Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America II (Law and Aristocracy)

In the Declaration of Independence and its new Constitution the United States announced to the world its intention to reject monarchy and form a government without an inherited aristocracy or titles of nobility.  The problem now was where to find leaders able to guide this new republic.  In this week’s reading Tocqueville asserts that the United States found its leadership in a certain class of citizens: lawyers.  Of course this wasn’t spelled out in either the Declaration or the Constitution but nevertheless became the guiding force in establishing order and stability in America.  Why lawyers?  Tocqueville thinks it’s because “Men who have more especially devoted themselves to legal pursuits, derive from those occupations certain habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas, which naturally render them very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitude.”  As a profession, and as a special class of citizens, Tocqueville believed lawyers were uniquely qualified to govern America.  Is that still true today?  Do lawyers still dominate American politics?  A recent article in the ABA Journal (January 20, 2016) says “Lawyers once dominated Congress, but they are being ‘squeezed out’ today by those who have made politics a career, according to a new research paper.  In the mid-19th century, nearly 80 percent of members of Congress were lawyers. The percentage fell to less than 60 percent in the 1960s and less than 40 percent in 2015.”  Tocqueville’s analysis was apparently correct for his own day but not so much nowadays.  What accounts for the decline?  The article “attributes lawyers’ declining dominance in politics not only to the rise of politics as a career, but also to broader changes in the profession.  The ‘professionalized political class’ includes campaign aides, lobbyists, members of think tanks, and employees in public-interest jobs. These jobs provide an alternative gateway to political office.  Most members of Congress with these backgrounds are not lawyers.”  The rise of corporations has also contributed to this phenomenon: “While in the 19th century, stories abounded of the public coming to courtrooms to listen to the oratorical skills of top lawyers and to be entertained by the cases of the day, by the end of the century many of the elite lawyers moved from the courtroom to the corporate boardroom. Top lawyers no longer required large public followings to bring in business.” 

Tocqueville’s basic theory of a quasi-legal aristocratic class still seems relevant today.  The elite class has merely migrated from the legal profession to a “professionalized political class.”  The question remains whether it’s necessary to have a quasi-aristocratic class in a democratic republic.  Tocqueville thinks so.  He says “Lawyers belong to the people by birth and interest, to the aristocracy by habit and by taste, and they may be looked upon as the natural bond and connecting link of the two great classes of society.”  Under his theory there are two great classes of society: the people on one hand and aristocracy on the other.  Lawyers are uniquely qualified to serve as “the natural bond and connecting link” between these two classes.  Why?  Baby lawyers are born into a democracy and so have a vested interest in making the democratic system work.  But as they grow and become educated citizens they also learn to appreciate aristocratic values.  Lawyers have thus been trained to see both sides of the big picture.  So “When the American people is intoxicated by passion, or carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of its legal counsellors, who secretly oppose their aristocratic propensities to its democratic instincts, their superstitious attachment to what is antique to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its immense designs, and their habitual procrastination to its ardent impatience.”  History teaches that democratic instincts and “love of novelty” often end in disaster if not checked by the aristocratic propensity for order.

Friday, October 14, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America I (Public Opinion)

Every four years America turns its national attention to politics.  This is a good time to read Tocqueville on democracy in America.  Even though he lived over 150 years ago his political insights are still on target.  Americans generally believe democracy is a good thing and is the best form of government.  Tocqueville puts the idea behind democracy in this little maxim: “The moral power of the majority is founded upon the principle that the interests of the many are to be preferred to those of the few.”  The United States Constitution and its laws are designed to protect the rights of the few while granting the power to govern to the majority.  Modern political parties are supposed to represent the will of the American People.  It’s not perfect but we believe this form of government is much better than the old monarchies that ruled in Europe.  Better that “the people” should have power rather than a king.  Many kings throughout history misused their power and became tyrants.  But Tocqueville wants us to consider this question.  “If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach?  Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration.”  Why should “the people” be trusted with power any more than a king?  Tocqueville says “I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow-creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to give to any one of them individually.”  In modern terms Tocqueville would think the two party system is a good idea.  Power can be transferred from one political party to another.  That helps keep them both in check over the long haul.  And it’s important to keep them in check because Tocqueville believes “unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion; and God alone can be omnipotent because his wisdom and his justice are equal to his power.”  The founding fathers created a constitution for real-life flesh and blood men and women, not for angels.  So heated political debate is good for the country. 

Tocqueville thinks debate is a healthy sign but here’s what worries him.  “In America as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced a submissive silence is observed.”  An unpopular opinion means losing at the polls.  Tocqueville thinks that’s what makes the power of the majority so coercive.  In fact, he says “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.”  True democracy cannot exist without true independence of mind and freedom of discussion.  To be successful in American politics you have to know how to play the game.  You have to use the tools available in a democratic system of government.  Take the concept of patriotism.  Even in his own day Tocqueville had already noted that “Patriotism in the United States is a virtue which may be found among the people, but never among the leaders of the people.”  Is that true?  Many people go into politics because they love their country and want to do good things.  But a democratic system requires lots of compromise and pandering to the public.  That’s why Tocqueville says politicians “are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people they serve… they assure the people that they possess all the virtues under heaven without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them.”  What happens to democracy when we “the people” have neither intelligence nor virtue?  Politicians flatter us; we vote for them.  That’s how the game is played.  Tocqueville thinks this is what should bother us.  Who will tell us the truth?  Not politicians.  They need our votes.  Not the media.  They want us to keep reading their papers and watching their news shows.  Not the entertainment industry.  They want us to keep coming to their movies and listening to their songs.  We, the people, keep hearing we’re smart and virtuous too.  So it must be true.  Everybody thinks so, don’t you?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HUME: Of Justice (Nature and Wealth)

Several Great Books readings deal with Man in a State of Nature.  How would people live without the benefits of civilized society?  Hume says some philosophers believe the State of Nature would be “full of war, violence, and injustice.”  Thomas Hobbes (Origin of Government, GB2) takes this view.  Hume thinks for other philosophers the State of Nature “is painted out to us as the most charming and most peaceable condition that can possibly be imagined.”  Jean Jacques Rousseau (Social Contract, GB1) tends to think along these lines.  Hume takes the position that of all the creatures found in Nature, Man alone has an “unnatural conjunction of infirmity and of necessity.”  In a State of Nature all other creatures can fairly easily feed and fend for themselves because they have few needs.  And to meet those needs Nature has supplied animals with the advantages of sharp teeth, claws, wings or fins to survive and thrive in their environments.  Human beings don’t have those advantages and additionally we need clothing and shelter.  Left to our own devices in a State of Nature most of us would not survive for very long in a jungle or a desert.  But one advantage we have over most animals is social organization.
Hume admits that human beings are not well-equipped to live on their own and says “It is by society alone Man is able to supply his defects, and raise himself up to an equality with his fellow creatures, and even acquire a superiority above them.”  On our own we’re weak and nearly helpless.  In society we become strong and can acquire the amenities of civilized life.  Hume thinks society provides three important elements for human development: power, ability, and security.  Think of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis (GB1).  A massive common project (such as building a tower or forming a new nation) concentrates power in centralized government.  Workers then develop their own skills and abilities in ways that best contribute to the project.  In return the State provides security so workers can live and prosper in a safe environment.  But how does such a society come into existence in the first place?  Hume believes “The first and original principle of human society is no other than that natural appetite between the sexes which unites them together and preserves their union till a new tie takes place in their concern for their common offspring.”  He agrees with Aristotle (On Happiness, GB1) that the family is the heart and soul of every civilized society.  It is primarily within families that human affection can flourish best.  Unfortunately, says Hume, “so noble an affection, instead of fitting men for large societies, is almost as contrary to them as the most narrow selfishness.”  Our allegiance to our family trumps all other allegiances.  This is perfectly natural according to Hume because “in the original frame of our mind our strongest attention is confined to ourselves; our next is extended to our relations and acquaintances; and it is only the weakest which reaches to strangers and indifferent persons.”  We want good things for ourselves and our families first, then for our neighbors, and only after that for people we don’t know personally.

Good things, the amenities of life, come in the form of having our own private possessions; owning our own clothes, car, home, etc.  Hume thinks “this avidity alone of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends is insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society…”  Thus our primary political problem is fundamentally a moral problem and Hume goes on to say “we are to esteem the difficulties in the establishment of society to be greater or less, according to those we encounter in regulating and restraining this passion.”  The problem of justice is how to regulate and restrain this passion to acquire private property without quenching the passion and discipline required to build a better community, or a very tall tower.  That’s why the just distribution of wealth is a problem at least as old as the Tower of Babel.