The essays collected in Tocqueville’s Voyages trace the political thought of the author of Democracy in America and probe whether Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideas have meaning to societies beyond the United States of the mid-19th century. Drawing heavily on the impressive two-volume, bilingual Liberty Fund edition of this seminal work (which includes Tocqueville’s notes and earlier manuscripts), these essays are not only a valuable addition to Tocqueville scholarship but help to explain the trajectory of politics in our democratic age. Tocqueville meant for his work to be a possession for all time. Contributors to this volume treat his project with corresponding care,…
Taxi drivers in France rioted yesterday to prevent Uber from competing with them. They attacked vehicles on the mere suspicion that they were working for that company. They broke windows on cars carrying tourists. It was a kind of economic terrorism. Even a left-liberal rock star was upset!
France is one of the most heavily regulated and centralized states in the Western world. But Uber represents the new forces of decentralizing competition that it may ultimately be powerless to block. While the French government appeared to take the side of the violent strikers today, it will have difficulty in stopping this kind of competition without deploying coercion unacceptable in a democratic society.
Uber is essentially an app that connects people who want to make a mutually beneficial transaction. Other apps will connect those who want to make other transactions—for plumbing, gardening or housework. These services will be less expensive than current services, whose cost is inflated by regulations, not least of which are those designed to protect incumbents.
General elections in modern democracies bore much of the population—perhaps most of it. They even seem to many a form of slow torture by means of constant and inescapable publicity and propaganda in favor of the nonentities who stand for public office. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to despise practical politics on the grounds that politicians are all the same, which is to say no good. Such indiscriminate disdain creates an opening for a more extreme and dangerous form of politics that preys upon universal discontent.
Still, in almost every Western democracy, there is a growing feeling that the political class (including its bureaucratic allies) has become more like a caste—a self-enclosed and self-perpetuating group of people that arrogates privileges to itself, through the enjoyment of which it insulates itself from the rest of the population, whose interests it has therefore no reason to share or understand. We the people increasingly believe that the division between the political class and everyone else is much greater than any factional divisions within the political class.
Via David Henderson, I came upon this essay by John Edward Terrell in the New York Times criticizing libertarians and Tea Party types for favoring individualism. What a morass of confusion!
To begin with, Terrell conflates (1) the appropriateness of respecting individual rights, (2) the moral question, how we should act, and (3) the psychological question, how we are likely to act. He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.
These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.
1. First, it is true that libertarians believe that people should have individual rights, but it is not because our actions have no effect on other people. Libertarians recognize that we are interconnected and argue that our mode of interaction should not be through coercion but through voluntary associations. Social interactions work better through voluntary associations.
Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision. Similarly, in a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends and these associations generally work better than government does through coercion.
George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”
Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.
As the ambit of modern life expands, like a gas, serious political ambition dilutes. We range more widely, but in a scattered way—a molecule of attention here, another over there. The time and care needed for real (as distinguished from Facebook) friendship and citizenship evanesce as we learn to think and feel in short bursts. Because it is worldwide, the Web is flimsy, thin-spun. Building character takes time but any twit can tweet. Citizenship requires patriotism, love of one’s own, but one loves nothing so ephemeral as virtual reality. Statesmanship takes sustained thinking, but the distracted mind sustains only nervousness. This is…
Anyone who takes higher education seriously attends to the words of legendary teachers. They are likely to be undisciplined, witty, and unfashionable; about great books; ironic about the careerism of their colleagues, students, and administrative bosses; self-indulgent; and insistently erotic, without being creepy.
There are striking parallels in how the left-liberals treat constitutional liberty in political and religious expression. First, their positions in both areas are premised on a kind of faux neutrality that masks consolidation of their own power. As I have discussed, in campaign finance, left-liberals seek to eliminate the undue influence of the rich, regardless of their viewpoint. What this “neutrality” ignores is that by restricting the influence of some powerful citizens, it effectively expands the influence of other powerful groups who substantially affect the political climate and are not similarly constrained. These powerful are most importantly, the mainstream media, academia and the entertainment industry that are predominantly—indeed in most cases—overwhelming left- liberal.
Similarly, in religious liberty, left-liberals want to restrict the capacity of religious organizations to project their views, as reflected, for instance, in their opposition to school vouchers available to religious schools. It is true that preventing religious schools from using vouchers treats all religions equally but it privileges a secular civic life. A government school can and frequently does have a secular creed that is some mixture of environmentalism and a particular take on the concept of state mandated diversity. It is much more hospitable to reinforcing a state-centered view of the world than a religious school.
A second point of comparison is the hostility of left-liberals to the rights of corporations.
This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test-takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.
In my previous post on this theme, I attempted to provide a friendly critique of Greve’s competitive federalism thesis by way of James Madison and his arguments in both Federalist 39 and the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. I wanted to show that Madison’s position challenges the notion that state governments are just revenue maximizing authorities. I also stated that maintaining free government requires more than self-interest; indeed, it requires qualities that are its opposite. Perhaps this last bit could be better stated. What we need are public virtues that compliment and make whole self interest.
But why should we have confidence that the state governments could ever perform in the capacity argued for by Madison? The question might be more basic: Why Liberty?