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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Liberty Still Has a Fighting Chance

Can Alexis de Tocqueville’s American Exceptionalism Be Restored?

This speech was delivered at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 8, 2015.

Over a nine-month period beginning in 1831, a 26-year-old Frenchman visited nearly every corner of what were then the 24 states of the American Republic. He traveled from New England to the upper Midwest to the Gulf Coast in the Deep South to the mid-Atlantic. Then he wrote a great book full of amazing insights. It made its appearance 180 years ago, in 1835. Perhaps nobody before or since has defined the essence of America better than he did; but then, no other nation in history offered an essence so profoundly exceptional.

Less than half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, America was still an infant nation, but Alexis de Tocqueville sensed the stirrings of greatness. He praised our entrepreneurial drive and initiative, our self-reliance and personal independence, and our vibrant civil society institutions and voluntary associations. He felt that our ideals would eventually lead us to lead the world. He believed that America had placed two sacred principles — freedom and equality — on a higher pedestal than any previous civilization had. They were, he said, our most defining characteristics, the sources of our strength. But he also feared that we would carry one to an extreme that would undermine the other. Milton Friedman was echoing Tocqueville when he said in the 20th century, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

Tocqueville’s appreciation of freedom knew few bounds. Here is perhaps his most eloquent endorsement of it:

Even despots accept the excellence of liberty. The simple truth is that they wish to keep it for themselves and promote the idea that no one else is at all worthy of it. Thus, our opinion of liberty does not reveal our differences but the relative value which we place on our fellow man. We can state with conviction, therefore, that a man’s support for absolute government is in direct proportion to the contempt he feels for his country.

He masterfully described how the growth of government could smother our freedoms:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the government 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, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville’s view of equality is more nuanced. He had no issue with the ideal of equality before the law or even equality of opportunity. He hated slavery and any unwarranted discrimination. He agreed with the words of our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But he had no illusions that individuals were thereafter equal in their energies, their talents, their ambitions, their intellect or their character. He was afraid that our egalitarian impulses might someday get the better of us.

Here we are now, decades into the very egalitarian welfare state Tocqueville warned would be the death of American exceptionalism.

“I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights,” he wrote. “Liberty is my foremost passion. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”

This issue is so critical to our freedoms and our future that I want to dwell on it for a moment.

Remember this: Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.

Put another way, in terms of economics, think of it this way: Free people will earn different incomes. Where people have the same income, they cannot be free.

Economic equality in a free society is a snare and a delusion that redistributionists envision. But free people are different people, not programmable robots, so it should not come as a surprise that they earn different incomes. Our talents and abilities are not identical. We don’t all work as hard. And even if we all were magically made equal in wealth tonight, we’d be unequal in the morning because some of us would spend our newfound wealth, and some of us would save it.

To produce even a rough measure of economic equality, governments must issue the following orders and back them up with punishment and prisons: Don’t excel or work harder than the next guy, don’t come up with any new ideas, don’t take any risks, and don’t do anything different from what you did yesterday.

In other words, don’t be human.

Economic inequality, when it derives from the voluntary interaction of creative individuals and not from political power or connections, testifies to the fact that people are being themselves, putting their unique skills to work in ways that are fulfilling to themselves and of value to others. As Tocqueville himself might say, Vive la différence!

People obsessed with economic equality do strange things. They become envious of others. They covet. They divide society into two groups: villains and victims. They spend far more time dragging somebody down than they do pulling anybody up. They’re not fun to be around.

And if they make it to a legislature, they can do real harm. Then they not only call the cops — they are the cops.

If economic inequality is an ailment, punishing effort and success is no cure in any event. Coercive, envy-based measures that aim to redistribute wealth prompt the smart or politically well-connected “haves” to seek refuge in havens here or abroad, while the hapless “have-nots” bear the full brunt of economic decline. A more productive expenditure of time would be to work to erase the mass of intrusive government that ensures that the “have-nots” are also the “cannots.”

People obsessed with economic equality do strange things. They spend far more time dragging somebody down than they do pulling anybody up.

Another superb alternative to coercive redistribution would be to work on our character — each of us, one at a time — so that we’re not only good enough for liberty, but good enough to earn a living instead of voting for one.

This economic-equality thing is not compassionate. When it’s just an idea, it’s bunk. When it’s public policy, it’s compulsory insanity. To those who can’t understand how different or unequal we are as individuals, I say, “Get over it!”

Tocqueville warned that this unhealthy obsession with economic equality, combined with an erosion in the respect for liberty and property, would produce what we today would call the welfare state. Let me offer you a description of the welfare state. Somebody once said that it got its name because in it, the politicians get well and the rest of us pay the fare. Just picture people in a giant circle with each having one hand in the next person’s pocket.

The whole notion of the welfare state rests on this really dumb proposition: since people are not decent and compassionate enough to assist their deserving fellows in distress, we must expect them to elect politicians who are more decent and compassionate than they are. How ridiculous! Those politicians then take money from us under threat of imprisonment, launder it through an expensive bureaucracy, and spend what’s left not to actually solve the problem but to manage it into perpetuity for endless dependency, demagoguery, and political gain. And then the advocates of the welfare state compliment themselves for possessing a monopoly on compassion and totally ignore the destructive results of their own handiwork.

So here we are now, decades into the very egalitarian welfare state Tocqueville warned would be the death of American exceptionalism. It threatens to make us like all the other forgettable welfare states that languish in history’s dustbins, Greece included. Should we just assume it’s inevitable and go along for the ride? Or should we muster the character that built a nation and that Tocqueville identified as quintessentially American?

If you’re pessimistic, then you’re no longer part of the solution. You’ve become part of the problem. What chance does liberty have if its supposed friends desert it in its hour of need or speak ill of its prospects?

Ask yourselves, What good purpose could a defeatist attitude possibly promote? Will it make me work harder for the causes I know are right? Is there anything about liberty that an election or events in Congress disprove? If I exude a pessimistic demeanor, will it help attract newcomers to the ideas I believe in? Is this the first time in history that believers in liberty have lost some battles? If we simply throw in the towel, will that enhance the prospects for future victories? Do we turn back just because the hill we have to climb got a little steeper?

This is not the time to abandon time-honored principles. I can’t speak for you, but someday, I want to go to my reward and be able to look back and say, “I never gave up. I never became part of the problem I tried to solve. I never gave the other side the luxury of winning anything without a rigorous, intellectual contest. I never missed an opportunity to do my best for what I believed in, and it never mattered what the odds or the obstacles were. I did my part.”

Remember that we stand on the shoulders of many people who came before us and who persevered through far darker times. The American patriots who shed their blood and suffered through unspeakable hardships as they took on the world’s most powerful nation in 1776 are certainly among them. But I am also thinking of the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain who resisted the greatest tyranny of the modern age and won. I think of those like Hayek and Mises who kept the flame of liberty flickering in the 1940s. I think of the heroes like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson who fought to end slavery and literally changed the conscience and character of Britain in the face of the most daunting of disadvantages. And I think of the Scots who, 456 years before the Declaration of Independence, put their lives on the line to repel English invaders with these thrilling words: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

As I think about what some of those great men and women faced, the obstacles before us today seem rather puny.

This is a moment when our true character, the stuff we’re really made of, will show itself. If we retreat, that would tell me we were never really worthy of the battle in the first place. But if we resolve to let these challenging times build our character and rally our dispirited friends to new levels of dedication, we will look back on this occasion someday with pride at how we handled it. Have you called a friend yet today to explain to him or her why liberty should be a top priority?

Nobody ever promised that liberty would be easy to attain or simple to keep. The world has always been full of greedy thieves and thugs, narcissistic power seekers, snake-oil charlatans, unprincipled ne’er-do-wells, and arrogant busybodies. No true friend of liberty should just roll over and play dead for any of them.

Take an inventory every day of what you’re doing for liberty. Get more involved in the fight. There are plenty of things you can do. If your state isn’t a right-to-work state, work to make it so. Support people and organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education that are teaching young people about the importance of liberty and character. Get behind the Compact for America and its plan for a balanced federal budget and an end to reckless spending and debt. Work for school choice in your state to help break the government monopoly on education. And be the very best example for liberty and character that you can possibly be in everything you do.

Whatever you do, don’t give up no matter what. Remember these words of the great US Supreme Court justice George Sutherland: “The saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.”

Can Tocqueville’s American exceptionalism be restored? Can it last? You bet it can. The American Dream still lives, in the hearts of those who love liberty and refuse to meekly surrender it. So let’s wipe the frowns off our faces and get to work. Our future, our children’s future — liberty’s future — all depend on us. 

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is