Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Encouraging De Tocqueville's Slippery Slope
In a recent post on my brother’s Facebook page, one of his friends commented on a graphic deriding those who could not differentiate between Joseph Stalin and Barack Obama. He quoted Alexis De Tocqueville, from Democracy in America, as follows:
"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”
He then added, “Sounds like Obamacare and many more of the entitlement programs to me.”
I am offering this lengthy treatise because I think that we fall too easily into the use of catch phrases, code words, and intellectual short cuts to demonize rather than think about real issues. “Obamacare,” “entitlements,” “nanny state,” “socialism,” “big government,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “tax and spend,” “job killers,” etc., are pejoratives used to obfuscate and denigrate rather than to understand problems and find real solutions.
Benjamin Franklin, in his “Speech to the Convention, 1789,” after a very clever use of irony and self deprecation in his intro, said, “In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Forty-five to fifty years later, De Tocqueville made a great number of astute observations and suggestions about democracy in America in Democracy in America. In the above quote, De Tocqueville echoed much of Franklin’s sentiment.
I would suggest that, in this case, his prediction and admonition in Chapter XX, comes much closer to what has actually happened in the last forty years. He said, “I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world; but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous [What do you think he would say now?]. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”
Speaking of “slippery slopes,“(another of the commentators suggested this premise), we actually have two occurring, both of which are conflicting impulses found in De Tocqueville. One slippery slope that he championed was equality and social justice. He saw the rise of these trends over hundreds of years of history, and the demise of the aristocracy was one of the most important in the evolution of equality and social justice. He deeply admired America for having created the world’s best effort at accomplishing these principles both consciously, through the creation of its institutions, and unconsciously, through the character and aspirations of the people.
The other slippery slope is the rise of another aristocracy that could exploit what he called the principles of “manufactures” to the point where the workers are essentially disenfranchised, and the “owners” control the government; thus, another route to despotism other than “majority” wanting to feed off the largesse of government.
Only thirty years after De Tocqueville published his tome, we had the rise of the “Robber Barons” and the exploitation of wage slavery until the rise of labor began to curb some of the most egregious excesses. With Theodore Roosevelt, we get the first inklings of “progressive” government as an actual protector of the “people’s” interests and rights and a hedge against the exploitation and domination of bosses and corporations. Jim Crow, of course, was still alive and well, and women were still disenfranchised, but workers began to have a glimmer of hope in achieving the equality and social justice that the author of Democracy in America envisioned.
Until the latter part of the 1960’s, we saw a steady rise in equality and justice which some might argue created a strong middle class and others might suggest resulted from that strong middle class. Either way, pensions, health care, overtime, five day work weeks, concern for the environment, concern for the health and safety of workers and consumers, all became attainable. These improvements were, of course, fought viciously every step of the way by those who profited from a workforce at the mercy of their masters (as De Tocqueville called them). After the massive defeat of Barry Goldwater’s brand of fiscal conservatism, the corporatocracy put millions of dollars into think tanks and media manipulation. Eventually, they found their front man in the form of affable but feisty Ronald Reagan who gleefully attacked government as “the problem” and espoused deregulation and the free reign of business to exploit and manipulate at will.
A slavish acceptance of Milton Friedman’s fantasy “free market” philosophy, a whole-hearted adoption of Arthur Laffer’s laughable (but devastating) “supply-side” economics, combined with a similar cherry-picking of Ayn Rand’s antithetical distortion of Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and you get forty years of lax regulation, deregulation, and manipulation of the marketplace that have lead to the destruction of journalism and objective reporting, the savings and loan debacle, the energy fraud (Enron), the dot com bubble collapsing, the housing crisis, the banking crisis, “too big to fail,” ad infinitum.
Thoreau said, in his essay, “On the Duty of Resistance to Civil Government (1848)” (aka “Civil Disobedience”), “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.” On the other hand, Milton Friedman declared that profit was the only moral duty of a corporation or a business man, and he lambasted the idea that business had any kind of social responsibility as “socialism,” which was, to him, of course, the most extreme negative attack in his arsenal of derision.
I see the current assaults on women’s rights, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, gay rights, health and safety regulations, environmental regulations, et al, as a last gasp of a newly emerged and rapidly expanded oligarchy to turn back the inevitable march of equality and social justice and promote the specious fable of a “meritocracy” that in reality rewards fraud, malfeasance, and injustice. Unfortunately, last gasps can last a long time, and if we, as a society, buy into the grotesque misuse of “Self Reliance” as a justification for “Social Darwinism,” a premise which the corporate oligarchs have been trying to sell us for over thirty years, rather than understanding the actual moral import of both Emerson’s essay or Darwin’s book, it will be a long slog indeed.
"The Greatest Threat to Democracy is Hypocrisy! Seek Truth! Speak Truth!"