Posts tagged with: alexis de tocqueville

Matthew Feeney, assistant editor at Reason Magazine’s 24/7 blog, today reviews Samuel Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. In his article titled “Europe: America’s Crystal Ball?” Feeney notes the similarity between Gregg’s views and many in the tea party movement who worry that “the U.S. is adopting similar norms and institutions [to Europe’s current economic culture,] thereby losing what Tocqueville called Americans’ “spirit of enterprise.”

Feeney states that:

It is frustrating to many Europeans that Americans refer to “Europeanization” or a “European culture.” Europe, after all, is a continent of many countries and hundreds of languages; any attempt to generalize its people or culture will inevitably fall short. Thankfully, Gregg doesn’t fall into this trap. While acknowledging those differences, he also explains what enables commentators to discuss a common European culture, from the presence of an established lingua franca (be it Latin, French, or English) to the centuries of trade between its different peoples to the ongoing influence of Christianity. And it surely makes sense to speak of a “European economic culture” given the existence of the European Union, whose bloated bureaucracies regulate 27 of the continent’s states.

While Americans should be reassured that their political and economic culture is broadly pro-enterprise and pro-market, Gregg’s book is a healthy reminder that the United States has indeed been moving toward a more European economic culture. At the same time, Gregg makes sure to point out that the U.S. is not there yet. It remains to be seen how much Americans will push for free markets, transparency, and property rights in the years ahead. But thanks to Gregg’s book, they cannot claim to have not been warned.

Read the full article here. Learn more about or purchase a copy of Becoming Europe here.

National Review Online asked Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg to weigh in on President Barack Obama’s second term inaugural address.

Gregg points to “our president’s worldview that the government is the primary way in which we address our common problems and realize our responsibilities and obligations to each other as citizens and as human beings.” He wonders if it has occurred to Obama that “many such responsibilities and obligations might be realized outside the realm of politics … ”

Gregg goes on to suggest, for the presidential reading list, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Jacques Maritain’s writings on civil society in the United States.

Read “Why Barack Obama Needs to Read Alexis de Tocqueville” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013).

Acton’s Director of Media, Michael Matheson Miller, discusses the current state of American thought on state, Church, family and liberty in Legatus Magazine. He focuses on the work of two Frenchmen: Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Many of the differences can be boiled down to what we mean by community. Rousseau’s vision of community is what the sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “political community.” For Rousseau, the two main elements of society are the individual and the state. All other groups — including the Church — are viewed as inhibiting individual freedom and detracting from political community that is found in the state.

Tocqueville’s vision of community, on the other hand, is not reduced to the “political community” but instead means a wide variety of associations, different levels of groups, and layers of authority. Society is not made up of autonomous individuals and an omnicompetent state, but is a diverse group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.

Read “Community, liberty and freedom” in Legatus here.

Rome contributor to ZENIT, Stefanie DeAngelo, recently interviewed the Acton Institute’s 2012 Novak Award winner, Professor Giovanni Patriarca. During the interview Prof. Patriarca speaks candidly about some of his academic influences, including Michael Novak and Benedict XVI. He also offers his reasons for hope in overcoming the prolonged global economic crisis.

Some Contemporary Reflections: An Itinerary from Novak to Benedict XVI

by Stefanie DeAngelo

2012 Novak Award Winner Prof. Giovanni Patriarca

ZENIT: You have recently received the Novak Award. What are some of the major contributions of the American philosopher and theologian to our thinking about the current state of the world?

Patriarca: The work of Dr. Michael Novak is so rich that it is not easy to summarize it in a few thoughts. In addition to his famous works on economics, a number of his articles published in the last few years, especially in the journal First Things, explores some of modernity’s contradictions regarding individual and social responsibility and the demise of traditional values that were held by previous generations. As Alexis de Tocqueville also warned, the loss of a metaphysical perspective, leads to materialism and the absurdity of nihilism. (more…)

A schoolhouse in New England from the 1830s.

According to a recent Pew Center report, “Record levels of bachelor’s degree attainment in 2012 are apparent for most basic demographic groups.” 33% of 25- to 29- year-olds are completing both high school and college. According to the report, this number is up from five years ago and at record levels for the United States in general. But what does it mean? Statistics like these are constantly being produced, but they are no good to us if we do not know how to interpret them. After attending the joint Acton/Liberty Fund conference this past weekend on Acton and Tocqueville, I have Tocqueville on the brain and wonder if, perhaps, he might have some insights that are still relevant today. (more…)

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.

(more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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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.”