine. Tocqueville found Americans bound together by many strands of community yet observed an emerging characteristic threatening to unravel the experiment. Tocqueville coined a new word to capture this: individualism.
I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland. 1
Tocqueville assumed the pursuit of wealth required “self-interest properly understood,” or “for the good of all,” as did Adam Smith. But Tocqueville noted by the early 1800s individualism had become “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends.” He warned how this uncommon view of wealth yields “unenlightened self-interest that seeks advantage for the self at the expense of others.” Since two-thirds of America’s states were incorporated after 1800, this uncommon view of wealth might explain why commonwealth does not designate any of the other forty-six.
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot,” Mark Twain once wrote. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Twain’s satire is shortsighted. Government is by consensus of the governed. It is a product of culture. Idiot shares the same family of words that includes individual. Individualism is idiocy, the enemy of properly enlightened economics. Idiots view entitlement programs as rewards they have rigorously earned and richly deserve—even if the nation cannot sustain the costs of these programs. This is well-being defined not by the common good but only by me, myself, and I.
The Oxford Dictionary of Economics says entitlement programs such as social security and Medicare makes it difficult for leaders to change the system while addressing problems such as limiting total budgetary spending or raising the debt ceiling. Changing the system risks political suicide. America instead gets brinkmanship, the high-stakes political poker game designed to appease special interests while ignoring the long-term debt issues that must be resolved for the nation’s common good. Recalling why four states chose to be designated as commonwealths might be a way to begin to change the system. Otherwise, Americans are unlikely to see how many of our notions regarding wealth are historically uncommon and presently unhelpful.
1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Trans. George Lawrence (New York, NY: Anchor, 1969), p. 692.