Posts tagged with: alexis de tocqueville

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 5, 2012
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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.

On the National Catholic Register, Kathryn Jean Lopez takes a look at the strong finish by Rick Santorum in the Iowa Caucuses. She writes that the candidate’s dead heat finish with Mitt Romney marks “the emergence of a different kind of Catholic candidate in American politics, one who refuses to give up the fight on social justice — substantively and rhetorically — in practice and linguistics.” Lopez interviews Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg, who observes that “where Santorum adds something distinctive to present economic debates is his willingness to envelop them in substantive moral arguments.”

Gregg suggests that the candidate harkens back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights about democracy in America. Toqueville, he told Lopez, was “among the first to sound warnings about democracy’s potential for sliding into the soft despotism that results when citizens start voting for those politicians who promise to use the government to give them whatever they want, while politicians deliver — provided the citizens do whatever the government says is necessary to meet everyone’s wishes (such as radically diminish economic freedoms). Welcome to the moral-economic disaster otherwise known as the European Union.”

Read more analysis from Samuel Gregg in “Veteran Pol Santorum Emerges From Iowa With a Timely Message” by Kathryn Jean Lopez on the National Catholic Register.

This year’s Acton University was very successful, and we are still seeing its effects through blog posts, tweets, and Facebook messages. Some of our PowerBlog readers may be wondering what they missed out on, or would also like to think back a few weeks to their favorite Acton University moments.

To listen to a favorite lecture, or to find out what was missed, remember that Acton University 2011 lectures can be purchased and downloaded for $1.99.

Joe Gorra of the Evangelical Philosophical Society compiled nine interviews with different Acton University faculty who lectured on countless invigorating topics including, sustainability and the environment, ethics, Nietzche’s critique of Christianity and Caitalism, and free markets. Gorra’s post helps of relive some of the memories he had at Acton University, along with give those who weren’t able to attend the conference a taste of what was missed.

Gorra interviews James Otteson, a professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University. Otteson’s course at Acton University was titled, “Adam Smith: Philosopher and Political Economist.” In the interview Ottenson explains some of the misconceptions associated with Adam Smith:

As you know, some hold various misconceptions about Adam Smith and his work. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying Smith and his objectors, what would you say are the top misconceptions that scholars or non-scholars often assert about him and his work and how would you respond?

Misconceptions of Smith come from both political directions, as it were. Some have portrayed Smith as a doctrinaire laissez-faire libertarian, while others, more recently, have portrayed him as something like a contemporary progressive liberal. Neither is accurate. His review of the available historical and economic evidence led him to conclude that, after providing protection for people’s lives, liberty, and property, minimal government interference in people’s lives led to prosperity for all—including especially the poor. So he was genuinely concerned about the least among us, and his policy recommendations were based primarily on concerns about their welfare. Yet his recommendation of limited government was presumptive, not absolute: It served as a default to which exceptions could be made if the evidence for the particular case warranted it. I call his position “pragmatic classical liberalism.”

John Bolt, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, was also interviewed by Gorra. Bolt’s course, which delved into the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, was called “Centralization and Civil Society.” In the interview, Bolt discusses what the concept of “intermediary institutions” means:

Tocqueville’s concept of “intermediary institutions” is central to his vision of civic life and human flourishing. Can you explain the meaning and significance of that in Tocqueville and how it is indispensable to the maintenance of liberty and social cohesion in a civil society?

Tocqueville realized that the great danger in modern, egalitarian democracy lay in our tendency toward what he called “individualism.” In the U.S., at least, we don’t normally consider this a dangerous notion. But for him, individualism implied not heroism, but a kind of retreat into isolated nothingness and an evasion of responsibility for one’s fellow man. This kind of isolation poses dangers to liberty because as lone, equal individuals, we come face to face with our tremendous weakness. We need someone or something to save us, and having denied God (isn’t God the ultimate affront to a deep belief in equality?), we turn to the state.

Intermediary institutions (clubs, local political organizations, community activities, churches, etc.) tie us – really oblige us – to our neighbors. They train us to recognize the ways we can satisfy our various needs without turning to political power to provide the goods we require. He says these associations teach the art of being free and living responsibly. Without them, we will fall out of practice at self-government.

And in a testament to the success of Acton University, Gorra explains in his blog post, “Why the Acton Institute? Philosophy’s Good Beyond Philosophy,” his reasoning to attending the conference:

The work of the Acton Institute (www.acton.org), and especially their annual Acton University conference, is highly hospitable to this sort endeavor. Over the last several years, I have attended Acton University (second time this year, and happening now!), their Toward a Free and Virtuous Society events, and also co-sponsored Liberty Fund and Acton Institute events.

Honestly, I don’t know of any other conference or organization that intentionally affords the Christian philosopher the unique opportunity to engage in such interdisciplinary work at the intersection of theology, economics, and social policy. As a matter of enrichment (personally and professionally), I “come alive” at their gathering, my imagination is cultivated by the possibilities of how the theoretical and practical  goods of philosophy can converge and collaborate with other bodies of knowledge.

Acton’s intellectual architecture is intelligently designed to permit – no, encourage! – the good of philosophy to be utilized in this way.

Click here to read Gorra’s nine interviews with Acton University faculty.

 

Earlier this week on the Acton Institute Facebook page, Rev. Sirico’s archived article “What is Capitalism?” was posted and sparked a lively discussion between two people (click here to see our Facebook page and the discussion). This blog post is to serve as my response.

Your idea of communionism, at least from what I understand from your comments, bears some resemblances to communism which has the end goal of society or the community possessing property in common. This, however, doesn’t preserve human dignity properly; nor does not foster interdependence among people. Instead it creates a society dependent on a centralized government.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains some of the core the problems with common property. Like Aristotle, he notes, that individuals are better managers of property because it allows for a more orderly fashion of management, and as he states “human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common not individually.” The quarrels can arise because no individual is specifically responsible for the care of the common property. There is no person who feels like he or she has stake in the property. A direct result, and historical example, of common property is the tragedy of the commons.

In Capital Marx argues that there is no value in human labor per se. He states “human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” This is contrary to Christian beliefs. There is intrinsic value in human labor itself. To work is a calling and a form of stewardship. In the encyclical Laborem Exercens, (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II explains how working is a direct expression of our human dignity. Such preservation of human dignity cannot be found in a system that devalues work.

The idea of property that you advocate is also found in Marx’s Capital and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This idea is flawed on many levels. It doesn’t take into account that the entrepreneur purchases the raw goods that the workers use to make the end product. As a result, based on any definition of property, the entrepreneur is the sole owner of the raw goods and it is his or her private property, not the worker. The worker engages in a contract with the entrepreneur in an exchange of services. Just because the worker uses his or her services, which he or she is paid for by the entrepreneur, does not translate into the worker becoming the owner of the raw good which becomes the final product.

The idea of private property that you advocate, rescinding property rights for all corporations, is dangerous on many levels. It puts political rights, religious rights, and all private property rights in danger. Marx notes that the abolition of private property for the bourgeois leads to the abolition of family because, according to his argument, the family is rooted in property and private gain. Furthermore, Marx articulates that his beliefs, which bring forth a communist centralized system, also abolish religion.

In Federalist Paper No. 10 James Madison argues how the first object of any government is the protection of property. Furthermore, in Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville explains that what makes America successful is its protection of private property for all. No landed property class exists. He articulates how the protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. Furthermore the right to property fosters “…obedience to established law, of the influence of good mores in republics, and of the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom…” What makes America special and successful, according to Tocqueville, is the protection of rights for all people. As Tocqueville demonstrates, the right of property needs to be protected because other rights stem from it. This right extends to even corporations. Rights should be guaranteed for all, not winners and losers picked by the government.

Again, private property should be protected at all levels, for both individuals and corporations. Hernando de Soto explains this in his book and in an essay both titled, The Mystery of Capital. Through examples found in his essay, book, and case studies (which can be found by clicking here), de Soto effectively argues using proven facts, statistics, and real world examples that the protection of capital and private property rights has led to economic prosperity in the west, whereas the lack of protection is a leading reason to the economic disparity in poor countries. If we fail to protect private property rights on all levels, then we begin down a path of economic decline. Without the protection of private property rights, and an effective legal structure to guarantee such protection, the wrong message is being sent to businesses. No business will want to invest in an economic climate that is hostile towards them.

A market system, which is what Rev. Sirico argues for in his article “What is Capitalism?” actually fosters virtues that all Christians value. This is articulated by Stephen Grabil in his essay “The Market, School of Virtue.” Here Grabil shows that greed is not what makes a free market churning, but instead it is virtue. Some of the virtues fostered in a free market are trustworthiness, self-control, sympathy, and fairness. Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, demonstrates that greed is a vice which even Adam Smith condemned. Richards also shows why greed does not lead to a successful market economy, but actually destroys it.

In regards to the referenced Fulton Sheen article titled “New Slavery” it is important to note that the article was written in 1943 when many monopolies were present in the market. Acton has never believed in or supported crony capitalism. Monopolies do not allow competition which is bad for the consumer and the worker. Also, Sheen does not advocate for the end of private property in his article. Instead he says we have a right to private property and our use of it should be righteous “Possession [of property] has two faces, two aspects: we all have a right to private property, but this is accompanied by our responsibility for its righteous use.” As Sirico articulates in the posted article, when the market is structured successfully it is the consumer who has primary control and then next is the worker. This is because of competition. Monopoly capitalism comes when the government gets into bed with businesses, and essentially block new entrepreneurs and potential new competitors from entering into the market.

Free markets are not just about an economic system. It is something greater than economics, it is about freedom. The freedom to choose what to purchase, the freedom for the worker to find an employer and not be forced into employment with the state or a monopoly, and the freedom to hold property and have it protected, this freedom is what capitalism is about. Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America and correctly articulated how the protection of private property, in all levels, has led to the great freedom Americans enjoy. However, Tocqueville also recognized the need for virtuous men and women because he knew America cannot succeed, nor its structure of government without them. As he states, “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people: one can almost say that there is no society; for what is a union of rational and intelligent being among whom force is the sole bond?”

Acton University has been full of thought provoking lectures and stimulating discussion. It is easy to see why the attendees wish the conference was much longer. There are many interesting lectures, one just wishes he or she could attend all of them.

Yesterday Dr. John Bolt, of Calvin Theological Seminary, taught a course titled “Centralization and Civil Society.” Bolt’s course paid special attention to Alexis de Tocqueville and his contributions to defining a civil society. As one can imagine, by bringing Tocqueville into his lecture, Bolt discussed the role of religion and the sense of community in the United States.

Bolt explained that America is self-reliant; however, this self-reliance didn’t come through reflection. The American people didn’t wake up one day and decide they wanted to be more self-reliant. Instead, Bolt explains that America’s self-reliance is habitual. Furthermore, Bolt discussed how Tocqueville demonstrated that America can afford to be self-reliant and individualistic because it was founded on Christian principles and that liberty exists in the United States because of religion and Christian principles.

The dinner lecture was a real treat last night. The Acton Institute has always promoted entrepreneurship and what it means to intertwine faith with entrepreneurship. A panel of successful entrepreneurs shared their insight on how business can promote the common good. Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children and Alliance for School Choice and chairman of the Windquest group, articulated how she finds joy in enterprises that make a difference in other people’s lives. She believes that enterprise is a vehicle we use and invest our God given talents in.

According to Mark Murray, president of Meijer, Inc., entrepreneurs need to be servant leaders. In order to succeed they must remain rooted in integrity. Murray explained how the values found in Christianity, such as humility, are not only applicable but needed in business. Furthermore, we are all created in the mage and likeness of God. We are called to use our God given gifts and express our creativity. Murray believes we put our talents and creativity to use through work, and the development of the human capacity is promoted through business.

Stewardship was highlighted by John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam. We are all temporary custodians of everything and have to do the best with the assets we are given. Furthermore, Kennedy said that we must remember people and employees are all assets and leaders must discover the gifts of their employees and how those gifts can most help the enterprise. Not only are employees assets, but so is capital. Entrepreneurs are called to be stewards of both their employees and capital and use all they are given to the fullest extent, and by doing this entrepreneurs demonstrate their appreciation for all God has given and blessed them with.

While there are flawed business leaders who are not examples of how businesses contribute to the common good, Acton University attendees witnessed what it really means to be called to entrepreneurship. When the calling of entrepreneurship is accepted and founded in Christian principles, the entrepreneur is a tool to create and promote the common good.

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”

Excerpt:

… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.

While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.

Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.

Read all of “Socialism and Solidarity” on the Public Discourse website.

“Environmentalism, Marxism, Utopianism,” Part 2 of a recent Acton roundtable discussion, is now available. Michael Miller leads a discussion with Samuel Gregg, Jordan Ballor and Anielka Munkel about environmentalism, Marxism, liberation, theology, Christian syncretism, Utopianism and one of Michael’s favorite topics, Alexis de Tocqueville. Check out Acton’s YouTube page here.

I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….

Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.

Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.

Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.