Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Freedom and Equality in Tocqueville's America

Tocqueville's argument that freedom contracts as equality expands sounds like a clever idea until you stop to examine the premise: that freedom and equality are opposed to one another. For most people, freedom means simply the absence of external restraint. And yet, because we are finite creatures with mortal limitations, absolute freedom can only exist as a state of mind, or, as Hegel might say, as a pure idea. Political freedom is merely a subset of a larger metaphysical abstraction in which man discovers that he is only one link in the great cosmological chain of Being, where all notions of freedom are but variations on the theme of man's belief (or hope) in his own transcendence. Philosophically speaking, freedom is a product of the human imagination. It exists in conjunction with man's capacity for free will. Rocks and trees are not "free" because they lack the imagination or intellect to distinguish themselves from the world which contains them.

If, on the other hand, by "freedom" you simply refer to the state of being physically unrestrained, then freedom describes a narrow arc of motion that is permitted, by the laws of nature, to material bodies under no external force. In other words, the state of being in the cold vacuum of deep space. But even there, gravitational fields impinge upon the smallest particles of matter. So let us admit, once and for all, that freedom is a relative state of being (or as Janice Joplin said, "just another word for nothing left to lose"). All objects and people are affected by the world around them.

Now, what about equality? Tocqueville sometimes uses the word "equality" to mean equivalent wealth, or equivalent talent or other qualities of the human condition such as intelligence, beauty, virtue or artistic ability. Thus, when he attacks the idea of equality he really means "natural equality" or those human attributes that God has parceled out to mankind. Clearly, the distribution of physical or intellectual gifts that we value in society are not divided equally at birth amongst all people. Yet, the doctrine of equal rights does not rest on the foolish idea that we are all the same, but on the belief that our common humanity entitles us to a certain minimal decency which some of us believe is justified by religion and natural law. Whether or not you agree with the doctrine of equal rights, the term "equality" refers to a political idea which is derived from the broader notion of natural rights. On the other hand, equality can also refer to a purely biological sense of comparing one individual with another. The biological model of equality is strictly Darwinian. It measures the capacity for one individual to survive in competition with other members of the species. But as Hobbes made abundantly clear, you won't discover human freedom in a state of nature. There you will find only a constant "war of all against all."

But leaving biology aside, Tocqueville says that what Americans really want is absolute equality of condition, meaning an equal division of the wealth of the nation. He assumes that people in a democracy cannot tolerate the prospect that some people will have more money than others. Where he gets this idea is not entirely clear, but it may have something to do with his own experience of the French revolution. With history in mind, we see that Tocqueville's ideas about freedom and equality probably have more to do with a different social model-- such as the radical ideas of Rousseau-- than the American experience derived from Locke's ideas on liberty and property. Tocqueville confuses the American rejection of monarchical government with a desire for radical egalitarianism. He bases his entire view on the assumption that Americans crave both material prosperity and absolute equality, and will sacrifice their freedom to obtain it. But he presents no evidence to support this theory. He just announces it as a kind of revelation of nature, such as the mating habits of penguins. The truth is that Tocqueville, like many aristocrats frightened by the violence of Robespierre, clings to one image of democracy-- that it is a poor form of government reflecting the vulgar sensibilities of working class people who care nothing about virtue, and are willing to sacrifice everything in their struggle to become rich, and in fact, to become like the very people they despise... European aristocrats. This is a curious idea. For someone who traveled in America and observed the habits of its people, Tocqueville managed to avoid any real understanding of what Americans actually believe and what motivates them to live the way they do.

Despite Tocqueville's belief that Americans care more about money than freedom, it seems obvious today that democracy does not deprive people of freedom; rather, it makes possible the greatest amount of freedom which society can tolerate. It enables people to pursue their own individual interests while at the same time encouraging people to live in harmony with people they may not especially admire. Tocqueville's idea that people in a democracy want to be exactly the same is ludicrous. In fact, just the opposite is true. People want to be left alone, not interfered with by government, political parties, or haughty aristocrats. The whole point of the American dream is not to deprive wealthy people of their property, but to enable poor people to become wealthy also. The threat to liberty is not that Americans will all start thinking exactly the same, but that the desire for privacy may lead to social indifference, such that no one cares any longer who gets elected as long as our own families prosper. But that is a dark scenario based on confusing free market behavior with human values. The truth is that Americans care about other things than just wealth. But whenever the economy stalls, as we see going on today, people react to what they hear from media pundits who are quick to prophesize doom. People who live from paycheck to paycheck worry about how to make ends meet. But this is a far cry from a mob in the street exacting revenge upon the wealthy. When hedge fund managers get rich from greedy speculations while small investors go broke, people are naturally upset. Tocqueville, like many good conservatives, assumes that all regulation, meaning government interference with the marketplace, is bad. Thus, regulation (or law) translates into less freedom for financial speculators. But does this mean that all regulations are a device used by the poor to impose equality upon the wealthy? Hardly. The driving idea behind equality is that Americans-- being an optimistic people-- believe in the possibility of progress. We manifest this belief in our moral values and through our political institutions, and, in doing so, we extend the blessings of liberty, without prejudice, to all who come here to make a new home for themselves.

As the Founding Fathers understood, laws are needed to restrain human frailty. But the good will, honor and common sense of the people will obviate the need for an overly active government (at least we hope so). My freedom does not diminish as your wealth increases, any more than my honor or virtue declines if the stock market should rise. Tocqueville seems to think Americans are just naive. He thinks aristocrats are the only people who live virtuously. But we believe that you can live decent lives, and enjoy liberty and prosperity at the same time. After all, isn't this the whole point of democracy? Otherwise, why bother? One of the arguments by southern plantation owners against emancipating their slaves was that the poor dark people would be unable to care for themselves. Is this the kind of argument that would appeal to Tocqueville? If so, then I guess he could not conceive of a society where equality, freedom, prosperity, and human happiness coexist. On the other hand, if he could see us today he might shake his head in disbelief and say "I told you so." But then we could remind him that these vulgar, greedy Americans with their bad manners and filthy lucre came over to Europe and fought two wars to liberate his country. I guess that counts for something.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 2)

Many people assume that freedom and equality are intertwined concepts. The assumption is that as one expands so does the other. This seems like a natural conclusion but may not be true. In his book The Executive’s Compass James O’Toole makes the opposite argument. He tries to prove that as either freedom or equality expands then the other tends to contract. Under this theory the more freedom I have the less equal others will be to me or me to them. On the other hand the more equal we all are the less freedom I’ll have as an individual. Tocqueville seems to agree with this idea when he says that “Men’s taste for freedom and equality are, in effect, two different things and I am not afraid to add that in democratic nations they are also unequal.” He also believes that given a choice Americans prefer equality more than freedom: “I think that democratic nations have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they seek it out, become attached to it, and view any departure from it with distress. But they have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality.” This may be unfortunate for us. Why? Because equality is a subjective concept that no nation can ever accomplish completely. As Tocqueville puts it “One can imagine men enjoying a certain degree of freedom which wholly satisfies them…But men will never establish an entirely satisfying equality.”

This doesn’t mean that we can’t keep trying though. One way to achieve social satisfaction is to gather with like-minded people and share the burdens as well as the benefits of private associations. These associations could be as elaborate and exclusive as a country club with a private golf course or it could be as simple and straightforward as a local chamber of commerce. But one of the questions Tocqueville addresses is whether these private gatherings help the common good. The answer is yes they do. Or at least Americans think they do. Why? By seeking out what’s best in your own self-interest you help make the whole community a better place to live. But there’s a twist. Your self-interest must be defined in a way that adds a product or service to the community. Tocqueville says that “in the end the belief is born that man helps himself by serving others and that doing good serves his own interest…In the United States, the beauty of virtue is almost never promoted. It is considered useful and this is proved daily.” You can get rich helping others.

This is convenient for Americans. In fact, it’s almost a religion. Tocqueville saw it this way: “It is often hard to know from listening to American preachers whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this.” Salvation may be the goal for the next world but for this world the goal is comfort and security. America’s passion is to become prosperous. America has a vast middle class and “The passion for material prosperity is fundamentally a middle-class affair.” This constant striving to get ahead is what drives America’s economy and its people. Maybe it drives us too hard. Tocqueville tells the reader that “Sometimes you still come across, in certain remote districts of the Old World, small populations which have been almost forgotten in the general commotion and which have stayed stationary while everything moved around them.” Maybe that’s why so many Americans work so hard for so long – so they can retire in peace and comfort.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Questions for TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy...(Volume 2 / Part 2)

1. What’s the relationship between freedom and equality?
2. Do private associations help or harm the public good?
3. Has prosperity made Americans less restless or more restless than ever?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 1)

One of the main themes of Tocqueville’s book is the idea of equality. Without thinking too much about it the notion of equality permeates almost everything Americans do. It certainly affects the way we think and our overall outlook on life. Why is the notion of equality so powerful in America? Tocqueville explains that “Men who live in times of equality have much curiosity and little leisure time. Their lives are so workaday, complex, busy…that only a little time remains for thinking.” And because there’s not much time for thinking our thoughts tend to become superficial and our understanding of complex issues may be shallow. One of Tocqueville’s observations is that Americans look most of all for ideas that are useful. When considering religion many Americans begin with the question “What’s in it for me?” When considering philosophy many Americans begin with: “So what?”

This kind of straight-forward approach to life has its advantages and its disadvantages depending on your point of view. For example, Tocqueville believes that “Nothing is more vital to the study of the higher reaches of science than meditation.” What he means is that real scientific understanding requires lots of deep thinking. Unfortunately for Americans “Men living in democratic societies not only have difficulty with meditation but they entertain a naturally low regard for it. The state of society and the democratic institutions incline the majority of men to a constantly active life.” The disadvantage of this approach to science means that it loses much of its wonder and mystery for us. The great advantage is that we have turned scientific ideas into technological breakthroughs. We have learned to use nature for our own purposes. And that purpose is primarily for our own comfort. “Democratic nations…help to make life comfortable in preference to those which aim to adorn it. The useful will have preference over the beautiful and it is best for the beautiful to be useful.” In other words we sacrifice beauty for comfort.

Preferring comfort to all else sets a certain value on things. Because they like comfort democracies tend to develop a more materialistic outlook on life. This translates into a greater number of personal needs. So it’s not surprising that “one encounters in democracies a host of citizens whose needs are beyond their means and who would be all too ready to make do with an imperfect replacement rather than do without the object of their desire altogether.” Americans like nice things but we’re willing to make do with an inferior product if it helps us stay within budget. We may even put up with inferior books. Why spend $25 or $30 on a hardcover book when a $10 paperback will do just as well? Or why buy the book at all? Just save the ten bucks and check it out from the library. Which brings up a question dear to librarian’s hearts: what do Americans read? Tocqueville believes that readers in democracies have to be discerning readers: “Since they have only a brief time to devote to literature, they want to make the best use of it. They like books which are easily available, quick to read, and which demand no learned research for their understanding.” This is a rather odd interpretation of discernment. But it shows how the idea of equality leads to competition, which leads to hustle bustle to get ahead, which leaves little time for books. We only have enough time for little books. Democracy in America is a big old thick book and is tough going in spots. That may be the reason why Americans don’t read it much any more: it’s too big and too hard.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Egalitarianism and the Idea of Indefinite Perfectibility

Two strands of conservative thought run throughout Tocqueville's Democracy in America. On the one hand are the traditional philosophical objections to egalitarian regimes or the general idea of equality which is contained in such statements as "all men are created equal." Historically, the denial of equal rights or equal treatment for all men is based on the simple observation that such equality does not exist in nature, and is a repudiation of common sense. In fact, throughout the classical period of Greece and Rome, no one could possibly take seriously the idea that everyone is equal or deserves equal treatment. Slaves, for example, could never expect, and did not receive, comparable treatment as their masters. The rule was understood by all: deference must be paid to one's superiors. This attitude was expressed in the Greek hierarchy of gods, in which Zeus ruled over all immortals, from Hera to the lowliest nymph. Philosophers like Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche have all agreed that human civilization naturally divides into two opposing groups: those who should rule, and those who should serve. Hegel called this the master-slave dichotomy. Not until the arrival of Christianity and the gradual diffusion of Christian morality throughout the Roman empire were these assumptions challenged. For Western civilization, the spread of Christian doctrine brought with it a new emphasis of egalitarian values that rose out of a theology based on man's original sin and the possibility of his future salvation.

Along with the doctrine of original sin came also the teachings of Jesus Christ and his invitation that all people might follow the path of righteousness into a new life of grace and atonement for one's sins. This new life, characterized as a rebirth or reawakening of the human spirit, would be available to all. Thus, the universality of sin and redemption brings with it the notion that all people are basically the same, at least in the eyes of God. Henceforth, every man's salvation will depend on what he actually does, rather than who he is or what his birthright might be. Over centuries, this meritocratic principle is embraced by Christians and transforms itself into a Protestant ethic guiding our daily work and leisure. The institutions of democracy today manifest this egalitarian belief which is expressed in our laws and social values. Yet Tocqueville views democracy as an inferior political regime based on a naive understanding of human nature. Rather than see people as basically similar, aristocrats emphasize the distance separating one person from another. For conservatives, all claims regarding basic human equality are not only naive but fundamentally mistaken. They rest on the illusion that no one deserves better treatment than anyone else, and that government by a majority of people is more beneficial than government by an elite few. This view is anathema to Tocqueville. For him, differences in ability should translate into differences in political power.

The other objection Tocqueville has regarding democracy is the belief that man is capable of self-improvement or progress. This can also be characterized as a belief in the power of reason to overcome nature. Conservatives associate a belief in progress with the belief that man will in time evolve into a superior being. This, they feel, is nonsense. Man has a particular nature which is unchangeable; it cannot be nurtured to a higher moral state, nor can it be modified by any form of social engineering. In other words, we are what we are. Individual men might possibly attain a higher degree of moral perfection, but man as a whole will never change into something other than what he has always been... a frail, proud, selfish being, prone to flights of fancy and ungrateful to his maker.

The argument that mankind never changes requires us to take an abbreviated historical perspective. It says that one's internal "nature" cannot be cultivated or improved because God has created the world in a certain way to satisfy his own purposes. God's ultimate agenda is hidden from man. But what we do know is that man lacks the power to change or undo whatever God has ordained. Thus, our moral fallibility follows us to the end of time. Regardless of our good intentions.

Aside from the biblical references to support this view, there is little reason to accept Tocqueville's word as a final authority. Both Darwin and Edwin Hubble have demonstrated that our universe is in a constant state of change. What is true of galaxies is also true of human beings. As time goes by, we evolve from one state of being into another. Whether by the process of genetic mutation or cosmic expansion, we move and change in a variety of ways we scarcely comprehend. Does that mean that we are definitely getting better and evolving into a higher state of consciousness? No. The evidence does not yet support that conclusion. But neither does it preclude that outcome as a possibility.

As human intelligence expands, its power to influence and change its own environment also expands. So, it is not irrational to think that as one's power to control one's environment grows, that control might even be extended to the human psyche. But even if it doesn't, the mere belief that one's mind can influence one's behavior is enough to positively impact one's culture. William James said that "the will to believe" can bring forth evidence that otherwise would not be able to appear (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy). Thus, faith in God sustains many people when all else fails. It makes survival and even dignity possible in situations where reason is silent. Is it then so absurd to believe that faith in human reason might possibly accomplish what otherwise could not occur in nature? Reason itself, after all, is just an evolutionary byproduct of nature. Who is to say what particular train of dominoes is set into motion by the intrusion of human reason upon the tableau of cosmic events? We may just vanish into history, or we might evolve into something altogether different from what Tocqueville imagines.

Questions for TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy... (Volume 2 / Part 1)

What effect does American-style democratic equality have on…
1...philosophy and religion? and the arts?
3...literature and language?

Monday, October 13, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 1 / Ch 1)

When Tocqueville traveled the U.S. in the 1830’s it was populated mostly by what he called the “European, Native American and Negro” races. He noted that they formed “three naturally distinct, I might almost say hostile, races” who had to somehow live together in the same country. The Native Americans were here first yet their future looked bleak to Tocqueville: “At their backs lies hunger, before them war and everywhere suffering.” He did not predict a bright future for them. This in spite of the fact that George Washington made this plea to Americans: “We are more enlightened and more powerful than the Indian nations; we are therefore bound in honor to treat them with kindness, and even with generosity.” But Washington’s policy was not pursued by the United States government. So Tocqueville predicted that “The Indian tribes will die in the same state of isolation in which they have lived, whereas the fate of the Negroes is, in a sense, intertwined with that of the Europeans…” For various reasons those who originally came from America would cease to prosper and flourish. But those who originally came from Africa and Europe shared a common destiny. Concerning those two races Tocqueville made this prediction: “only two possibilities exist for the future: either Negroes and whites must blend together completely or they must part…” They haven’t parted. How well they have blended together is a topic still much discussed in America.

The federal government played a big role in the blending together of various races. Civil Rights legislation and various other laws have had a huge impact on American society. Since Tocqueville’s time there have also been large migrations of other ethnic races into the United States. This has made immigration policy one of the major questions facing the country today. The main question is: what, if anything, should we do? And when the term “we” is used it almost always refers to the federal government. What makes this a difficult issue is that people can’t agree on what the federal government should do about it. Both sides have very passionate feelings about what should, or should not, be done. Tocqueville believed it was ok for Americans to disagree. He says that “They do not always see eye to eye…but they do agree upon the general principles which should direct human societies…They believe that at birth each person has the capacity for self-government…I am not saying that all opinions are correct but that they are American…”

From this multi-ethnic mass of unruly crowds of immigrants there emerges, every four years, at least two people willing to take on the ultimate leadership role and become The President of the United States of America. The goal is to win over a majority of voters to your side. In America that’s not easy because Americans are hard to please. Tocqueville says “They possess an inordinate opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of humanity.” In Tocqueville’s day there emerged a man who also seemed almost like a species apart from the rest of humanity. He was Andrew Jackson, also known as “Old Hickory.” He was from the frontier land of Tennessee - a man of The People and for The People. Some folks loved him. Other folks hated him. Tocqueville was not an admirer. As he saw it, “General Jackson is a slave of the majority: he follows its every wish, desire, half-revealed instincts or rather he guesses what it wants and takes a lead himself…” Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on what you think of the majority being in charge. Jackson obviously liked it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy Questions (Volume 1 / Part 2 / Ch 10)

1. Are race relations in America better or worse than Tocqueville predicted?
2. Have Americans embraced strong centralized government or are we wary of it?
3. Was General Jackson a classic American leader?

A Tyranny of the Majority

Although, in many respects, Tocqueville presents himself as a careful observer of American society, his conclusions reflect the bias of one who sees but a portion of something larger, and having sifted the evidence before him, infers that what remains unseen must, mutatis mutandis, resemble the portion that he has observed. But, in fact, his generalizations concerning the defects of American democracy are limited by the constraints of time and experience. That is to say, he writes about the experiment of American democracy while it is yet in an embryonic stage of development, and from this sample he extrapolates to a vision of what our democratic progeny will be like in the future. For example, he thinks that every American is energized by the political process, and will continually make his voice heard through the simple act of voting. Thus, a greater number of simple minded farmers or days laborers will naturally flock together to elect disreputable, and likewise simple minded legislators who will vote in lock step with their constituency. The possibility of this scenario disturbs Tocqueville, who is suspicious of any government composed of the common man. The prospect of uneducated and uncultured men dominating the legislature is what Tocqueville means by the "tyranny of the majority." He assumes that a majority of any population will be unfit to govern, but will tyrannize over a minority of men who are better equipped by nature for the responsibilities of governing.

What Tocqueville seems to overlook is that most men are too busy earning a living to spend a lot of time on politics. He assumes that working class people will fall prey to wily, unscrupulous politicians who will use their power and influence to promote a kind of tyranny over the virtuous few in society. This, of course, is always a possibility when the less educated are faced with having to make decisions for which they are ill equipped. When Alan Greenspan testified before Congress several years ago that derivatives trading on Wall Street should not be regulated or interfered with because it would have dire effects on the economy, most legislators were afraid to challenge him. After all, who among them knew as much as Alan Greenspan about the global economy? Well, the sad reality is that Greenspan was wrong. Derivatives should have been regulated because men on Wall Street who pursue great fortunes cannot be trusted to always use sound judgment. What is the moral of this tale? That when it comes to the welfare of the nation, we cannot leave these decisions to a minority of elites.

The problem with Tocqueville is that he seems to have adopted the New England model for township meetings as the only viable form of American democracy. But given the fact that most 19th century Americans lived on farms, and could not afford the time to go to town hall meetings, this model has limited validity and weakens his argument concerning the nature of democratic government.

Rather than being obsessed with politics, today we see declining voter turnout and general apathy by most Americans when it comes to public policy. It takes a major event like the Iraq war or a Wall Street meltdown for most Americans to spend even 15 minutes of their leisure time thinking about these issues. The country today is more diverse than it was when Tocqueville made his observations. It has grown from a small, insignificant federation of states into a world superpower. We have many other concerns today than just worrying about the day to day business of Congress. Who among us takes the time to read the Federal Register or the House Journal to monitor what the government is doing? If we pay any attention at all, we get our information from CNN or Fox news. In other words, we let the media tell us what we should be concerned about.

The other misconception that Tocqueville is laboring under is the very notion of "majority." He seems to believe that a political majority is something tangible like the number of raisins in a bowl of cereal. But the reality is that a political majority is the least tangible of government assets. It lasts only for the term of office of any elected official. Even then, the majority party never has all its members voting in lockstep on any given issue. There are divisions within each party that prevent anything like a guaranteed outcome on bills before Congress.

The recent controversy over the so-called "bailout" package is just another example of how divided Congress can be on any given legislation. The truth of the matter is that no such thing as an enduring majority ever exists in Congress. It always comes down to building a coalition for the purposes of passing a particular bill. But Tocqueville assumes that the poor people of America will always align themselves against the interests of the wealthy, forming a kind of political roadblock to frustrate the attempts by the minority to influence government policy. But this is no more convincing than Karl Marx's idea of an inevitable class war between the working class and the bourgeoisie. The fact that policy issues are decided by a majority vote does not mean that the minority, whoever they happen to be, will be dispossessed of either their liberty or their wealth. That scenario doesn't occur because our distinguished "minority" will always use their wealth to buy influence in the legislative mall. Of course, in reality this will occur if a minority lacks all means of influencing Congress, as happened in the 102 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of a civil rights bill in 1964.

Still, it is strange that Tocqueville thinks a majority will always be able to suppress the minority based on the electoral arrangements written into the Constitution. After all, the whole purpose of the original Bill of Rights is to protect the interests of the minority from any possible tyranny by a majority. Yet, it is clear that Tocqueville doesn't have much faith in the constitutional provisions drafted by our Founding Fathers. He, like other critics of democracy, assumes that the vulgar multitude (i.e., populists) is incapable of rising to the cultural level required for self-government. But he underestimates the potential for public education to offset the disadvantages of poverty. His claim that a natural aristocracy is the best form of government has very little support in the world today. Most people see that democracy works best when opportunities for self improvement are encouraged, and the values of a free society are embraced by a people united in that endeavor.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 1, Book 2, ch. 6-9)

In the paper this morning I found a quote from an Australian: “Maybe only a friendly foreigner could say this. But America needs to realize that not everyone can own a home. The American Dream of home ownership for all is a fraud.” Really? Tocqueville said something similar almost two hundred years ago: “Only foreigners or experience might be able to bring certain truths to the ears of Americans.” The truth of the matter is Americans don’t want to hear that not everyone can own their own home. When told that something can’t be done Americans almost always tend to ask “why not?” Negative thinking is downright un-American. This is, in my opinion, the good side of America. On the other hand, if everyone can’t have a home of their own then it must be somebody’s fault. Somebody out there is cheating. Somebody is taking more than their fair share. Or they’re somehow taking advantage of other Americans. The government should do something about it. This is, in my opinion, the bad side of America. We want it all. What kind of government can give people everything they want?

Tocqueville gives something like a pop quiz about what kind of government the reader wants: “Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions?” And we Americans tend to answer yes. But we prefer to scorn those possessions from the comforts of a nice home with lots of amenities like big screen TVs. Tocqueville asks: “Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom?” Well of course we want all that stuff too but without getting too hoity-toity about it. Tocqueville goes on: “Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion?” We guess so but only as long as the deep devotion stuff doesn’t interfere with the separation of church and state. This kind of wavering or refusal to make a firm commitment is both America’s strength and its weakness. It’s a kind of strength because America experiments, makes mistakes, then makes adjustments, and gets on with life. It can also be a kind of weakness. The permanent secretary for the Nobel Prize in Literature put it this way: Americans are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture” to produce great literature. We’re busy doing things. We don’t have time to produce great art.

Is this true? Tocqueville made this observation: “If America has not yet found any great writers, we should not look elsewhere for reasons; literary genius does not thrive without freedom of thought and there is not freedom of thought in America.” Because of its vast mass middle-class culture Americans do very well in some areas, not so well in others. The reason? Democracy. In America “The People” rule. For better or for worse the mass culture of America is in the hands of “The People.” And we tend to like it that way. Tocqueville points out that “There exists a patriotism…which binds a man’s heart to his birthplace. This unreflecting love blends with the liking for ancient customs, respect for ancestors, and the memories of the past…” Even in a fast-paced age of technology many Americans still long for baseball, apple pie, Norman Rockwell prints and a home of their own. We still remember the Alamo, the beaches of Normandy and Marilyn Monroe with Joe DiMaggio. Is this a great country or what? Tocqueville’s observation: “There is nothing more irksome in the conduct of life than the irritable patriotism Americans have.” But at least we do it in the privacy of our own homes. Preferably in comfortable homes.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Unlimited Power of the Majority

Tocqueville believes that government is weakened by giving authority to the majority of the people. He prefers government by an aristocracy because he feels that is a more rational and natural way for society to be organized. His argument derives from the notion that the few (aristoi) should rule over the many (demos), but he does not provide much insight as to how the "aristoi" are to be found amongst the multitude. The assumption seems to be that wealth or property is one indication of superiority. But no evidence is offered to demonstrate why wealth and virtue are connected. Given the fact that wealth can be inherited, rather than earned, it seems odd that Tocqueville should assume any moral advantages in having it. He seems to think that the wealthy are in a better position to rule over others because they no longer have to concern themselves with acquiring a fortune. By this logic, the poor would necessarily be consumed with monetary pursuits while neglecting the affairs of state. Also, the poor would be more corruptible since they have yet to possess their own estates. Therefore, society is better left in the hands of those who are no longer tempted by the attractions of wealth.

This argument makes a couple of assumptions. First, that all men are primarily concerned with wealth; and second, that virtue is more often found in men of property than in men who are impoverished.

Is it, in fact, true that men place wealth above all other considerations? If so, doesn't this mean that no men are truly civilized? That, when push comes to shove, all men will choose wealth over other considerations, such as family, honor, friendship, love and truth. This suggests that man is really just another species of animal, with no higher aspirations than the search for his next meal or the endless quest for procreation. Of course, Tocqueville wants to say that an aristocracy is the one exception to this base description of man's nature. Hence, we find that the benefits of civilized life confer certain advantages to those who are morally inspired to live better lives. Thus, over time, wealth becomes concentrated into the hands of a few people who are brave and hard working, etc. etc. In this way, a true aristocracy of men emerges out of the mob's struggle for limited resources.

But the struggle to survive is not one that proceeds from a position of absolute equality. A small part of humanity is blessed with natural advantages of intelligence, strength, speed, agility, beauty, or ambition. These qualities make success more likely for some rather than for others. And, the argument follows, these natural advantages will progress from one generation to the next through the mechanism of heredity, just as the physical attributes of blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes are passed along from one slice of DNA to the next. This natural aristocracy of biology is replicated in the economic sphere by a similar aptitude for creating and expanding one's own fortune in the marketplace. Thus, history becomes the natural unfolding of this gradual separation of humanity into the few, the proud and the brave, who are the true "aristoi" of mankind, as compared to everyone else.

This scenario is accepted among political conservatives like Tocqueville as a plausible model for social evolution. But, in fact, like the discovery of fire or the founding of Rome, it has more to do with mythology than evolution. Any natural advantages conveyed by DNA could hardly account for the present day concentration of wealth in society. Rather than an argument for virtue, the pre-political state of man, as Hobbes rightly said, was an arena of endless conflict, of the strong lording it over the weak, and the ruthless enslaving the serene. In today's world, the free market expresses the moral equivalent of this aboriginal conflict. It is an accepted fact that the self-interest guiding economic success will always reward the clever over the virtuous. No one expects mercy in a corporate struggle for dominance in the marketplace.

At best, it seems that economic success is related to a certain low aptitude for making money. But it is a poor argument to suggest that wealth implies moral superiority. And if moral superiority is lacking, upon what basis are we to conclude that government is best left to the wealthy? Does an aptitude for making money necessarily translate to an aptitude for governing other people? Only if we assume that government is a form of commerce. But governing requires more than mere management skills. Unless you plan to rule as a dictator using fear and intimidation as the tools of statecraft (i.e., totalitarianism), you will need the peaceful cooperation of other people. In other words, you need public approval.

Tocqueville apparently feels that public approval is a non-essential ingredient to governing. If the best people rule, everyone else will just fall into line. But this will only happen if the best people rule in the best possible way. In other words, if government benefits the greater population of men who are excluded from government. This can only happen if the best people are guided by some other principle than self interest. Yet, the best people have become successful through their acquisition of wealth and power, and in doing so they surely must have been guided by their own interest. Thus, something else, other than self interest, is required in order to govern effectively. The other quality needed for good government is public virtue. However, public virtue is the willingness to put the public's welfare above your own. So that in order for an aristocracy to govern well, it must deny the very principle which enabled it to prosper in the first place, i.e., the self interest of the rich. Tocqueville assumes that an aristocracy is incorruptible. But this doesn't mean that the aristocracy is blind to its own interest. It just means that an aristocracy believes that the public interest is best served by having political power in the hands of the aristocracy.

So we are left with the idea that an aristocracy is guided by a sense of its own superiority, but that in order to rule over a majority of the population, it must deny this philosophical claim, and substitute a contrary belief in the Christian idea of service to others; in other words, good government, in a free society, requires a generous measure of self denial (humility) which does not come easily to the best people. In point of fact, the best people can only be identified by their complete lack of ambition to rule, and having identified them, the public would have to compel them to accept the office. This is the original meaning of public service which must, of necessity, be the kind of service that no one seeks on his own, but having been summoned by the oracle, will put his own interests to the side and fulfill his duty to the people, as did the consuls of ancient Rome when they were once called to serve.

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy Questions (Volume 1, Part 2, 6-9)

Questions for October 6, 2008

1. What do Americans want from government?
2. Does majority opinion dominate American culture?
3. What role does religion play in American politics?