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How Obama Portends an End to Self-Determinism

The distinctly American value — and Tocqueville's "greatest care of good government" — is missing from Obama's worldview.

by
David A. Eisenberg

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September 4, 2009 - 6:21 am
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It will be argued that whatever may have been the merits of Tocqueville’s observations in 1831, they hardly obtain today. Society is infinitely more complex now than it was when Tocqueville and Beaumont visited America and such complexity necessitates a stronger central government. While at some level doubtlessly true, the sort of aggrandizement with which the American people now are threatened hardly is warranted, to say nothing of necessitated, by society’s increased complexity. Nor for that matter does such an argument adequately address the phenomenon that so captivated Tocqueville — namely that of an advanced people whose need for government was minimal.

By way of comparison, Tocqueville’s own people were hopelessly far removed from that ideal. The reach of Paris was felt throughout France. Of all the nations of Europe, France was the one where the capital city had acquired the greatest control over the rest of the country. There was virtually no part of the social and political milieu that was not affected by the Royal Council. Paris administered the roads in Tours, controlled the police in Mayenne, and established charities in Montauban. It even issued decrees that vineyards be torn up in the south of France for, according to the Council’s judgment, having been planted in the wrong soil!

Having supplanted Providence, the government was invoked in everyone’s hour of need. Peasants implored it to compensate for the loss of their animals; wealthy land owners requested help in managing their properties; manufacturers bemoaned the poor state of their businesses and begged for loans. When one of the roads connecting Maine to Normandy was rendered impassable, neither the merchants who used it nor the cantons who suffered from its poor condition took it upon themselves to fix it. The only action taken was the transmittal of a letter to the controller-general in Paris beseeching him to come to their aid.

It is hardly any wonder then that the French Revolution failed so unequivocally in securing liberty. Ever dependent on a central authority, the putative freedom they secured in overthrowing the monarchy could not eradicate the subordination that for so long had been fostered in their breasts. A decade after beheading their king, they would bow their own heads before an emperor possessed of a far more plenary power. (On the matter of establishing Napoleon as hereditary emperor of France, the vote in the plebiscite was 3.6 million for, 2,569 against.)

The story of the Americans was something altogether different. Ill-suited for the monarchical yoke, they were eminently worthy of the independence they declared in 1776. And it is this that makes the machinations of the current administration all the more lamentable. Once singular amongst the civilized peoples of the world for their aptitude for self-government, Americans are on the verge of squandering that rarest of virtues. Worse still, many are clamoring to do so, apparently altogether unaware that the road to serfdom is much more easily traveled than the road back.

Around the time he had begun to understand the extraordinary attainment of the American people, Tocqueville noted in his diary that “the greatest care of a good government should be to habituate people, little by little, to doing without it.” By this measure, it is painfully clear that in the hands of this nation’s 44th president, government could never be qualified as good. For its greatest care is precisely the opposite of what a good government’s should be: instead of habituating the people to relying on it less and less, it is obliging them to depend on it more and more.

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David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University and is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York.
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