Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his On Democracy in America (1835) that “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
De Tocqueville, for those who are unfamiliar with his great work, was a French diplomat, historian, and political scientist. He came to America in the early 19th century to study the ‘fledgling’ American political society and its various forms of political associations.
His travels took place less than 40 years after the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy and aristocracy. Many historians believe Tocqueville’s intentions in coming to America were to study the new ‘experiment’ that was America, and to find examples that would help the French people better understand their own position between the fading aristocratic order and their newfound democracy.
De Tocqueville saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as for the community, and he was adamant about finding examples of that balance.
He once said:
“I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights… I am neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative… Liberty is my foremost passion.”
De Tocqueville discovered many of the key aspects of what caused the rapid success of the United States as a nation; and I believe it is important for us to understand these keys, to better understand the context within which the Founding Fathers established the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
There was an accepted norm in those days that allowed for the liberties that the people enjoyed. Liberty was only realized because the people who enjoyed that liberty were also able to show constraint, responsibility, and character.
If liberty is taken to its extreme (the argument over whether it should, is one for another time) it would become what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls ‘negative liberty’ which is defined as “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints”.
When liberty is realized, it removes many of the obstacles, barriers, and constraints that are in place in our society. The danger we face in removing many of those constraints, is that it would also remove the consequences (currently in place) for many actions that could negatively affect our society.
When exterior constraints are removed, then all that remains to keep a cohesive, functioning society, are interior constraints.
De Tocqueville wrote:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there… in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there… in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there… in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
This is the interior constraint; that every person must have a philosophy that guides the way they live their life; a philosophy that holds them accountable to themselves, and to what they believe is right.
For some, it is the teachings of their church, mosque, or synagogue; and for others, it is a non-theistic guideline, but regardless of the basis of a person’s chosen philosophy, there must be that interior constraint – those guardrails that keep a person on the ‘straight and narrow’.
In a society that values liberty, where government is small, where there are few “exterior constraints”; there is a need for each individual to be aware of their responsibilities to society as a whole.
De Tocqueville wrote:
“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
Freedom is much more difficult to enact, than collectivism.
A truly free society requires that each person not only effectively handle their own affairs, but also be on the lookout for others who are struggling, and be willing to help their fellows when their struggles become unbearable.
As libertarians, we often talk about shrinking government and cutting welfare programs (among many other things). We speak about private charity and how it would replace governments “re-distribution”.
However, I sometimes wonder if we truly understand the reality each individual would face if we got what we “wished for”. Right now, it’s easy to help the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned; we really don’t have to do anything as individuals. Their ‘safety net’ comes out of the taxes (theft) we already pay, and we rarely give it a second thought unless it is to complain about taxation (theft) in general.
If we got our way today – if government were minimized, and many of the programs the government currently administrates were cut – what would we do with the many people who are unable to support themselves? There is likely a majority of people who are capable of supporting themselves, and would be forced to take responsibility for their own lives, but there are also many others who (for one or many reasons) are unable to help themselves.
The orphan, the single mother (or father), the disabled person; many of these people would still need help and would still be the social responsibility of society at large.
We can do away with taxes, and take their care out of the hands of the government; but that does not mean their need will go away!
All it means is that each of us would have to show individual care and charity; as a society made up of free individuals, we would have to take that responsibility upon ourselves.
No one could force anyone to help another in need, so it would be up to the character of the individuals that make up society. It would be up to the life philosophy of each individual to take upon themselves the responsibility of caring for those who are less fortunate.
If we can’t do that, if we cannot look within ourselves and honestly say that we would help private charities, and that we would help shoulder the responsibility of caring for those in need, then we should think very carefully about supporting the shrinking of government and the removal of the safety net provided by the state.
I believe that the government’s “benign” hand, reaching out to support and shape and mold society is wrong and dangerous; but I also realize what that means to me as an individual, what the removal of that hand means, and the responsibility it places on my shoulders.
In the past, it was up to families, associations, churches, and communities to help each other, and support those in need.
That is what used to happen in “small government” America; people were required to take on responsibility for the change they saw was needed in society.
There is a story told of Colonel Davy Crockett (then a congressman) who rose when a bill was brought forward in the House of Representatives. The bill was proposing that money be appropriated for the widow of a distinguished naval officer, and it seemed that everyone was in favor of passing it. After all, who would oppose supporting a widow whose husband so bravely dedicated his life to the service of his country.
The story goes as follows:
“The Speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose. Everybody expected, of course, that he was going to make a speech in support of the bill. He commenced:
‘Mr. Speaker — I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House; but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living.
I will not go into argument to prove that Congress has no power under the Constitution to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it.
We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.
Mr. Speaker, I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.’
He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as no doubt it would, but for that speech, it received but a few votes and was lost.”
Charity is difficult, it requires so much more from each of us than does government programs. It’s easy to vote in favor of giving away someone else’s money. It’s easy to feel good after handing the responsibility of those in need to ‘someone else’.
It’s easy to feel like you are the truly compassionate one, the one that cares about the disenfranchised, when that ‘giving’ requires nothing from you except what you are already forced to give (taxes).
It means nothing to give something that which was never yours to begin with; but to take the needs of others on yourself, to volunteer, to support your local communities with your own sweat and treasure, is the mark of a true altruist, and a true lover of liberty.
There is more to the story of Davy Crockett’s choice that day, although it is too long to include in this article. I would suggest reading the rest yourselves, so you can discover the rationale behind his decision; though I’m sure the reasoning is quite apparent already.
Alexis de Tocqueville left us with the keys to the success of liberty and the American society in his studies, and they are clearly laid out in his book.
Americas greatness, he said, was in large part because of its goodness. That “goodness”, that character, is intrinsic to liberty and a free society.
I believe it is incredibly important that those of us who seek a free society take to heart those aspects of what he discovered it was that “made America great”; and look within ourselves to make sure we are ready to take on the responsibilities that truly free society brings.