Friday, November 18, 2011

America's and the West's Tocqueville Moments

By Son of Bastiat
“Tocqueville, in 1835 foresaw what the Western democracies are now going through”

In his “Modern Times”, a best-selling book on the history of the 20th C. that came out almost 30 years ago, Paul Johnson, now widely acknowledged to be the UK’s foremost living historian, traces the seminal event that led to America’s slide into economic mediocrity to the 1960s when the US government under John F. Kennedy, upon the advice of his liberal educated, Keynesian-dominated Cabinet, “committed itself to a new and radical principle of creating budgetary deficits even when there was no economic emergency, a new concept of “big government”: the ‘problem eliminator’. Every area of human misery could be classified as a ‘problem’; then the Federal government could be armed to ‘eliminate’ it”. Paul Johnson erred in not dating that event earlier back to FDR’s New Deal but an even more serious mistake was his recent sanguine view that America could still overcome the poisonous legacy of that policy to date: $ 14 trillion in Federal debt and $ 77 trillion in unfunded liabilities of state, local governments and entitlements (Social Security Medicare, Medicaid). He may be forgiven for at 82 he likely would not witness its dire comeuppance, although Americans should thank him for offering this prescient advice.

Writing about societies in decline before their fall is always a risky undertaking. A pessimistic streak is helpful, in the tradition of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” or David Keys’ “Catastrophe”. On a more limited scope, von Mises, Kindleberger and Minsky broke ground with their analyses of systemic crises. On a more recent vintage, a slew of books on banking and economic crises came out in the wake of Aug. 2008; majority were sensationalist, descriptive (non-analytical) and skewed by the anti-establishment flavor so enticing to liberal book reviewers. Many suffered from one form or other of the Fundamental Attribution Error of blaming complex events on one-variable, simplistic models, often rooted in behavioral (e.g. “greed”) rather than objective factors that prevailed therein. The fatal limitation of ersatz works like these is in not tackling social decline from a holistic point of view, a la Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall. .” or Schama’s “Chronicle of the French Revolution” but rather in focusing on the most handy explanation for complex phenomenon so typical of today’s seat-of-the-pants journalistic style reporting. This is why few non-specialists are able to discern what has gone wrong with the world today.

But not works in the tradition of historians like Paul Johnson which come few and far between until they are followed by books such as 2011 Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest”, whose central tenet is that six “killer apps” (along with “the fortuitous weakness of the West’s rivals”) allowed the West “to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years”: free markets, scientific method, property rights, medicine, a consumer society (that ignited industrialization) and “the work ethic”. In his analysis, the West is in the last 500 years of its dominance, not necessarily due to the compelling superiority of its rivals (for there are none) but from internal rot, which is Johnson’s theme. Still, while their end game is more or less the same, these partial diagnoses fail to explicate the precise, true cause of social collapse. 

Alexis de Tocqueville and His Vision of Democracy

Probably next to Lafayette and the Statue of Liberty, the recondite French historian and political writer Alexis de Tocqueville is France’s most admired observer of the young republic that was then starting to flourish across the Atlantic. An aspiring member of the French academic establishment, young Alexis along with a companion named Beaumont, were sent by the French government in 1831 to study the American penal system; because of the unusual events that were taking place in the country, the pair ended up using this commission as a pretext to study American society itself, focusing instead on its people, social institutions, political, cultural and religious beliefs. Returning to France after nine months of study, they each wrote separate books; Tocqueville’s “De la democratie in Amerique” (more popularly known as “Democracy in America”), published in two volumes (1835 and 1840), became the more famous output. The book became an instant sensation and Tocqueville attained celebrity status in Parisian salons almost immediately after it came out, both for its penetrating insights into the differences between the Old World and the New cultures, and also because of the thorough documentation and rigor of its analysis (unusual in French books of the genre of that time, and which to an extent remains a feature). Tocqueville’s book would contain insights that apply to America today. 

Democracy in America” was a comprehensive and ambitious project, its expansive coverage of some 60 + topics made it susceptible to varied interpretations by those trying to promote narrow agendas. As it appears at times to be a disorganized collection of random observations and thoughts on American democracy, the best way to discern its central theme is to reflect the author’s scattered ruminations through the prism of one primordial idea: the prospect of continued liberty and the progress it makes possible, amidst a growing demand for equality that is the inevitable offshoot of modernity. It is this idea which is lost in the din and shuffle that pass for progressive thinking and reform that makes front page news in today’s ersatz media. If only today’s columnists could write essays so packed full with erudition.

In a series of observations that presciently capture the essence of what is going on today, Tocqueville stated that the main threats to democracy lie in a disproportionate concentration of power in the legislature, the lack of true appreciation for freedom, an excessive drive for equality, extreme individualism, and wanton materialism. With regard to the first, concentrating power in the legislature, a concession to republicanism, not only makes democracy vulnerable to capture by vested interests, but is a perversity in mistaking “majority” opinion for “right” or “best”; it also nurtures the idea that going against the majority is to go against what is right for everyone. It is the fatal conceit that has made the legislature in one-man one-vote systems such a lethal instrument for subverting personal freedom and promoting the dysfunctional state. As regards the last two (individualism and materialism), Tocqueville believed that those are offshoots of the drive for equality, which not only makes people see things mainly from a selfish point of view, but makes them disdain lofty ideas in favor of what is immediately beneficial. Tocqueville’s genius was in seeing that if representative government, political and economic freedoms are modernity’s trappings, then the main threat to freedom is no other than modernity itself.   

The “Tocqueville Moment” for Western Democracy

The term “Tocqueville Moment” appeared recently in columnist Anastasia O’Grady’s column in connection with recent moves by the political class in Costa Rica (Central America’s “Switzerland” and vying with Panama for the region’s best performing economy) to raise taxes in order to fund ambitious social programs. O’Grady quotes Tocqueville: “that democracy can endure up to the point when politicians realize they can bribe people with their own money." It is not certain where this quote appears in Tocqueville’s famous book or in his numerous writings, but in the larger context of his work such an observation is not out of form: in societies where sufficient progress has been attained such that people have become too individualistic and materialistic, the political process (in a representative, one man one vote system) can be manipulated in order to promote precisely the kinds of liberal political and social policies that Paul Johnson cited as the cause – the precise moment - of America’s decline.      

For how else to explain why Johnson’s Great Society, Kennedy’s New Frontier and now Obama’s ambitious welfare state programs – all initiatives no doubt passed with the best of intentions for their poor (and even rich) but materialistic beneficiaries – ended up bloating the US government and crippling it with debt, except with the enthusiastic connivance of individualistic members of Congress? How else could the 2008 financial crisis get so severe, financial complexity and materialistic (greedy) bankers notwithstanding, if both Executive and Legislative branches of government did not first make it a deliberate policy to relax loan standards and encourage leverage to fit the second-house aspirations of individualistic homeowners? Or, for that matter, how could public labor unions so gin up compensation and pension systems as to bankrupt municipal and local government finances, unless materialistic government officials had not been incentivized (or dis-incentivized) by electoral victory (or ouster)?        

It now remains to show whether this same Tocqueville moment applies to Europe, and to the rest of the Western world, where legislatures tend to be more impotent but citizens so dependent on the State that leaders have to bribe them with their own money before they can take minimal reform to help themselves. A little reflection proves that indeed it does: workers so nonchalantly individualistic that workweeks last 35 hours, benefits so liberal and retirement starts at 55 at 80 % of their pay. Or a continent full of materialistic people so diffident about morals they see nothing wrong in LT abortion and assisted suicides. Those values give primacy to political equality irrespective of social consequences.

What Is Wrong with (Undeserved) Equality

The cause of this rot is a system where the only thing that counts is perfect and full equality regardless of whether anything meritorious lies behind it. It is a set of beliefs nurtured by progress that considers one’s standing only relative to everyone else, a referential view centered on the self and nobody or nothing else that plays a role in creating the conditions that make up that reality. Add to that egotistic belief the possibility of incomplete, biased and/or erratic understanding of the outside world, along with (almost certainly) inappropriate extension of one’s limited experience to an entirely different setting, and one comes up with the perverted ideas that have undergirded calls for egalitarianism since time immemorial. This quest for perfect justice sustains the most alluring and dangerous ideologies, and creates the conditions that continuously promote policies to enslave the poor and rob everyone else of their freedoms. By eventually destroying the basis for progress it is the ultimate fount of injustice itself.

In the hands of ambitious (and individualistic, self-referential) politicians like the current W.H. occupant and his coterie of like-minded legislators, the policy outcomes can be very devastating, not to say anomalous: creating results so totally contrary to what had been originally anticipated, aggravating the initial problems and making it even more difficult to “fix them”. This is why the global recession became much worse than it should have been, and why there is virtually no more chance to fix the mess except at an even worse tradeoff. Look carefully at how an irrational and undue concern for inequality had actually prolonged suffering and led to still more inequality. But no matter, these views seem so  contrary to “common sense” it being “normal and human” to relieve inequality and suffering totally and immediately, regardless of consequences, especially if those consequences lie far off into the future.

So Who is Ultimately to Blame?

The tragedy is that the Church, the only institution that can attenuate this nonsense, buys it too. Not just swallow it hook, line and sinker, but it advocates liberal views premised more on human rather than spiritual tenets. To the Church, the only thing that matters is equality, nothing else comes close, not the concept of natural loss, randomness, unavoidable policy mistakes, errors of human judgment, incomplete information and, certainly not even differences in effort, risks assumed or sacrifices taken. Such is the fallacy of looking at morality from an absolute, unyielding stance, when the more rational position is to weigh which moral positions can be provisional, which can be situational, and which will never be compromised (such as matters of ultimate belief). This absolutely unyielding position can only flow from a flawed understanding of its role as shepherd of flock, one that is more concerned with man’s physical rather than transcendental needs. 

Such errors result from a profound confusion in what the Church’s role should be, dabbling in areas that lie beyond its authority, not to say technical competence. It forgets that the limits of what is expected from it are defined ultimately not by its self-concept, but how much leeway it has to provide escape from the human predicament itself, of which the Church has little, “being not of this world”. How much better off if it just observed Cicero’s (1st C.) warning: “Although physicians frequently know their patients will die of a given disease, they never tell them so. To warn of an evil is justified only if, along with the warning, there is a way of escape”. Aside from reminding people to minimize or avoid falling prey to evil, there is little else that the Church can do, unless it wants to arouse more unwarranted demands of itself. 

This is sad, for in not properly understanding this role, the Church itself becomes complicit in the blatant commission of the mistakes that the liberal ideology inflicts on society, under the guise of concern or compassion for the oppressed poor, with the result that the Church itself ends up with less credibility. It forgets where its contributions can make a true difference, inside the heart of man, not in the councils of state. To help save its reputation, the Church should ponder these words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart”. 

Good and evil; Equality and Inequality; Happiness and Suffering; Freedom and Oppression. Progress and Poverty; all are elements that Tocqueville understood as springing from the innermost recesses of the human heart, not from some abstract economic goal or political principle. Ironically that is where the Church isn’t because it is trying to be where it shouldn’t and therein lies the ultimate cause of the bleak human prospect today


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