Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tocqueville: Liberty Over Equality in the Happy Society

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

I chose Tocqueville with an eye to including his great work in the course on "The Happy Society" that I am developing. We would read it after Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Aristotle says happiness is the end of human life. Mill says that society should be organized to promote the greatest collective pleasure. Both Aristotle and Mill think that some pleasures are higher than others.

Tocqueville does not say that happiness is the end of human life. He does not say that happiness is the end of social life. So why is this text useful for “The Happy Society”? Tocqueville argues that Americans have a passion for equality. They value it highly. Its rewards are immediate. They had a revolution to get equality and defend the social arrangements that make it possible. Equality is at least the analogue of what Aristotle and the utilitarians say happiness means to people.

Tocqueville’s concern does not end with equality, but is even more interested in liberty. He shows how Americans promote equal liberty – equality as the basis for each individual to have a fair chance to exercise liberty. Yet Tocqueville believes that the masses tend to value equality too much – even to the point of sacrificing liberty to keep equality. Only the enlightened and far-seeing appreciate the true value of liberty as the more precious of the two core values of modernity. I read Tocqueville as saying that liberty is a higher pleasure than equality. This is at least analogous to Mill’s argument about higher and lower pleasures. It may also be analogous to Aristotle’s contention that contemplation is a higher happiness than action.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tocqueville: The Social Theory God Wants, Not What I Want

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville the liberty-loving aristocrat works very hard to appreciate the value of equality. Throughout the book he makes the claim that democracy is a better form of social organization than aristocracy because democracy reduces many great harms for the mass of people, even at the cost of limiting some of the excellences achieved by the best.

At the end of the book he raises the stakes for this argument, by arguing that God favors equality.

“It is natural to believe that what is most satisfying to the eye of man’s creator and keeper is not the singular prosperity of a few but the greater well-being of all: what seems decadence to me is therefore progress in his eyes; what pains me pleases him. Equality is less lofty, perhaps, but more just, and its justice is the source of its grandeur and beauty.”

The spectacle of Tocqueville wrestling to subordinate his class prejudice to his theological conviction is a fine example of the distinctive virtues of a religious social theory.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tocqueville: Who Wants War in a Democratic Society?

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville says that aristocratic societies glorify war and disparage greed. Democratic societies disparage war, but glorify ambition. The danger for democratic societies is that their armies do seek, if not glorify, war. Armies in democratic societies are prone to coups if not given an external enemy to fight.

In the United States we have a very professional military, not at all likely to stage a coup due to inaction. This is due, in part, to the fact that they are frequently engaged in wars - we have two and a half going at the moment. When we do have peace, our military is not likely to agitate for war.

So if business in a democracy is against war because it is bad for business, and our military is not eager for war since they get tested enough, in what structural location in our society would we expect to find promoters of war? Military contractors. And if military contractors should become disproportionately influential in any particular party or administration - perhaps through a revolving door that put, say, a defense secretary in charge of a large military contractor, and then back into government as de facto head of warmaking - we might expect that kind of government to start more voluntary wars.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Tocqueville: Taking Domestic Liberty Through War Powers

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville says that democracy calls for a new kind of political science. He rarely talks about that science directly in the rest of the book - except for this point:

“All who seek to destroy liberty in a democratic nation should know that war offers them the surest and shortest route to success. This is the first axiom of science.”

I think the truth of this point has been shown many times, most recently by the massive expansion of the government's power to spy on American citizens that was instituted by a "small-government conservative" administration as part of the "war on terror."

As interesting, though, is that Tocqueville's one direct reference to making a new political science in Democracy in America is to how to scientifically destroy liberty.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Tocqueville: God vs. Gold as Guarantors of Value

My annual Theory Camp is reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville says that the American conception of democracy (in his day, anyway) rested on a widespread belief that God is the guarantor of the trust and commitments that a democratic people make to one another. He thought that, from society's perspective, the particulars of religion did not matter so much as the fact that nearly all believed.

In other words, democracy depends on something outside of democracy itself, some source of fixed and absolute value.

It strikes me that this is what "goldbugs" think the gold standard does for money. They think gold is something that stands outside of the money system, some source of fixed and absolute value.

Except that God really does have the capacity to guarantee the value of a society's values. Gold, on the other hand, has no intrinsic and absolute value. The only "value" that gold has comes from the money system itself.