Sunday, May 23, 2010

Me too. A good read

FRANK MIELE/Daily Inter Lake 20 comments
Liberals — God bless them!
No, seriously. Don’t let my conservative credentials sway you into thinking I am being facetious. I am not.

But consider which liberals I am praising, and then stop and ask yourself if the people who use that title today are fit for the honor.
Taking the definition from a good “liberal” source — Wikipedia — to make sure it is not some accident of warped conservative thinking, let’s consider the following:
“Liberals in the 19th century wanted to develop a world free from government intervention, or at least free from too much government intervention. They championed the ideal of negative liberty, which constitutes the absence of coercion and the absence of external constraints. They believed governments were cumbersome burdens and they wanted governments to stay out of the lives of individuals.”

Like I said before, God bless liberals. I just wish we could find one worthy of the name today.
There were many who came before us, including John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher whose “conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control.” (For convenience’ sake, I am again quoting Wikipedia.) That’s my kind of liberal, and why — for the first 45 years of my life — through the Kennedy era, in opposition to the Nixon era, and even into the Clinton years (“The era of big government is over!”) I considered myself a liberal.

But what we still call liberals today are an altogether different animal. The era of big government is now “in your face.” Government bailouts, forced participation in health insurance, nanny-state bureaucracy — it’s all about what government can do to make itself indispensable, which of course leads to “unlimited state control.”
Mill had occasion to write that, “Now, as ever, the great problem in government is to prevent the strongest from becoming the only power; and repress the natural tendency of the instincts and passions of the ruling body to sweep away all barriers which are capable of resisting, even for a moment, their own tendencies.”
It is not entirely surprising that Mill’s warning about the “great problem in government” comes from his famous appraisal of Volume II of “Democracy in America,” the brilliant analysis of the American political and social revolution that was still erupting in 1840 when the book was published.

“Democracy in America” was the brainchild of another classical liberal, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to America to make a study of its prisons and instead found himself enthralled with the freedom he found everywhere.
The two-volume study he published of his observations of the nascent democracy in America remains fundamental to our understanding of the responsibilities of liberty and the dangers of freedom.

It is indeed clear that Tocqueville recognized that America’s roiling republic contained the seeds of its own destruction, and that he recognized that despite our Constitution, and perhaps because of it, we were not immune to dictatorship, or, as he called it, despotism. Yet he realized that tyranny in the United States would never come in the usual form — that it would not choke us with an iron fist but rather with a velvet glove.

As he said, “...It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.”

In other words, it would seduce free men to act like slaves by taking care of their every need, watching over them like parents do their infants, and thus securing their total dependence.
Here is how Tocqueville described his vision of the greatest threat to democracy once those in power decided to use government as a giant teat to placate the public:
“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?”
Have we really reached that stage? Has America gone in scarce over 150 years from a nascent democracy to a doddering idiot? You decide:

“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power ... 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... 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.”
Wow! Imagine that! A government that encourages dependence and timidity — can anyone say “sheeple”?

Tocqueville’s description of “a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate” suggests immediately the federal tax code, with all its minutiae and loopholes. But let’s not stop there. How about 2,000-page health-care bills that are too complicated even for senators to read? How about 1,000-page cap-and-trade bills that could eventually regulate whether or not you are allowed to hold a barbecue?

“Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.”
But what about elections? This is a democracy, right? The people make the ultimate choices about their government as a result of our constitutional guarantees.
Umm, sorry, not so quick. Tocqueville has already anticipated that argument, and answered it:
“It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.”

Of course, there has been a growing resistance to the nanny state over the past year or two, most notably in the Tea Party Movement, but there has been considerable resistance to the Tea Party Movement as well. And let’s face it, there is no empirical evidence that Republicans, if returned to power, would do any better job of dismantling the nanny state than Democrats. We are truly in a bind.

Of course, a true liberal would prefer to be left alone, rather than be told what to do, what to think, or what to buy. Yet because of the increasing role of government in our lives, we have reached a stage of despotism that Tocqueville warned us against — a stage in which the “collective” good is considered more important than the individual:
“ happens that, at the same period and among the same nations in which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private persons, the rights of society at large are naturally extended and consolidated... It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times, that the true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs.”

Yet how else can we describe the tyranny of the health-care law passed by Congress? Have not our private rights been diminished and the powers of government been extended? And of course, we are told that the government is just doing what is “best for us.” Many good folks, liberals and conservatives both, cannot help themselves from trying to make America a better place, but ultimately they run the risk of destroying what made America great in the first place, as Tocqueville warned us back in 1840:

“It would seem as if the rulers of our time sought only to use men in order to make things great; I wish that they would try a little more to make great men; that they would set less value on the work and more upon the workman; that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.”

If we truly want more freedom and less government, then there may be no better prescription for economic and social health than this: “Buy Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’; read liberally.”

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