Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hypothetical prolific bloggers

I am a terribly lazy blogger. It is not that I have nothing that I would like to say so much as that it is both easier and more enjoyable to sit on my couch and read history books than to sit down at my computer and explain, yet again, why we are doomed, doomed, doomed.

Recently, I have been reading Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews. Johnson is exceedingly well read, and brings his wealth of knowledge to which ever topic he chooses to tackle. If I could overcome my sloth for a few years, I think I could eventually write a book, but to churn out books at the rate Johnson does--and such books--is hard for me to fathom. I have long been fascinated by prolific writers. Johnson is by no means the most prolific of writers, but his powers certainly tax my ability to comprehend.

Had Johnson been born a bit later, he may have ended up as a blogger--and no doubt a very good one. Two questions spring to mind. First, given the full extent of writers, who would have been the most prolific blogger? I don't have an answer, but St. Augustine springs readily to mind; he would have lorded over the heretics of the blogosphere. Second, would this have been a good thing for humanity? I spend a good deal of time on blogs, but I am also rather fond of books; and the latter tend to be more valuable.

And now, back to my books--and my laziness.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The pragmatic President and the cowardly Congress

The vitriol directed at President Obama is well known. I do not think it is fair to chalk this up to racism. Nonetheless, much of the criticism of Obama is misplaced. Far from being a far-left radical--a "socialist" in the bankrupt lexicon of contemporary American politics--Obama is essentially a pragmatist. His essential characteristic is not a deep-seated hatred of all that is quintessentially American: it is his almost total lack of principles. When given a choice between two contradictory courses of action, the man seeks out a middle course based on political instinct. This is of dubious utility to our doomed republic, but it is far more interesting.

Obama provided us with a good example during the speech on Afghanistan he made last week:

Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course.

Faced with the neo-cons, who wish to make the endless wars of Orwell into reality, and the handful of doves in his own party, Obama decides we shall draw down some of our troops so as to maintain a via media. Whatever the political virtues of such a move, clearly this is not a coherent policy. It is only an attempt to refrain from making a tough decision, which, though it must be made eventually, can be postponed until after the next election. And so the wars continue, forever and always, until the day when economic reality compels us to admit that bankrupt nations have no business pretending to be Empires.

On a related note, the House of Representatives voted against the authorization of war with Libya--a war that goes on with or without the permission of Congress, the body which, according to the dead letter that is our Constitution, must go through the dreary business of actually declaring war. That same chamber proceeded to vote in favor of providing funding for that the same war.

The problem with our representatives is not that they possess convictions, which, if acted on, would bring about the ruination of the republic. The problem is that, if they possess any convictions, cowardice ensures that they may as well have none at all. Like the president, the chief objective of our representatives is to spurn commitment to anything which might lessen one's chances of reelection.

Mark Krikorian aptly quotes Edward Gibbon:

The senate of Rome, losing all connection with the Imperial court and the actual constitution, was left a venerable but useless monument of antiquity on the Capitoline hill.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tocqueville - Democracy in America - Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, and Its Consequences (Part II)

Resuming where we left off, Tocqueville draws a distinction between tyranny and arbitrary power. America tends towards a system of arbitrary power, for the details of public officers "and the privileges that they are to enjoy are rarely defined beforehand." Moreover, "In general, the American functionaries are far more independent within the sphere that is prescribed to them than the French civil officers."

This is truer now than when he wrote this, as the Federal bureaucracy has expanded immeasurably after the Civil War. To give a concrete example, the "Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act" contains numerous instances in which such-and-such a committee may decide how regulation is to proceed. The specifics are worked out after the majority has passed the bill.

Tocqueville was rightfully concerned about the possibility of liberty being infringed based on the omnipotence of majorities.

Any group of people is bound to possess conflicting opinions on matters related to the way in which they are to be governed. However, in the American Republic, once a majority has decided something, it becomes difficult, not merely to alter the legislation, but to have alternative opinions heard. To offer a position in dissension with that of the majority is to risk one's respectability.

Hence: "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." Once the majority has decided, there is no power to which an American may appeal by way of disagreement. Thus "the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them." To an extent, the Internet may have seemed to altered this, but only superficially. Barriers of respectability remain firmly in place. This is problematic because it makes it unlikely that the government shall consider changing course--let alone actually altering it--when once it has gone astray.

Tocqueville offers us an amusing quip: "If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America." No doubt this shocked the Americans who read his book, who concluded, en masses, that on this point at least, the Frenchman was dead wrong.

The tyranny of the majority can be blamed for the paucity of great men: "I attribute the small number of distinguished men in political life to the ever increasing despotism of the majority in the United States." This is a change from the early days of the Republic, in which many great men were to be found. After the founding, in the event that someone were to offer distinguishable views, he would be marginalized as a radical. Voting incessantly with one's party--or with the whole of Congress--provides no sure way to distinguish oneself. Indeed, it is worth noting that recent American presidents--not counting Obama, who served one term in the Senate--have emerged from State politics, this being, evidently, the only area in which potential presidents may--attempt to--differentiate themselves from the herd.

Finally, rather than expecting that the Republic would expire from weakness, Tocqueville expected the opposite to occur: "[I]t is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that it becomes a failure. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by its want of strength." This is a very interesting observation. The "conservative" line has long been that the Constitution guarantees a limited government, by virtue of the restrictions it places on government. Yet Tocqueville correctly points out that, regardless of what the piece of paper says, the system has no sure guard against tyranny by way of the majority.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tocqueville - Democracy in America - Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, and Its Consequences (Part I)

Tocqueville offers some observations regarding American political institutions:

"The Americans determined that the members of the legislature should be elected by the people directly, and for a very brief term, in order to subject them, not only to the general convictions, but even to the daily passions, of their constituents." Still, it should be noted that until fairly recently, Senators were elected by the legislature of their respective states as a nod to state sovereignty.

A bit later, he writes: "It is to a legislature thus constituted that almost all the authority of the government has been entrusted."

One cannot help comparing the America of which Tocqueville wrote with that we observe today. The near-constancy of the election cycle would not have surprised him. On the other hand, the legislature has managed to shirk many of the responsibilities which were given them by the founders. For instance, Congress no longer declares war, the president now being elevated to a Caesar of sorts, electable not quite by popular vote.

Tocqueville notes that candidates from the legislature were beholden to the voters to pass certain bills--or prevent them from being passed--ensuring that the masses did, in fact, rule. Probably it was so, but, for a variety of reasons, a more striking feature of contemporary American politics is the ease with which candidates break promises, seldom to their detriment.

The majority triumphs in a democracy, not merely because of its votes, but for an altogether different reason: "The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual, and that the number of the legislators is more important than their quality. The theory of equality is thus applied to the intellects of men; and human pride is thus assailed in its last retreat by a doctrine which the minority hesitate to admit, and to which they will but slowly assent."

In a democracy, then, those who hold the minority position are not simply out of step, they are wrong, and possibly anti-social. Hence the appeal to an opinion poll is a legitimate means of arguing in our society.

Despite being supreme, majorities will probably not be able to strip the rights of minorities: "If there existed in America a class of citizens whom the legislating majority sought to deprive of exclusive privileges which they had possessed for ages and to bring down from an elevated station to the level of the multitude, it is probable that the minority would be less ready to submit to its laws. But as the United States was colonized by men holding equal rank, there is as yet no natural or permanent disagreement between the interests of its different inhabitants."

Tocqueville examines the possibility of "the tyranny of the majority." It is possible for a majority to create a law which is unjust, say, that all those who write with their left hands must be killed. While the majority is sovereign, this sovereignty cannot be absolute, lest the majority seek to tyrannize the minority. Hence, "When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind." Of course, mankind may still go wrong as well, but the general point is clear: their is a law which exists above the laws made by nations; if the latter contradict the former, they are not valid.

Although democracy was fully consistent with the zeitgeist, Tocqueville new it was wary of sentiment that democracy would cure all ills. "If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?"

Nor can the evils of democracy be balanced by mixing the government with that of another type. Contrary to Aristotle, Tocqueville believed that mixed governments were chimerical: "in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others." In fact, "When a community actually has a mixed government--that is to say, when it is equally divided between adverse principles--it must either experience a revolution or fall into anarchy."

Tocqueville is more concerned with the limits on power, rather than the particular form of government: "Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power."

Far from being amazed at the weakness of the American government, Tocqueville was most alarmed at the lack of security against it being exercised to the fullest. There is nothing to which a man may appeal as against the will of the majority.

"I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws."

Friday, June 03, 2011

Democratic Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans

The next section from our excerpts expands upon the social conditions in the United States. The northern colonists arrived in equal standing and more or less so remained. Although the southern colonies had an aristocracy of sorts, plantation owners were never formally accorded any special privileges. More to the point, it became impossible for them to demand such advantages in the political climate following the Revolution, which was carried out in the name of democratic independence (407). The Constitution, in fact, explicitly forbids the establishment of a nobility.

Tocqueville singles out inheritance law as the crucial institutional barrier to the emergence of such a class. European aristocracies perpetuate themselves by the law of primogeniture. A lord's income is generated by his estate, and keeping that estate intact from one generation to the next preserves the aristocracy. Families are equated with their estates in name and in the popular imagination. In consequence of this, Tocqueville writes, "family feeling is to a certain degree incorporated with the estate[,...] whose names, together with its origin, its glory, its power, and its virtues, is thus perpetuated in an imperishable memorial of the past and a sure pledge of the future" (408).

A law that divides the estate among multiple inheritors also dissolves the mythologized idea of family upon which the aristocracy depends. Self-interest usurps the collectivist ideal, and individuals rise or fall according to the value they generate in economic markets and in civil society.

This democratic individualism has implications for the educational system in the United States. General education, at the time Tocqueville was writing, ended at 15 years of age, at which point one entered a more specific vocational training. He seems to think well of this development, in which a democratically accessible "human knowledge" supplants the elite "intellectual pleasures" of the aristocracy. Knowledge is valued not so much for its own sake as for its utility. The market becomes the final arbiter of what's worth knowing.