Monday, April 27, 2009

De Tocqueville

The French Count, and devout Catholic, is, in many ways, the father of the American way of voluntary associations, or as they have come to be known and legalized through statue—the nonprofit corporation; as he was the first to write of them extensively and his most famous book, Democracy in America, first published in the 1830’s, is still read for its valuable, and still very relevant insights.

He also wrote an important book about prisons in America: On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France, which is, while a bit dated, a valuable addition to one’s criminal justice library.

There is a nice article about him from the Acton Institute.

An excerpt.

“Though it went virtually unnoticed, April 16th marked the 150th anniversary of the death of one of the significant thinkers of modern times. Author of the classic Democracy in America (1835/1840), Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic insights into America have been cited approvingly by figures ranging from Nobel Prize economist Friedrich Hayek to Benedict XVI.

“Today Tocqueville is largely ignored in his native France, where the left-dominated intelligentsia dismisses him as “antidemocratic.” Americans of all generations, however, have regularly turned to this nineteenth-century aristocrat to understand their past and future. This is especially true when it comes to Tocqueville’s thoughts about democracy’s promise and perils which, more than ever, seem relevant for America.

“Travelling through 1830s America, Tocqueville was struck by government’s apparent absence from this bustling commercial society. Unlike France, Americans had no particular regard for government officials, let alone politicians. They wanted to be let alone to follow their chosen pursuits. Why, Tocqueville wondered, did this not degenerate into anarchy?

“The answer, he discovered, was two-fold. First, Americans had developed habits of free association. They did not address social and economic problems by asking the state to fix the situation. Instead they banded together to resolve their own difficulties.

“Second, there was the influence of religion. Tocqueville was amazed at the plethora of religious activities in America which, unlike European countries, had no established church. While religious bigotry existed, religious liberty was generally taken seriously by American society and government alike….

“Is America on the road to comfortable servility? “The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Since Roosevelt’s New Deal, America has slowly drifted towards a political economy of soft despotism. Despite the Reagan Revolution, the trend-lines of government-spending and intervention have been in the anti-liberty direction. Entire constituencies of people now exist who regularly support politicians who promise that, in return for their votes, their entitlements (corporate-welfare, bails-outs for the “too big-to-fail,” the old-fashioned welfare state etc) will be maintained and increased.”