In America, we live better than the Nobles of Europe!

I remember my father saying something like that. I believe it was in reference, hilariously and trivially, to Wonder Bread (which he loved). White bread being an expensive luxury in Europe. He came over from Germany with his parents in 1933.

But there is a more sinister way this is true, in that European nobility were not only unusual in their luxurious tastes, but in their position in a social hierarchy — without peasants or servants or people of some sort over whom you have authority, being a nobleman is pretty meaningless. Also, it’s the passing on of the privilege to one’s offspring, and protecting that position over generations.

I suspect that many Americans cherish their “equality” as long as there is someone below them. In other words, their status as Free Americans depends on their having someone they can push around. If I’m right about that, then maybe if follows that ever since Civil Rights, restrictions on being able to push people around feels like a restriction on liberty. I mean, technically it really is a restriction on liberty. I don’t have a quote, but I believe Benjamin Franklin mocked those Southern slave lords who went around bleating about libertad, when the liberty they craved included the liberty to own humans and have life-or-death power over them. (Of course, Franklin had two household slaves and no farming operation.)

Culturally, there seems to be no middle ground between being able to push around fellow citizens and being pushed around. The idea of “freedom” while not being allowed to be a bully is just cognitively dissonant to so many. This dissonance is coped with by redefining the bullying as being harmless. So it’s not enough to say you won’t wear a mask, you have to also believe that Covid is harmless. The personal cost in lost freedom (however trivial) of Covid being a genuine, deadly illness is just too great.

Anyway, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss people’s attachment to this power structure as simply wicked; it’s worth examining and finding if there is some way the need for status can be addressed (it’s a basic primate need after all; we are hierarchical apes) while also addressing the cost to others.

[This all came from reading Paul Krugman’s newsletter, and the term “dynastic wealth” stood out to me. The reason the Scandinavian countries have the most social mobility and the greatest ability to get rich is that they have (a) taxed dynastic wealth out of (most of its) power and (b) offered free college to all.]

In Europe, there is more suspicion of nobility, and perhaps less desire to emulate their worst aspects. This is a reason I think the French Revolution, for all its failings, did not fight to keep 20% of the population in servitude.

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