Posts tagged with: democracy

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.

Thomas Jefferson’s long-forgotten theory of state nullification may have  found an ideal time for a resurgence, as the Tea Party and other groups advocate limited government as a solution to many of our current problems in health care, the economic crisis, our broken educational system, and the relentless expansion of government. The concept of nullification is simple, yet powerful: That individual states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws; and that the states, not the federal government, should have the final word on constitutional interpretation. The return of this “forbidden idea” (as its contemporary advocates sometimes describe it) represents not only an opportunity for small-government groups like the Tea Party to enact substantial change, but it also provides a unique opportunity those who are serious about a Christian social witness in public life to implement the principle of subsidiarity.

It is in this spirit that Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. writes his newest book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Dr. Woods, who has authored two publications for the Acton Institute (the award-winning The Church and the Market and the monograph Beyond Distributism), as well as two New York Times bestsellers, now brings back the tradition of nullification into the public eye.

The seemingly radical idea of nullification flies in the face of nearly everything we have learned about the federal government and the Constitution: that federal authority always supersedes that of the states, that the Supreme Court has the final say on interpreting the Constitution, and that the only way to get rid of undesirable federal laws is to either have Congress repeal them or the Supreme Court overturn them.

However, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that if the federal government had a monopoly on interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, then there would be no certain way to constrain an unconstitutional expansion of its power. What if the constitutional system of checks and balances were to fail? What if, counter to the wishes of James Madison, ambition fails to counteract ambition, and the different branches of the federal government are able to cooperate in increasing the central government’s reach? Rather than wait two, four, or six years until the next election cycle, Jefferson thought, a more “rightful remedy” would be for states to simply declare that the laws in question violated the Constitution, and would not be enforced in said states.

He was not alone in this belief, as one can find the practice of nullification in the earliest years of the Republic. Kentucky and Virginia famously nullified the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. During Jefferson’s own presidency, northern states employed nullification against the total trade embargo imposed by the federal government. During the War of 1812, northern states once more passed resolutions nullifying any potential federal conscription acts. South Carolina passed resolutions nullifying the 1832 “tariff of abominations.” And in the 1850’s, free states frequently invoked nullification in an effort to combat unconstitutional aspects of the fugitive slave laws. Also interesting to note is that southern states did not invoke nullification to defend slavery.

To some extent, this practice continues today. As the Tenth Amendment Center thoroughly documents, dozens of states seek to propose legislation that would prohibit the federal government from enacting health insurance mandates, enforcing some federal gun lawsabusing the interstate commerce clause, and imposing cap-and-trade regulations, among other things. And though these efforts are still underway, supporters of nullification can already point to one success story: over two dozen states openly defied the Real ID Act of 2005, which imposed federal standards on state drivers’ licenses. Though the law is still “on the books,” so to speak, the federal government has given up on enforcement, due to the widespread and extremely overt opposition.

But what does all of this have to do with subsidiarity? At their core, the ideas of nullification and federalism that Dr. Woods invokes echo many of the same concerns that the Church raises in speaking of subsidiarity and the role of the state in society: that there needs to be a just division of responsibilities between different social orders. Social problems should be addressed at their lowest possible level. An unnecessary usurpation of power by, for example, the federal government, undermines the role that state governments should play in resolving some of their own domestic problems.

This principle is often invoked in religious discussion of public policy. The Catholic Church places such great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lists subsidiarity as one of the four foundational principles of social teaching. The Church not only exhorts us to respect human dignity, respect the common good, and have solidarity with the poor, but also teaches that we should pursue these social goals in the proper context of subsidiarity:

It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional, and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth [….]

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place. (185-186)

One can certainly see a similar spirit in the intentions of the framers of the Constitution: the purpose of this founding document was not to provide a new kind of all-powerful entity lording over the states; rather, the states created the federal government in order to serve them as an instrument for promoting the common good – as the Compendium says, to provide “support, promotion, and development.” To discover this, one need look no further than the preamble of the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In the same way, subsidiarity dictates that higher orders (e.g. the federal government) exist to promote and assist lower orders (e.g. states) in developing and protecting the common good. But a political system in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity should have appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the abuse and usurpation of power does not take place. This makes the need for a revival of nullification all the more urgent.

Today’s Tea Party-ers eye with skepticism the intrusions of the federal government into all sorts of matters: guns, education, charity, health care, business regulation, etc. They clamor for change, and will certainly have a substantial impact on the coming electoral cycle. But advocates of limited government should also reflect on which strategies are most effective at introducing real and substantial change. Both Thomas Woods and Thomas Jefferson contend that waiting for a benevolent Supreme Court, President, or Congress is not the right way. States cannot trust the federal government to police itself. They must take a direct role in reeling back federal power. Nullification is the best way to concretely implement the principle of subsidiarity, restore true federalism, and strengthen a truly Constitutional rule of law.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
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Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.

At Public Discourse, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg examines why many European governments are so hesitant to engage in much needed but painful economic reforms – especially reforms that involve diminishing the size of expansive welfare states. The causes are many, but in “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State,” Gregg zeroes in on a potentially damaging linkage between democratic systems of government and the growth of large welfare states that seek to provide economic security to ever increasing numbers of people. Substantive economic reform becomes extremely difficulty in these circumstances. Gregg writes:

No doubt, this reflects a disinclination of many European politicians—on the left and right—to concede that the post-war European effort to use the state to provide as much economic security as possible has encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of economic reality. Yet it is arguable—albeit highly politically incorrect to suggest—that it also reflects the workings of a potentially deadly nexus between democracy (or a certain culture of democracy) and the welfare state.

One justification for democracy is that it provides us with ways of aligning government policies with the citizenry’s requirements and of holding governments accountable when their decisions do not accord with the majority’s wishes. But what happens when some citizens begin viewing these mechanisms as a means for encouraging elected officials to use the state to provide them with whatever they want, such as apparently limitless economic security? And what happens when many elected officials believe it is their responsibility to provide the demanded security, or, more cynically, regard welfare programs as a useful tool to create constituencies that can be relied upon to vote for them?

Read more of “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State” on Public Discourse.

I did an interview with the Harvard Political Review several weeks ago.  The story is largely a paean to secularism. Steven Pinker even takes credit for democracy as an achievement of secularists.  I know.  That’s the history you get from an evolutionary psychologist.

To the author’s credit, I was certainly treated fairly.  I only wish she’d offered more of our interview to her readers.  For those who would like to read it, I have posted it in full over at First Thoughts.

I know I am a little late on this post, but…

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, but if we want to understand its origins, one of the best sources is Alexis de Tocqueville’s master work, Democracy in America and his chapter on Democracy and Pantheism. It’s short, but to the point. It’s also Tocqueville so read it carefully.

I found an online version at the University of Virginia’s website. You can read the chapter and the whole book here or get Harvey Mansfield’s translation or the edition translated by George Lawrence and edited by J.P. Mayer.

Tocqueville writes:

It cannot be denied that pantheism has made great progress in our age. The writings of a part of Europe bear visible marks of it:…This appears to me not to proceed only from an accidental, but from a permanent cause.

When the conditions of society are becoming more equal and each individual man becomes more like all the rest, more weak and insignificant, a habit grows up of ceasing to notice the citizens and considering only the people, of overlooking individuals to think only of their kind. At such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once, and it constantly strives to connect a variety of consequences with a single cause. The idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.

If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.

And then at the end the chapter–Tocqueville makes a passionate call against it. He writes

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

There is nothing more to add. Hope you had a happy earth day

Blog author: michael.severance
Friday, February 26, 2010
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socialism1Popes in Rome have attempted to steer the Catholic flock away from the “seductive” forces of socialist ideologies threatening human liberty, which since the  late 1800s have relentlessly plucked away at  “the delicate fruit of  mature  civilizations” as  Lord Acton once said.

From Pius IX to Benedict XVI, socialism has been viewed with great caution and even as major threat to the demise of all God-loving free civilizations, despite many of their past and present socio-political and economic “sins.”

In their various official publications and social encyclicals, at least since the advent of the latter with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Roman pontiffs have given socialism a bad rap: It has never been positively perceived as a good political order, east or west of the Tiber River.

Why so? We do not have to look further than the popes’ own teachings regarding their vision of human work, anthropology, happiness and basic dignity.

First of all, socialism ultimately allows political authority to direct the ends of human happiness; that is to say, its supports the secular state’s programs and its functionaries’ potential and power to resolve much of man’s social and economic needs. It, therefore, replaces and distrusts individuals, local communities and families acting in free alliance with their Creator to build a good and better society for all. In a nutshell, socialism treats ordinary citizens like children incapable of governing themselves. When replacing  private charity with public welfare programs, socialism takes full advantage of the contemporary crisis of adulthood infecting free societies, whose dishonorable,  capricious and selfish citizens are unwilling to make sacrifices gratuitously for their neighbor  (see these two Acton videos one character by Lawrence Reed and Michael Miller).

Hence, socialism tends to defile human dignity and dehumanize the personal and local processes of free collaboration and personal responsibility. And as socialism advances closer its pure form in political practice, it ultimately attempts to dictate and bureaucratize all of human socio-economic well being, a concept of social justice built on the dangerous quicksand of modern materialism, which ultimately drags human freedom down to a slow, merciless death.

As the current pope, Benedict XVI, writes:

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person − every person − needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.… In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) − a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (Deus Caritas Est, n. 28)

In order to give you a smattering of just how other popes have tended to view socialism, I recommend reading Gustavo Solimeo‘s “What the Popes Have to Say About Socialism” published for The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

In Mr. Solimeo’s article we read that various popes believe that socialism is part of an “iniquitous plot…to drive people to overthrow the entire order of human affairs” (Pius IX); that “communism, socialism, nihilism (are) hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin (and part of) a wicked confederacy” (Leo XIII); socialism is “contradictory (in) nature to the Christian religion (…) No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Pius XI); socialism has “no account of any objective other than that of material well-being” (John XXIII); and finally that the “fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature…. (It) considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” (John Paul II)

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

In this book, Novak aims to understand and analyze the theological assumptions of democratic capitalism, its spirit, it values, and its intentions.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
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A great deal has been made in recent weeks about Ronald Reagan‘s critique of nationalized or socialized health care from 1961:


We can go back a bit further, though, and take a look at an intriguing piece from 1848, a dialogue on socialism and the French Revolution and the relationship of socialism to democracy, which includes Alexis de Tocqueville‘s critique of socialism in general.

One interesting note is that Tocqueville identifies one of the traits common to all forms of socialism as “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man,” including the exhortation, “Let us rehabilitate the body.” Reagan’s point of departure in his broadcast is the observation that “one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.”

And here’s Tocqueville on socialism in America:

America today is the one country in the world where democracy is totally sovereign. It is, besides, a country where socialist ideas, which you presume to be in accord with democracy, have held least sway, the country where those who support the socialist cause are certainly in the worst position to advance them[.] I personally would not find it inconvenient if they were to go there and propagate their philosophy, but in their own interests, I would advise them not to.

It may well be that ideologically democracy (as Tocqueville conceived it) and socialism are opposed, as Tocqueville claims. But historically they may well be linked. Lord Acton connected “absolute democracy” (something like majoritarian rule) to socialism: “Liberty has not only enemies which it conquers, but perfidious friends, who rob the fruits of its victories: Absolute democracy, socialism.” And once the majority discovers that it can use the power of the State to plunder the wealth of a minority, the road is well-paved toward socialism.

With health care continuing to be a hot button issue, Hunter Baker brings to light a new argument in his commentary.  While Baker provides us with many prudential reasons to oppose the expansion of government health care, such as the currently proposed government plan not having any provision for preventing the trial lawyer windfalls that have helped contribute to medical inflation, he also articulates the fundamental problems that arise with the expansion of government health care:

If we move from being a republic where certain freedoms (not only freedom of speech and religion, but also freedom of contract and freedom to own private property) are basically non-negotiable, to a simple mass democracy in which shifting coalitions of voters extract resources from their opponents, then we have lost the American genius of ordered liberty. The American founders did not set out to achieve a more perfect democracy. They set out to create and maintain a free republic.

The key to running a free republic characterized by ordered liberty is the citizens, themselves. Unless the citizens embrace virtue, convicted by God that they must do what is right rather than merely indulging their wills and appetites, their hard fought liberty will be lost. The fate of a people who will not restrain themselves is rule by a government that will increasingly exercise control over them. The American idea was that our people should be citizens rather than subjects. American citizens, once far more country than city in origin, were to be free to provide for themselves rather than gathering in coalitions to ask for government largesse funded on the backs of the productive efforts of others.

Baker reminds us of the importance of the health care debate, and amongst all of the discussion that is occurring we must not forget the principles that our government is founded upon.

“This is a story, really, about when America was at its best, when we were doing the right things in the world, when people all over the world looked to us as a source of goodness and decency and humanity,” says Andrei Cherny. His words come courtesy of the Voice of America article titled, “Berlin Airlift Remembered After 60 Years.” Cherny is the author of the new book The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour.

In 1948, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin blockaded the section of Berlin under the control of democratic allied countries in post war Germany. The western sector of the war torn city only contained 36 days of food, and a very limited supply of fuel. The Soviet Union also cut the power in the same sector as well. Stubbornly, The United States and other free countries were standing in the way of Soviet expansion into Western Europe.

Not wanting to start World War III, The United States and Great Britain sought out a way to break the Soviet blockade. Thus the airlift known as Operation Vittles flew its first flight on June 26th 1948, one of 32 that day. At its peak, the airlift was flying an amazing 1500 flights a day into Berlin, with just over 4500 tons of daily supplies. The airlift had to supply two million people with food and fuel. It was a mammoth 15 month long undertaking to insure liberty and freedom to America’s recent foe. At first, the planes reminded German citizens of allied bombers and some American pilots weren’t to keen about feeding Germans, however, barriers quickly fell, and friendships flourished.

German children began to greatly admire the American pilots and would stand at the edges of the airport watching the planes as they descended. The best known American pilot who served in the airlift is undoubtedly, Gail S. Halvorsen. Halvorsen was amazed after he gave some gum to a bunch of German kids on a fence line, and they patiently divided it up evenly. Halverson also notes the German kids never begged. He told the kids he would drop some candy attached to little parachutes right before he flew into the airport the next day, and wiggle his wings so they could identify him.

Operation Little Vittles was a powerful publicity campaign against totalitarian propaganda and influence, which developed because of a compassionate pilot with an idea. Soon American children donated their own candy to German kids. The United States showed further resolve by announcing, “The airlift would continue indefinitely.” The Soviets, whose image was battered, lifted the blockade in May of 1949. Stalin’s intent to divide Europeans had the reverse effect. Europeans united against Soviet aggression and inhumanity, and Stalin’s actions quickened American resolve in defending Western Europe.

The Berlin Airlift could have only been pulled off by a people dedicated to a free society. At Acton University, I had a good discussion with notable blogger Hunter Baker about the the moral implications of defending freedom during the Cold War. We both agreed that many younger Americans, those who are about my age, 29 and younger, don’t understand the virtue related to standing against totalitarian aggression. During my time in seminary, some students and professors tried to make moral equivocations between the United States and totalitarian regimes, focusing on “American sins”, and “saber-rattling.” They obviously were not thinking of the Berlin Airlift, a giant humanitarian operation, which rescued millions of people from the slavery of communism, while uniting the resolve of free people. The Spirit of Freedom, which is dedicated to preserving the memory and legacy of the airlift, has a very moving video tribute to the Berlin Airlift.