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.

1 comment:

PJ said...

What is striking in these sections is Tocqueville's dismissiveness toward the republican element of U.S. government and society. The governmental system of checks and balances, most notably, is given decidedly short shrift. He describes our government as democratic without any republican qualifier and so locates sovereignty directly in the will of the majority, of which he claims, "no obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress" (413). But this is sheer hyperbole. There are legislative hurdles left and right, to say nothing of executive veto and judicial review. It's as if he forgot that the entire process is governed by a written constitution. The constitution can indeed be amended by a sufficiently large and persistent majority (as it should be), but this is a rare occurrence indeed. It takes more than a bare majority to enact a law, and, even with sufficient numbers, there are constitutional provisions designed to protect vulnerable minorities from egregious persecution.

Am I alone in seeing these claims as overblown and largely unsubstantiated? Our government is, of course, far from foolproof. To avoid as many mistakes as possible is one measure of success. A second, no less important, is the system's ability to subsequently recognize and correct past failings. The impressive political stability of our county, to me, is a strong indication of the strength of our social and governmental institutions. The exception almost proves the rule: if there is an issue of such moral urgency to justify a violent break with the political process, the abolition of slavery is just about the best candidate I could think of.

Tocqueville's remarks on the effects of the power of the majority on public opinion are more difficult to assess. Technological developments since the 19th century have transformed our communication landscape in ways that would have been unimaginable to Tocqueville and his contemporaries. I find myself again, however, largely unpersuaded. Dissent from the majority leads to social ostracism more severe than the institutionalized persecution found in dictatorships? I think not.

Americans are, if anything, all too comfortable airing their unfounded opinions in the public sphere--majority consensus be damned. Look at the "birthers," for instance. How is it that these kind of fringe lunatics receive so much attention from the mainstream media? Those promoting opinions counter to well-evidenced fact *should* face obloquy. The problem with our political culture, as I see it, is not paucity of opinion, but its superabundance.

I've changed the subject slightly--for what is relevant is not how many people subscribe to an opinion, but the evidence (or lack thereof) supporting it. Tocqueville's concern on this point is spot on. Democratic debate is appropriate for matters to be established by convention. It is entirely misplaced with respect to matters of objective fact, for which we must defer to expert communities. Global warming, for instance, is not an appropriate subject for debate. (Empirical findings clearly show that it is taking place, no matter what anyone happens to say.) What to do about it, however, stands in urgent need of debate. (There are all kinds of options, and we don't know which is best.) Democratic culture breads a mistrust of experts, and this, I agree with Tocqueville, is a serious danger to our political community.