America II, by Richard Louv, Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher., 279 pp., $15.95
"We are now," according to Richard Louv in America II, "two cultures." One culture, America I, includes "all those people left behind" in worn out cities, in jobs that are beginning to look obsolete, and in deep fear of losing all control over their lives.
The other culture, America II, includes:
• the rise of a counterculture libertarian ethic;
• the hunger for personal control in a livable environment;
• the anti-city, a spreading collection of little settlements that "replaces public with private services and has the potential for creating extreme divisions between different economic and racial groups";
• condo and planned communities that have given rise "to an enormous number of private minigovernments, that now "outnumber all the other elected local governments";
• a rush, particularly by independent producers, to rural areas, which offer "enormous possibility for a better life," but also offer "what could potentially be the final destruction of nature and the small-town culture for which so many people yearn"; and,
• "experimental new management styles designed to make the company a 'family.' The unintended consequence is a 'buffering' psychology that may eventually do more to undermine economic security than create it."
Most of Louv's descriptions of America II are anecdotal—material collected first as the resident trend-spotter of the San Diego Union and then in a journey around the country. In that journey, much of what Louv saw of America II clearly fascinated and even attracted him. He comes away, however, quite concerned, even alarmed. America II simply will not do. He wants America III.
And what is America III? It is all the nice stuff in America II, such as good places to live, freedom from crime, high standards of living, a sense of community—but…but not subject to market forces, because, according to Louv, proper laws and a revived allegiance to the nation-state are a safer repository for "our" power than the market. In short, Louv fears decentralization without nation-state vision and supervision.
At one point, for instance, Louv seems to find at least some vigorous possibilities in Houston's unzoned jumble. He recognizes that it provides splendid opportunities for the poor to engage in street-vending businesses prohibited to them in more orderly climes where it is apparently felt to be more dignified to keep them on the dole. But, finally, he concludes that aid would be better than opportunity, though Louv delicately refrains from observing how much the recipients of aid (welfare and subsidy) have benefited so far.
Louv's thinking is equally fuzzy on other issues. For example, he seems not to appreciate the distinction between public regulations and private covenants. The extensive and unbelievably restrictive laws of some condo and planned communities deeply concern Louv, despite the fact that the groups enforcing the laws are purely private. That the ninnies who put up with such laws actually are volunteers who are quite free to leave does not solace Louv at all. He seems entirely to overlook the contrast between these voluntary arrangements and those dandy laws of the nation-state which all of us have to put up with, including the one that says we cannot—repeat, cannot—withdraw from them.
Though Louv recognizes some benefits of decentralization, he fears that a scattering of the population is going to mean less land for the big US farms upon which Louv believes the entire world is going to have to depend. He fails to note that small-scale farms, knowledge- and labor-intensive, yield more per acre than the big farms. Nor does he seem to realize that the world's hungry, for whom he is concerned, would be quite capable of growing their own food, in any way they might see fit, if nation-states did not already totally dominate world agricultural markets—markets that could be free, decentralized, and productive in a world not corseted by state planning.
Corporations trying to emulate the "Japanese kibbutzim" also worry Louv, since he thinks such efforts will lead to the creation of new company towns. At the same time, he wants the national government to start shifting the unemployed around to wherever the jobs might be. Not seeing a specter of even worse company towns in such governmental power is selective vision of a high order.
Louv has also missed those real cutting-edge companies such as Koll-Morgen, Cray, and Dayton-Hudson. These companies have taken an even more authentically creative (perhaps America IV?) approach by abandoning almost all hierarchical management, by making everyone responsible for good work, innovation, and profit, and by encouraging exactly the sort of individualistic behavior that the Japanese-style managers would probably find disruptive.
America II has so unhinged the author that he even suggests a national plan to train people "left behind by the new economy not only into high-tech jobs, but into entrepreneurial endeavors." The kind of entrepreneur trained by the national government cannot help but, in some crude quarters, remind us of all those successful entrepreneurs of the past who have grown rich selling penny parts for hundreds of dollars to the steely-eyed purchasing agents of the national government.
Probably my reactions to this book are simply unkind and perhaps not wholly deserved. Richard Louv obviously is a man of good heart and he probably shares many values with even the harshest critics of this book—among whose number I certainly want to be found. But the book cannot be excused on his good intentions and heart any more than he excuses the passions of the rural retreaters or the condo dwellers just because they share some of his values.
It is the central values that count. Louv attributes the decay of the world around him to insufficient national control. I attribute it to too much national control. He wants a "civilized" refinement of the nation-state. I want a barbarian's abandonment of the entire enterprise. He seeks equity. I seek liberty.
At that level I share Louv's belief that there are two cultures in America. And lest there be any mistake that the two of us are simply looking past one another, not seeing the same things from which to draw our highly biased views of the world, let me conclude with a quotation which, for me, would be worth the price of reading the entire book. The quotation presents one of the most exciting, most practical, and most desirable glimpses of the future I've ever read. It is, in fact, a statement of just how I personally want to live my life. Louv, who does not say much about how he, personally, wants to live, finds the same quotation to be a sort of dark-cloud portent rather than an inspiration. It is a statement made to Louv by Carl Helmers, founder of Byte magazine:
Entrepreneurialism is the whole difference between the European mentality and the American mentality. The American mentality is, "Grab your hands onto whatever you need to get it done and go do it." The European mentality is "Check with the authorities first." That's my dream: the independent contractor who doesn't check with the authorities first, getting rid of artificial barriers to flexibility—rules that say you cannot stop this production line, rules that say you can't do things the way you want. I'd love to see the day where just about everybody is an independent contractor to everybody else.…I can see independent entrepreneurs running efficient job shops, operating whole factories by themselves using computer simulations and robots. All by themselves. That's the real frontier.
I don't know when such a free society is in store for America's future, but I would certainly opt for it—without at all denying the right of Richard Louv to live however he and his neighbors want to live. The America he hopes for beyond America II would not extend that same right to me. It would not even, as suggested by the conclusion in his book, concede the possibility that free people, unyoked from parental government, could live together in peace and abundance.
Karl Hess, formerly a political speechwriter, is a homesteader in West Virginia.