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Book Review: Commager on Tocqueville by Henry Steele Commager

University of Missouri Press • 1993 • 130 pages • $24.95

In the 1830s, a young French aristocrat .named Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to research its penal system, took some notes, and returned home a few months later to write the classic Democracy in America.

Tocqueville was interested in the effect of democracy on equality and liberty. He wanted to apply the lessons of the democratic experiment in the United States to that Old World in which democratic impulses would, he felt, inevitably gain sway. He issued warnings and he expressed hopes.

Much of what he predicted for America was not borne out in the short run, but in the present century at least one central dynamic he described seems to be playing out. So now we may ask: to what extent was Tocqueville right for the right reasons? Are the trends we are witnessing reversible? Should they be reversed, in whole or part? Where do we go from here?

The title of Henry Steele Commager's new book suggests a primary focus on Tocqueville, but though Democracy in America is indeed the starting point, what Commager really wants to do is explore “five questions that Tocqueville raised but did not—could not—answer. The questions examined are democracy and the tyranny of the majority, the price of the just society, centralization and democracy, the military in a democracy, and the contradictions between political equality and economic equality.” Commager is a distinguished historian who brings a welcome historical sensibility to his task. He covers a wide range of material within a brief compass. On some issues he is careless or wrongheaded, and hesitant about hinting why others might disagree; but he can also be incisive.

As usual, key questions hinge on definitions and values. Commager liberally embraces quite opposing brands of “equality” and “rights,” blurring conceptual boundary lines; and too easily succumbs to the “necessity” of big government, which he says lumbers on for at least a few very practical reasons.

And Tocqueville? Well, here he is on the allure of democratic despotism, in a passage cited by Commager:

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led and they wish to remain free . . . . 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.

Commager admits that centralized government has indeed been the nemesis of liberty, and that freedom has tended to flourish in those lands and in those eras when central authority has been weakest. Mid-century Italy and Germany confirm Tocqueville's worries amply enough; Hitler won power first at the ballot box.

“But were generalizations and prophecies based on some centuries of Old World history valid for America?” Commager wonders. It startles that any serious observer, witnessing the progressive trading-off of individual autonomy for democratically demanded goodies in the past decades, from Social Security to Medicare, and beyond, can yet doubt the relevance of Tocqueville's insight for the United States. To be sure, Commager does not dismiss the dangers of big government lightly, and he does point out that to be more free of government, people must make fewer demands on government. But his account of its growth both informs and misinforms.

Have wars and global interventionism fueled the growth of bureaucracy and government, even if some of Tocqueville's specific worries about the character of a democratized military are unwarranted? Yes, and many just complaints can and should be logged about how the United States has conceived its role in the world and trespassed both abroad and at home.

But these complaints need to be framed in relation to a military's legitimate purpose, namely, self-defense. That doesn't mean that freedoms and constitutional protections may be flouted at whim as long as some military goal can be alluded to. But it does mean that “military security” must be a governing concern of the federal government, even if it “makes all the difference, after all, what it is that we secure.” What we're securing may not be immaculate, but we still need to fend off the Visigoths.

The growth of “big” or national government has also been impelled by the need to thwart “local” violations of liberty, such as enslavement of blacks in the old South. The engine here is the Fourteenth Amendment, which by stipulating “equal protection” of all citizens encouraged a consolidation of national authority begun by the Constitution itself.

Commager is right to laud the beneficent aspects of this centralization, but it has hardly been an unmixed blessing for individual liberty. National government can be properly large in its ability to overturn abuses or neglect of state and local governments, but still carefully circumscribed in the aims of its power.

But what if national government becomes “big” in a quite different way, exceeding its chartered mission by, among other things: protecting organized labor from competition, imposing shackles on peaceful business activity, and instituting Social Security and Medicare? In endorsing the latter exercise of power as enthusiastically as the former, Commager is welcoming the very trade-off of freedom for favors that Tocqueville warned us of. His ahistorical emphasis of the phrase “general welfare” plucked from the preamble to the Constitution, as if the Founding Fathers were all New Dealers whether they knew it or not, hardly reassures.

Commager is similarly sanguine about the national government's efforts on behalf of the environment. But here again the record is mixed at best, and in this volume the record goes unexplored. When a developer can be jailed for messing around with a “wetland” that was only defined as such after the start of the development, something is wrong. True environmental depredation is best countered by clearly defining and enforcing property rights, which would mean forsaking federal land ownership.

The main concern seems to be that we are “exhausting” our resources; a claim often asserted but yet to be proved. One can argue with that also. But more to the point for a book that takes Democracy in America as its launching pad, Commager offers no discussion or even clue of how special-interest conflicts and demands can and have influenced environmental legislation in directions quite askew the preservation and protection of the environment. How are democratic impulses wending their way in this arena? Again, liberal political preferences pinch-hit for substantive insight. Those who disagree are “imprisoned” by an outmoded world view.

When we encounter attempts to clarify concepts like equality, justice, and the like it is even harder to catch hold of Commager's argument. The liberal faith in welfarism prevails. Yes, equality and liberty contradict each other—if equality means equality of economic results, not equality of legal protection, equality of rights. Whatever Tocqueville's concerns may have been, Commager himself is puzzled, even disappointed that “equal protection of the laws” was not extended “into the economic arena” after it was finally applied to civil rights. “Neither the court nor the Congress is at this stage prepared to say that equal protection of the laws means an equal right to a job, means equality in housing, means equality in medical care . . . ,” he laments. Actually, such “rights” have been claimed by men in power, and programs instituted on such grounds. But the warrant for them under the rubric of equal legal protection is less clear. Or wholly unclear. What is the nature of the rights that should be legally protected? If I have a “right” to housing, medical care, etc., is the person compelled to provide my housing, medical care, etc., being equally protected in his right to the freedom to retain the product of the sweat of his brow—his right to survive, live, pursue his happiness? Reading Commager's essay, I get the feeling he might regard such a question as annoyingly ideological or beside the point.

But in no other discussion could it be more relevant. The lock-step totalitarianism that would attend utter economic equality, rationalized or not by the Kantian categorical imperatives evoked during the close of this book, would go far to confirm the “generalizations and prophecies based on some centuries of Old World history” advanced by Alexis de Tocqueville.

David M. Brown is a free-lance writer.

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