Democracy in America - A Challenge to Free Men
JANUARY 01, 1976 by ROBERT G. BEARCE
Mr. Bearce is a free-lance writer in Houston, Texas.
“I passionately love liberty, legality, the respect for rights, but not democracy … liberty is my foremost passion.” -Alexis de Tocqueville
As The United States approaches its Bicentennial date of July 4, 1976, attention is focused upon the meaning of the War for Independence and the Declaration of Independence . The Bicentennial period should be a time when we reexamine the ideals upon which the United States was founded. Hopefully, we wi1l gain a renewed appreciation for the political, economic, moral, and spiritual foundations of freedom.
We can better understand our heritage of freedom by considering what a Frenchman wrote about America during the first half of the 19th century. Often we can obtain an accurate view of ourselves by listening to what others say about us. In the case of Alexis de Tocquevi1le, a foreign observer has given Americans a perceptive, prophetic analysis of freedom. First published in 1835 and 1840, Tocquevi1le’s Democracy in America speaks today with a message that places our Bicentennial into sober perspective.
America ‘s 200th Anniversary is now being heralded with enthusiastic references to “democracy,” “equality,” and “liberty.” Tocquevi1le had much to say about these ideals — ideals which have been distorted, corrupted, and debased by modern political writers. When Alexis de Tocquevi1le journeyed to the United States in 1831, he had an official commission from the French government to study the prison system in America .
His nine-month visit, however, was devoted to more than our prisons. Tocquevi1le was a keen observer. Traveling through the young nation, he had the opportunity to view free men and women working freely in a free society. As he wrote Democracy in America, he grasped the true nature of freedom. He clearly understood the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.
For Order Under Law
“The Revolution of the United States ,” wrote Tocqueville, “was the result of a mature and reflecting preference of freedom, and not of a vague or i1l-defined craving for independence. It contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy; but its course was marked, on the contrary, by a love of order and law.” (p. 62)
Although he used the word “revolution” to describe the American War for Independence , Tocquevi1le recognized that the Thirteen Colonies had thoughtfully weighed defiance of the British Crown. Men like Jefferson and Adams were not hot-headed demagogues shouting for the destruction of existing political and economic institutions. The patriots had been guided by a respect for traditional freedoms. The exercise of those freedoms had been in the process for some 150 years:
“The English who emigrated .. . to found a democratic commonwealth on the shores of the New World had all learned to take a part in public affairs in their mother country; they were conversant with trial by jury; they were accustomed to liberty of speech and of the press, — to personal freedom, to the notion of rights and the practice of asserting them. They carried with them to America these free institutions and manly customs, and these institutions preserved them against the encroachments of the state.” (p. 296)
When Tocquevi1le spoke about the “encroachments of the state,” he also pointed to the object of those encroachments — the free individual. The War for Independence was fought to preserve the right of men and women to order their own lives. America was a land where individuals rejected the lure of government benevolence:
“The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions, in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life ; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it.” (p. 95)
The early Americans were a tough breed. Along with personal freedom they accepted accountability and responsibility for their lives. Tocquevi1le vividly describes the character of free men who made the most of their individual liberties :
“In the United States , as soon as a man has acquired some education and pecuniary resources, he either endeavors to get rich by commerce or industry, or he buys land in the bush and turns pioneer. All that he asks of the state is, not to be disturbed in his toil, and to be secure of his earnings.” (p. 261)
The Voluntary Way
Individual initiative! Capitalism! Personal freedom! Private property! Individual responsibility! The free market! These were the principles and practices Tocqueville saw in America . He further describes the superiority of individual endeavor as opposed to governmental action:
“When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the government ; but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the state might have been in his position ; but in the end, the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done.” (p. 70)
Voluntary action and personal endeavor — and thus vibrant competition — laid the foundation for America ‘s prosperity. Government was not the benevolent bricklayer, handing out “free” bricks to the citizenry with instructions on how to work. No, the early Americans managed their own livelihood without governmental interference. They believed in “rugged individualism,” but they also knew the meaning of cooperation — “cooperation” not coerced by government.
“The most natural privilege of man,” Tocquevi1le wrote, “next to the right of acting for himself, is that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow creatures, and of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty. No legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society.” (p. 98)
If the legislator and governmental bureaucrat mind their proper business, free men will cooperate voluntarily in the release of vast amounts of energy and creativity:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, — religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes ; they found in this manner hospitals, prisons, and schools.” (p. 198)
Forced Redistribution for Economic Stability
Today we are harassed by the socio-economic philosopher, the politician, and the statist. These men have no faith in the natural progress generated by free association and cooperative effort. They insist that economic stability is a matter of forcibly redistributing the wealth. If the farmer has a tough time with one kind of failure or another, then grant him a subsidy. If a portion of the citizenry is judged “underprivileged” or “disadvantaged,” bless it with special governmental handouts.
Extended to its extreme, such governmental paternalism becomes an authoritarian system of confiscation —taking from the producers and bestowing favors upon the non-producers of society.
“But it would be a simpler and less dangerous remedy,” advised Tocqueville, “to grant no privilege to any, giving to all equal cultivation and equal independence, and leaving every one to determine his own position. Natural inequality will soon make way for itself, and wealth will spontaneously pass into the hands of the most capable.” (p. 161)
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville speaks of a “depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” Tocqueville knew that there was a difference between the “equality” proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and that of the bloody French Revolution of 1789. One led to human dignity. The other degraded man. The Declaration stated that “all men are created equal” — equal in their right to personal freedom and independence. The French Revolution erected a despotic Terror under the slogan: “ Liberty ! Equality ! Fraternity !”
Tocqueville saw the grim kinship between tyranny and “equality” :
“I believe that it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government amongst a people in which the conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other ; and I think that, if such a government were once established amongst such a people, it would not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times.” (p. 306)
We are living today in “democratic times.” Should not the ideals of “democracy” and “equality” be cherished, rather than feared? Consider what happens when the notion of equality begins to replace a devotion to individual freedom :
“As the conditions of men become equal amongst a people, individuals seem of less, and society of greater importance; or rather, every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands conspicuous but the great and imposing image of the people at large. This naturally gives the men of democratic periods a lofty opinion of the privileges of society, and a very humble notion of the rights of individuals; they are ready to admit that the interests of the former are everything, and those of the latter nothing.
“They are willing to acknowledge that the power which represents the community has far more information and wisdom than any of the members of that community; and that it is the duty, as well as the right, of that power, to guide as well as govern each private citizen.” (p. 291)
What is that “power which represents the community”? It lies in government — whether it be local, state, or federal. Held within justified limits, a government can defend freedom by organizing national defense and by punishing domestic acts of fraud, coercion, malpractice, and crime. Beyond those responsibilities, governmental authority paves the way towards regimentation and oppression.
“I think, then,” warned Tocqueville, “that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must define it.” (pp. 302-3)
His definition is ominous. He describes the gradual and subtle regimentation now threatening a citizenry indifferent to freedom:
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood ; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: It is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.
“For their happiness such a government wi1lingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?” (p. 303)
Insight and Foresight
Recall that Democracy in America was written in the first half of the 19th century. Tocquevi1le, though, had both insight and foresight. He understood ageless truths which affect human action — past, present, future. Unrestrained governmental power leads to human degradation.
“Thus,” continues Tocquevi1le, “it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.
“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at wi1l, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.
“The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence ; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, ti1l each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
“I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.” (pp. 303-4)
The word “sovereignty” has an honest, sturdy ring to it. Regrettably, “We, the People” has been corrupted. There is a misguided belief that the citizenry as a whole is supreme. The current trend is to emphasize “society” — not the individual — as being of ultimate importance. When individual freedoms and rights are thus belittled, authoritarian rule gains more ground:
“But it happens that, at the same period and amongst the same nations in which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private persons, the rights of society at large are naturally extended and consolidated: in other words, men become less attached to private rights just when it is most necessary to retain and defend what little remains of them.
“It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times that the true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert, to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs. At such times, no citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed ; no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government.” (pp. 310-11)
Spirit of Negligence
Yet, as government continues to undermine personal freedom, individuals live complacently under the delusion that they are sti1l blessed with liberty. The patriots of 1776 clearly recognized that their traditional freedoms were threatened by the British Crown. The spirit of ‘Seventy-Six was the spirit of vigilance. The spirit of today is that of negligence. In Democracy in America, we see how there is an ever-present tendency for men to seek security and safety at the expense of freedom :
“Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons but the people at large, who hold the end of his chain.
“A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.” (p. 304)
Trust and Obey
Obedience! Laws are passed, and they are meant to be obeyed. Month by month Congress passes its legislative acts, erecting new bureaucracies . . . interfering further with individual lives . . . imposing new restrictions upon the release of creative human energy. The EPA, CPSC, FEA, ICC, and so forth proclaim: “We are the arms of Government. Trust and obey !”
Tocquevi1le would have nothing to do with such blind faith in unlimited governmental power and authority:
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself, or clothed with rights so sacred, that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.” (p. 115)
The insights and prophetic observations of Alexis de Tocqueville stand between us and the American War for Independence . Looking to the past, he wrote about our heritage of freedom. Looking to the future, he now warns us to protect that freedoms—the freedom to enjoy the fruits of our labors … the freedom to release our creative energies . . . the freedom to accept full responsibility for our own lives.