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“Rich Men North of Richmond”—A Few Philosophical Thoughts

Oliver Anthony seems very familiar. I grew up in Montana with a lot of guys just like him, singer of the viral song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” (At the time of this writing the YouTube link has been watched 46 million times in just two weeks, to say nothing of hits on iTunes, Spotify, etc.) My family’s home was in farm country ten miles outside the town of Kalispell, only reachable by miles of dirt road. In high school and college I worked construction jobs for several years alongside dudes in their twenties and thirties who were high school dropouts. White collar jobs were fodder for lunch break jokes. Real men swung a hammer on weekdays and knocked back beers on the weekend. The fact that I was working to save up for school was bizarre to them, and I received a fair bit of mockery. But it was in good humor. These were solid guys mainly, rough around the edges perhaps but with pretty good hearts.

Having grown up in this world, I recognize the visceral anger in “Rich Men North of Richmond” of rural, lower class Americans who feel betrayed by a society whose responsiveness to the needs of “the vulnerable” is felt to be weaponized against those who actually work for a living. And I’m not the only who recognizes it. The song has struck a chord with millions of Americans who find in it something true. The unrehearsed emotion, simple chords, and poetic specificity have the flavor of a Bob Dylan-style protest anthem. There's a reason Anthony's song has soared to the top of the popularity charts: he’s saying something real.

I’d like to reflect here on the meaning of the song’s chorus, part of which goes like this:

These rich men north of Richmond,

Lord knows they all just wanna have total control

Wanna know what you think

Wanna know what you do

And they don’t think you know

But I know that you do

The anger is about control. Oliver’s “rich men north of Richmond” (a not-so-subtle jab at the Washington D.C. establishment just a hundred miles north of Richmond) seek power over the minds and actions of ordinary people living out their lives. Is this true? And if so, why does it happen? Are politicians as a tribe simply unprincipled exploiters of the “little people,” or is there a deeper logic here that compels the leadership class to seek such control? I believe the latter is the case.

One of the most insightful studies of the deep forces at work beneath the political process is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Sowell is a Black intellectual at Stanford whose work in political theory and economics is legendary, and as the first member of his sharecropper family to make it past the sixth grade he also can feel something, I imagine, of the force behind Oliver’s protest. The thesis of A Conflict of Visions is that social theories, for all their enormous variety and nuance, rely on one of two opposing visions of human nature: the constrained vision or the unconstrained vision. Understanding these two visions will help us see more clearly what “Rich Men North of Richmond” is really protesting.

Sowell claims—and he’s right—that “[d]espite necessary caveats, it remains an important and remarkable phenomenon that how human nature is conceived at the outset is highly correlated with the whole conception of knowledge, morality, power, time, rationality, war, freedom, and law which defines a social vision” (34). Said another way, what scholars refer to as “philosophical anthropology,” i.e. your basic and usually implicit picture of what human beings are like, is an all-important issue. Everything flows outward from there.

The constrained vision, for Sowell, is a model of human nature that is defined by limitations. Humans simply can’t know everything, on this model, or be perfectly virtuous, or bend reality to good ends without exception. The world is simply too complex and tragic for that. Acknowledging these unavoidable restraints on individuals, the constrained vision relies on the wisdom of evolved social processes like language, family, religion, common law, and the marketplace to produce better decisions than any single individual possibly could.

The unconstrained vision, by contrast, does not believe there are necessary limitations on individual human potential. Because this view holds that humans are intrinsically good and in principle perfectible, all that stands between the suboptimal situation of today and the better world of tomorrow is a reorganization of social systems under the enlightened guidance of experts. Get the right, richly-schooled minds in the driver’s seat of public education, the economy, politics, the environment, and all problems will be solved. (Thinkers like Jean Jacque Rousseau are in the background here; see Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, along with the work of another Stanford scholar, Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.)

For the last several hundred years nearly all of the cultural momentum in the West has been away from the constrained vision—grounded traditionally in religious beliefs—and toward the unconstrained vision. When 17th century Enlightenment thinkers, disillusioned after decades of religiously-driven war in Europe, decided to construct a model of reality without the liability “God,” the only rival for human preeminence was thereby removed. What emerged was what some philosopher’s call “the anthropocentric turn”: God used to be at the center of things, but now humanity is. It’s a short jump from here to the unlimited optimism about human potential that is the hallmark of the unconstrained vision.

So let’s bring things full circle. The leadership class that plies its trade a hundred miles north of Richmond, Virginia was born and bred in an intellectual climate that assumes the world will be put to rights if the illuminati are given a free hand to carve up the world as they see fit. A guy with a PhD in economics in D.C. should tax the dollar of a guy banging on his guitar in the woods because he knows better what to do with that dollar. So the thinking goes.

There’s an irony here for me, because after I left the Oliver Anthony’s of the world in Montana I spent years among the sorts of folks who end up as rich men in Washington. And among this latter group, one of the beloved mantras is the need for “epistemic humility.” No one should force his or her views on anyone else because we all have different lived experiences. This gets slow head nods and finger snaps from an elite crowd, yet this is largely the same crowd whose unconstrained vision of human nature implies and supports the rule of the benighted many by the enlightened few—them, it turns out. Pretty humble, eh?

Actually, just like the guys from Montana, most of these academic folk are well-intentioned in my experience. They are neither malicious nor mendacious. They really do want to do good, and are quick to be self-critical. My fear is simply that they have subscribed unwittingly to a philosophical anthropology that doesn’t reflect reality. And I’m not the first to suggest this. A classical treatment of modernity’s chronic over-optimism is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man. (And if you want some real theological heavy metal in this arena, try Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans.)

Immanuel Kant, a luminary of the Enlightenment, once observed that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” This could very well be the motto of the constrained vision of human nature, even though Enlightenment philosophers would in time become leading cheerleaders of the unconstrained vision. In the end, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is written by a man who knows that he is crooked timber himself, who knows that we are all crooked timber, and who is weary of the mingled arrogance and ignorance of those who imagine that human beings can be, should be, and will be straight timber.

It's a protest against the unconstrained vision run amok in high places. Maybe that’s what people are tapping their foot to these days. Paradoxes ripple through all reality, and one of them is the counterintuitive truth at the heart of the constrained vision that a sober acknowledgment of human limitations is in fact the pathway to freedom.


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