Posts tagged with: alexis de tocqueville

Rousseau Geneve

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Earlier this Spring at The Gospel Coalition I reviewed Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.

Naím explores in a variety of fields and with a great diversity of examples the way in which, as he puts it, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power” and “power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.” I think there’s a real sense in which Naím has identified a real phenomenon. Power is becoming more and more diffused.

But as I argue in my TGC review, that’s really only half the story. Naím often has to provide a caveat that in spite of much of the centralization that we see, power really is eroding full stop. My contention, however, is that what we’re really seeing is the eroding of power in civil society, an evacuation of the power and place of mediating institutions, in two directions: toward centralized structures and authorities and toward individuals. The inability to see this leads to conclusions that would only hasten and exacerbate the evacuation of power from such mediating structures.

Some of this echoes what Ross Douthat has been saying recently about individualism, following Nisbet in particular: “In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias.” I take my own proximate inspiration from Röpke and his identification of “enmassment,” but there are certainly resonances with Nisbet as well as older thinkers like Tocqueville.

I should note in response to Douthat’s observation that “from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together,” this dialectic certainly cannot be explained solely in terms of the Reformation, as perhaps Brad Gregory would argue. The role of the Renaissance more generally, and particularly the renewed engagement with the varieties of ancient and pagan philosophy has as much, if not more, to do with the Enlightenment project of the liberated individual constrained by the collective than the Protestant Reformation.

[Part 1 is here.]

Economic freedom does generate certain challenges. The wealth that free economies are so effective at creating brings with it temptation. Wealth can tempt us to depend on our riches rather than on God. The temptation can be resisted, as we see with wealthy biblical characters like Abraham and Job. But it’s a challenge the church should be mindful of, helping its members cultivate a balanced view of money and of our responsibility and opportunities as stewards of the things God has given us.

The free society also can be hard on communities, since the free enterprise system makes for such a mobile society. Michael Miller talks about this: the opportunities and demands generated by a complex market economy mean that people often end up moving far away from their childhood homes and the network of relationships that surrounded that home. In seeking to meet this challenge, we need to ask ourselves what strategies would effectively address the problem, and are there well-intended policies that are likely to make the problem worse. In essence, we need to exercise the virtue of prudence.

The sociologist Robert Nisbet has some useful insights here. In his 1953 work The Quest for Community, he developed the case that greater centralized political authority and social safety net spending beyond a certain minimal level actually begin to undermine civil institutions and community, since people depend less and less on their family and community bonds and more and more on state-sponsored humanitarian assistance.
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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

Venezuela has been at the top of the news lately because of violnent demonstrations and government abuses (for background on the situation in Venezuela, check out Joe Carter’s post). Director of research at Acton, Samuel Gregg, has written a special report at The American Spectator commentating on Venezuela as well as Latin America as a whole:

Given Venezuela’s ongoing meltdown and the visible decline in the fortunes of Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner, one thing has become clear. Latin America’s latest experiments with left-wing populism have reached their very predictable end-points. There is a price to be paid for the economics of populism, and no amount of blaming nefarious “neoliberals” can disguise cruel realities such as food-shortages, electricity-blackouts, endemic corruption, the disintegration of rule of law, utterly insecure property-rights, and wild inflation — all of which have helped Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador achieve the ignominious distinction of being categorized as “repressed economies” in the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom.

Certainly it’s not clear that Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela will lose power. As the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady has underscored, the Castros who run the prison camp otherwise known as Cuba will do whatever-it-takes to try and prevent that. Nor is it certain that Argentines won’t vote for yet another Perónist who promises to solve everyone’s problems via government decree when presidential elections come due in 2015.

But if crises are indeed opportunities, now is the time for those Latin Americans who recognize populism’s flaws to think seriously about what comes next. One mistake would be to imagine that all that’s required are different economic policies. (more…)

“With every passing year, and each new EU bailout, Europeans seem to be forgetting where they came from,” writes journalist David Aikman in a new review of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. In The Weekly Standard, Aikman commends Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s book for showing how the long post-war project designed to advance European integration, economic security and social welfare has in fact degenerated into government dependency and bureaucratic bloat. The former Time magazine senior correspondent and bestselling author also applauds Gregg for reminding us that Marxist inspired “redistributionism” is really the core problem. Excerpt from the review:

The idea of a European federal superstate as an economic and political entity was never far from the minds of Europe’s key founders. Democratic capitalism was to be the main economic engine of that entity. But as Samuel Gregg points out in this cogently argued study—which frequently refers to Alexis de Tocqueville—whereas the American federal experiment emphasized economic and political freedom as the prerequisites for social prosperity and “human flourishing,” Europe’s postwar program was heavily influenced by social democracy. The goal became economic security for everyone, an idea that required labor-union political power and large bureaucracies to administer the welfare state.

Gregg correctly reminds us that behind social democracy’s stress on fair economic outcomes for Europe’s population lay the fundamental Marxist principle of redistributionism. He certainly does not attribute the European Union’s recent woes to the influence of Marxism, but he assembles a variety of ingredients that add up to what he calls “social Europe,” a social-welfare coterie of EU countries in which general prosperity has declined as economic freedoms have been whittled down. (more…)

Guidance For Christian Engagement In GovernmentChristian’s Library Press has just released the first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program), under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government.

First published in 1879 with the goal of preparing citizens for participation in the general elections, Kuyper’s stated purpose was twofold, as summarized by translator and editor Harry Van Dyke: “to serve antirevolutionaries as a guide for promotional activities and to prepare them for the formal establishment of an Anti-Revolutionary Party.”

As for what is meant by “anti-revolutionary” in this particular case, Kuyper lays the groundwork as follows:

Our movement’s first name, given its origin, is “antirevolutionary.” It took its rise from opposing something offensive, something that clashed with what is just and sacred. We are therefore at heart a militant party, unhappy with the status quo and ready to critique it, fight it, and change it. (more…)

cruz controlThere is little doubt that we will see more Sen. Ted Cruz like broadsides against Washington’s power structure. Obamacare might be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to ceding power to Washington. A point that was made Ad nauseum during Cruz’s 20 hour plus talk fest on the Senate floor is that what he did matters little. Nothing would change from a legislative or a procedural standpoint. While I think that’s true for the short term, the credibility of the Republican leadership in the Senate may have taken a fatal blow. To see what that means for those fighting for conservatism and limited government check out Matt Walsh’s excellent post on National Review Online.

It was a definitive moment for the triumph of principle and that imagery matters not just to liberalism or the statist but for conservatism too. Every battle against collectivism doesn’t require an immediate victory but it does require a victory for principle. Most Americans know the federal government is broken. They sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the political leadership and the direction of the country. Despite America’s culture of escapism through entertainment, there are still millions of people paying attention. They don’t want to become what Alexis de Tocqueville warned in Democracy in America, as nothing more than “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Political infighting and procedure aside, the larger point is an important one. We are increasingly arriving at the point where we will see more and more public show downs against the federal government by those constituencies that know it is broken, out of touch, and corrupt. The result of more and more centralization and federal control over our lives inevitably exacts push back.

Walsh’s point at NRO is that the Republican leadership in the Senate is just the first victim of the grassroots broadside. It will be interesting to see how the battle over power plays out and the biggest obstacle indeed is the secularism of society. Secular cultures demand centralization and planning in their futile attempt to perfect society. And while the federal government continues to expand in its already bloated form, it does so with great risk. More and more people will take notice and the bigger it is, the harder the entrenched power structure could come crashing down.

Democracy In America

Democracy In America

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation.

$10.00

In a new article at Intercollegiate Review, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the current state of “idea conservatives” and their place in the broader context of American conservative thought encompassing an amazing diversity of ideological subspecies. But it is ideas and core principles, more than anything else, that informs conservatism and its various movements, despite the many fractures and fissures. Gregg makes a compelling case for rooting “conservatism’s long-term agenda” in the “defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization.” His article is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?” Excerpt from the Gregg article:

… as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.

Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include: (more…)

Looking for a great opportunity to expand your intellectual capacity? We are still seeking applicants for two upcoming Liberty and Markets conferences: Religion and Liberty: Acton and Tocqueville and Evaluating the Idea of Social Justice.

Co-sponsored by the Acton Institute and Liberty Fund, Inc., these conferences offer an excellent opportunity for networking and discussion within a small group environment, with an average faculty/participant ratio of 1:3.

Both conferences are free and include single-occupancy lodging, meals, nightly hospitality, book gifts, and up to a $500 stipend for travel and participation. A mixture of lectures and Socratic discussions of primary texts (sent out in advance of the conference) engage participants and foster in-depth dialogue.

See below for more specific details:

Religion and Liberty: Acton and Tocqueville

September 12–15, 2013 in Grand Rapids, MI

Brief Summary: At this conference, graduate students will discuss religious freedom, the church-state relationship, and the role of religion in shaping the moral order of free societies. These issues will be examined through the lens of history, and readings and discussion will explore the relationship by illustrating how, at different points in history, Christianity has acted as a support for liberty and, at others, has failed to do so. The conference readings will focus on the writings of Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville, two of the most insightful nineteenth-century liberal thinkers to write about the relationship between Christianity and liberty.

Last call for applications!

Intended Audience: Individuals currently enrolled in graduate school or have completed graduate-level studies in the last 6 years

Evaluating the Idea of Social Justice

October 10–13, 2013 in Grand Rapids, MI

Brief Summary: The purpose of this conference is to explore the idea of “social justice” and compare and evaluate it against the understanding this concept now evokes in contemporary debates about justice and political order. The all-encompassing claims made on behalf of social justice in these debates often translate into calls for the reduction of personal liberty and a concomitant increase in state power to distribute material goods and the resources of private enterprise in common.

Intended Audience: Clergy, Seminarians, Church and Parachurch workers

Visit the Acton Institute events webpage for more information and to apply.

I’m catching up on reading after the holiday last week, and the July 4 edition of the Transom has some gems, including this bit from Alexis de Tocqueville on the mindset of tenants:

There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

This description of servile and licentious tenancy can be directly contrasted with a vision of responsible and faithful stewardship, in which the steward acts in the interests of his or her lord. As Paul writes, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2 ESV). On the Christian view, it is in our best interest to align our interests with God’s, submitting our stewardship to his will and his law.

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.