Posts tagged with: alexis de tocqueville

Prepping for the joint Acton/Liberty Fund sponsored conference that begins tonight: Religion & Liberty: Acton and Tocqueville, part of Acton’s Liberty and Markets program, I came across the following thought-provoking quote from Alexis de Tocqueville:

The civil and criminal legislation of the Americans knows only two means of action: prison or bail. The first action in proceedings consists of obtaining bail from the defendant or, if he refuses, of having him incarcerated; afterwards the validity of the evidence or the gravity of the charges is discussed.

Clearly such legislation is directed against the poor and favors only the rich.

A poor man does not always make bail, even in civil matters, and if he is forced to await justice in prison, his forced inactivity soon reduces him to destitution.

A wealthy man, on the contrary, always succeeds in escaping imprisonment in civil matters; even more, if he has committed a crime, he easily evades the punishment awaiting him: after providing bail, he disappears. So it can be said that for him all the penalties of the law are reduced to fines. What is more aristocratic than such legislation? (more…)

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, has written a piece at Ethika Politika urging those upset by last week’s election results to be calm and take a deep breath. First, Lawler says we have to understand that there are small political parties and great ones.

Great parties are parties of high principle.  Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life.  They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war.  So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable…

Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties.  Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle.  Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests.  The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it.  The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons.  The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.

The problem, as Lawler sees it through Tocquevillian glasses, isn’t one party winning over another or one candidate leading by shining example. No, the problem is that America is now obsessed with individualism. We don’t care much any more what is best for all, but merely what is best for me. I want what I want, damn the consequences.

I think Tocqueville would conclude his observations by noticing what’s changed the most since the America he wrote about is the breakdown of the religious-based American consensus on the limits of self-obsessive individualism.  His America was all about chastity, marital fidelity, what’s best for children, and common moral duties.  This consensus has broken down, and the resulting devolution of marriage into a contractual entitlement devoid of real duties or even duration is the real cause of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  The question posed by gays is roughly this:  Given how little marriage really means under the law these days, you have no right to exclude us from its benefits, which have become mainly symbolic.

Read “Tocquevillian Reflections on the Meaning of the Election” at Ethika Politika here.

I recently talked to one of Italy’s leading classical liberal scholars, Prof. Nicola Iannello, regarding the outcome of this week’s U.S. presidential elections.  

Prof. Iannello, a devotee of classical liberalism and Alexis de Tocqueville, is an Italian journalist, international lecturer with Istituto Bruno Leoni, and chair of the Einaudi Foundation’s Austrian School of Economics course for Roman university students. Prof. Iannello has published several widely read academic articles on Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Frédéric Bastiat, among other pro-liberty European intellectuals.

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Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing in National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg weighs in on Mitt Romney’s remarks about the “47 percent”:

Ever since the modern welfare state was founded (by none other than that great “champion” of freedom Otto von Bismarck as he sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade industrial workers to stop voting for the German Social Democrats), Western politicians have discovered that welfare programs and subsidies more generally are a marvelous way of creating constituencies of people who are likely to keep voting for you as long as you keep delivering the goods. In terms of electoral dynamics, it sometimes reduces elections to contests about which party can give you more — at other people’s expense.

For several decades now, it’s been a playbook successfully used by European parties of left and right, most Democrats, and plenty of country-club Republicans to help develop and maintain electoral support. As Tocqueville predicted, “Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.” In such an atmosphere, politicians who seek to reduce welfare expenditures find themselves at a profound electoral disadvantage — which seems to have been Mr. Romney’s awkwardly phrased point.

Of course, it all ends in insolvency, as we are seeing played out in fiscal disasters such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, the city of Philadelphia, the city of Detroit, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois.

Read “Mitt de Tocqueville” on NRO by Samuel Gregg.

In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.

The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:

So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?

Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.

When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.

The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.

We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”

He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

Today marks the official launch of the new and improved website for the Journal of Markets & Morality.

In addition to the new design, we also have included a search feature whereby anyone who wants can search back issues for keywords, authors, names, and so on. For example, a search for “Alexis de Tocqueville” yields 29 results, and a search for “subsidiarity” turns up 78! As is our current policy, everything up to the two most recent issues is free to access for the public and all issues are open to subscribers.

Take the time to visit us at www.marketsandmorality.com and “like” us on Facebook to receive timely updates about new issues and other news.

Right now I am reading an advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. The book will be released by IVP on August 6. It’s an essential read and I pledge to publish a future review for our PowerBlog readers. Guinness was interviewed in Religion & Liberty in 1998.

In my recent talks around town I have been asking questions about our capacity and desire for self-government as a community and nation. I recently gave a local presentation on President Calvin Coolidge and he helped inspire a greater desire to ask the foundational questions. In my view, Coolidge saw public service as a chance to educate Americans in civics, elevating the greater truths from our revolutionary and founding period.

Below is a great excerpt from Guinness’s forthcoming book:

Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the self-government of a free republic had to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.

The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom – both to liberty itself and to the civic vitality and social harmony that go hand in hand with freedom.

Burke wrote in full agreement, “Manners [or moral standards] are of more importance than laws.” Rousseau had written similarly that mores, customs, and traditions, which are “engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens” form “the true Constitution of the State” and the “Keystone of the Republic.”

Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sam Gregg’s response to President Obama’s latest invocation of the “my brother’s keeper” motif brings out one of the basic problems with applying this biblical question to public policy. As Gregg points out, the logic of the president’s usage points to the government as the institution of brotherly love:

But who is the “I” that President Obama has in mind? Looking carefully at his speech, it’s most certainly not the free associations and communities that Alexis de Tocqueville thought made 19th-century America so different and alive when compared to his own already state-centric native France. No: Our number-one “keeper,” in our president’s mind, is the federal government.

To this idea that the president is the “keeper in chief,” I echo the question attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards? Who watches the watchmen?

Or more to the point: Who keeps the keepers?

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg discusses remarks made by President Barack Obama at a March 30 campaign stop at the University of Vermont. From the White House transcript of the speech, here is some of what the president said:

The American story is not just about what we do on our own. Yes, we’re rugged individualists and we expect personal responsibility, and everybody out there has got to work hard and carry their weight. But we also have always understood that we wouldn’t win the race for new jobs and businesses and middle-class security if we were just applying some you’re-on-your-own economics. It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried. It did not work. (Applause.)

Gregg on NRO:

… it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”

Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.

Read “So Who Is Our Keeper, Mr. President?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

On The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines how the left wages “a war of rejection and rationalization against whatever contradicts their mythologies.” Which explains why leftists get into a snit when you point out factual details like how Communist regimes “imprisoned, tortured, starved, experimented upon, enslaved, and exterminated millions” throughout the 20th century. And it makes it so much harder to wear that Che Guevara t-shirt without being mocked in public. Gregg:

Overall, the left has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record. Everyone today knows about the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. Yet does anyone doubt that far fewer know much about the atrocities ordered by the likes of Lenin, Castro, Mao, and Pol Pot? Do those Occupy Wall Street protesters waving red hammer-and-sickle flags actually understand what such symbols mean for those who endured Communism?

But while the left’s response to such awkward queries won’t likely change, the unanswered question is why so many left-inclined politicians and intellectuals play these games.

Part of the answer is the very human reluctance of anyone to acknowledge the dark side of movements with which they have some empathy. Even today, for example, there are Latin Americans inclined to make excuses for the right-wing death-squads — the infamous Escuadrón de la Muerte — that wrought havoc in Central America throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

The sheer scale of denial among progressivists, however, suggests something else is going on. I think it owes much to the left’s claim to a monopoly of moral high-mindedness.

Read “The Left Resumes Its War on History” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.