Alexis de Tocqueville
Hattip to cartoonist Michael Ramirez for his brilliant Statue of Bigotry cartoon. A guest post by commenter John By Any Other Name:
Father Robert Barron, who no one could credibly call a firebrand, had a post at National Review Online that caught my attention:
“In the course of a radio interview, Governor Andrew Cuomo blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or who is opposed to gay marriage is “not welcome” in his state of New York. Mind you, the governor did not simply say that such people are wrong-headed or misguided; he didn’t say that they should be opposed politically or that good arguments against their position should be mounted; he said they should be actively excluded from civil society!”
The good guv’ner somewhat walked back his comments, trying to spin it that it wasn’t that people who were pro-life, pro-”assault weapons” and “anti-gay” (these were the other two descriptors Cuomo used) weren’t welcome, just that they would have a hard time winning office in the state. Yet, Father Barron properly captures the evil of this in his observation: “they should be actively excluded from civil society!”
This is precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville was discussing in the below quote. I stumbled across this one while looking for another quote from Democracy in America. I confess I haven’t actually read the book, though it’s on my reading list after I finish the Knox translation of the Bible and a few other important books. Emphasis is mine.
“Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.” Continue reading
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 people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and 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?
Was there a greater political prophet than Alexis de Tocqueville? I think not. He wrote about American society and government nearly 200 years ago, and his brilliant insights into American culture specifically and political theory more generally are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote, if not more so. It’s as though he possessed a crystal ball and saw the ascension of petty tyrants like Michael Bloomberg.
If Mayor Bloomberg gets his way, and it looks like he will, large sodas and other sugary drinks will be a thing of the past, at least at restaurants, movie theaters, cafes, and stadiums across the five boroughs.
Under the mayor’s proposed plan, drinks at these locations would not be over 16 ounces. If businesses break the rule, they’ll be hit with a $200 fine.
Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said the measure is a new way to fight obesity. He estimates that over 60 percent of New Yorkers are overweight.
Aside from the bogus statistics – I grew up in New York City, and 60% of the people are overweight only if the ideal weight is “anorexically thin” – this is yet another attempt by Nanny Bloomberg to dictate to the people of New York how to live their lives. You may remember Mayor Mike from such public health efforts as banning smoking pretty much everywhere and banning the evil known as transfats.
Even if one agrees that it is good for people to not smoke and to eat healthy, is there no end in sight to these efforts to control the daily lives of citizens? You know, other then when it comes to those same citizens aborting their children because they’re only girls.
Let’s leave aside the fact that such a ban would be futile as, after all, customers could just order multiple beverages. This is yet another effort to control behavior. Certainly this is not the most egregious assault on personal liberty in this nation’s history, but that’s sort of the point, and that was Tocqueville’s point as well. It’s the little things that get you. In other words, the real danger in democratic governments isn’t large-scale deprivations of liberty (though these are certainly possible as well), but rather the minute, insufferable attempts to manipulate people and treat others as though they were children.
That said, this story is yet another corrective to the old saw that it is social conservatives who want to control every aspect of our daily lives. If Michael Bloomberg is a social conservative, then I’m afraid to know what I’d be labeled.
But have no fear New Yorkers. Even if Mayor Mike takes your giant sodas away, at least he won’t be touching your donuts.
Alexis de Toqueville wasn’t always right, but he was almost always right. From Book One of Democracy in America:
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 willingly 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?
Thus 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 often to look on them as benefits.
I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, and here they are always fashioning new ways to live up to de Tocqueville’s prophecy.
The Montgomery County Council approved a smoking ban at playgrounds and indoor common spaces on Tuesday, asking neighbors to report offenders.
The ban restricts smoking within 25 feet of playgrounds and in the shared spaces of multifamily residential buildings, such as apartment hallways or lobbies.
Two witnesses can file a complaint identifying the smoker, as well as the time and place of the violation, to start an investigation. Otherwise, a county Health and Human Services Department employee must catch a violator lighting up.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Four, Chapter Six: What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Michael McConnell, a Law Professor at Stanford, offers this in a First Things review of Philip Hamburger’s new book titled Law and Judicial Duty:
Hamburger traces the development of modern conceptions of the law to the realization, in Europe and especially Britain, that human reason rarely provided clear answers to moral questions and therefore that an attempt to ground law in divine will, or a search for abstract reason and justice, would inevitably lead to discord. As a result, “Europeans increasingly located the obligation of law in the authority of the lawmaker rather than the reason or justice of his laws.” The task of judges, then, was not to seek after elusive notions of justice and right reason but to enforce the law of the land. Natural law shifted in emphasis from moral content to legitimacy and authority, and increasingly to an understanding of authority based on the will of the people.
This seems to me a profound explanation of how and why we understand law today the way we do. It simultaneously shows you what is wrong with the modern conception of the law and what is right.