American Democracy: Aspects of Practical Liberalism

Constitutional Limitations on Government Are Being Dissipated

Johns Hopkins University Press • 303 pages • $39.95  by Gottfried Dietze

“The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 in Democracy in America, and German-born political scientist Gottfried Dietze of Johns Hopkins University hails the prescience of the young French visitor here who spotted two “unnoticed” powers and two ways of governance long before the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the passage of such broad interventions in America as the New Freedom, New Deal, New Frontier, and now President Clinton’s “New Generation.” Yes, Eurocommunism and the Soviet Union are gone, but a kind of Russification of Japan and the West seems to push on. The issue is still Tocqueville’s freedom vs. servitude.

Dr. Dietze also hails The Foundation for Economic Education for defending freedom and free enterprise, and notes that Ronald Reagan has read The Freeman, and quotes approvingly from President Reagan’s first inaugural address the lines: “You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by the same limitation?”

Dietze builds his latest work around the momentous Tocqueville work to see how democratic institutions have fared in the century and a half since its publication. He is not especially hopeful but concedes America’s future is too murky to be sure. (A note to the American reader: Professor Dietze uses the word “liberalism” here in its European, nineteenth-century sense as a variant on liberty.)

He holds that constitutional limitations on government are being dissipated—through, among other things, U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This dissipation may be at the heart of America’s troubles today, and can be inferred from Professor Dietze’s book of more than twenty years ago, America’s Political Dilemma: From Limited to Unlimited Democracy.

As he notes, “Rights through Riots” seems to have been replaced by “Riots through Rights.” Professor Dietze writes: “It often appeared to me that people were on the way from free government to government-free, to the freedom from any kind of rule, to anarchy.”

How remarkable—the incongruity of anarchy and interventionism, when government taxes and intrusions into peaceful private activity have rarely been greater, when the U.S. government may be ready to yet assume one-seventh of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the name of universal health care.

So questions arise from a reading of the provocative Dietze work: Is spreading government or the Russification of society the answer to America’s ills—to the rise of violent crime in America, for example? Is it seen in the rage for “victimology,” in the idea that “I’m a victim, you’re a victim,” in a corresponding flight from self-responsibility, from personal morality, in a new order that has become increasingly disorder? What’s going on? Dietze quotes Yeats:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Freedom is insufficient, says the author, citing the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Edmund Burke. He condemns what he calls “pure liberalism, or the unrestricted quest for ever more freedom,” on the part of individual citizens and elected officials. He wonders if the course of American democracy does not contain the seeds of its own decline.

Gottfried Dietze has a point: Tocqueville’s liberty and equality are not enough. A return to moral and ethical imperatives is also in order, says this contemporary thinker in this thoughtful work. []

Dr. Peterson, a contributing editor of The Freeman, is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is completing a book on political economy.

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