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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

Bio

September 4, 2009 - 6:21 am

By no means the sole purview of any one party, platitudes are an inherent part of politics.

Adlai Stevenson quipped that the Republicans of his day were stroking platitudes until they purred like epigrams. In the hands of this nation’s current Democratic president, never before have platitudes purred so epigrammatically. Whether it is being announced that “change has come to America,” or we are being made aware for the very first time that “we are the change we have been waiting for,” what is required for such phrases to have any genuine significance is either a total lack of reflection or the fatuous excess of it.

When Chauncey Gardiner observed, “In the garden, growth has it seasons: First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter; and then we get spring and summer again,” no one could contend the haphazard horticulturist was wrong. But only the fool found him astute.

What is so galling about Obama’s platitudes is not that they are hollow and made to sound sententious, but that they are flagrantly duplicitous. When he proclaimed in his inaugural address that “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” one could dismiss it as nothing more than empty rhetoric. But when every day thereafter is spent not addressing the question of whether it works but rather how government can be further and further aggrandized, the president’s platitudes can not be taken so lightly. The question of whether it works has yet to be answered, but still the government grows at an alarming rate.

This should be especially alarming for a people who once possessed the inestimable virtue of having little need for government.

When America’s most perspicuous observer toured this country, he was struck by the ostensible absence of any central administration. Tocqueville understood that the seat of government was found in Washington and that each state had its capital, but as he traveled the fledgling nation, the presence of a central authority remained wholly impalpable. To be affected by it one had to solicit it, and as the Frenchman observed, the Americans were not the least solicitous in that regard. When an individual conceived some social improvement (e.g., establishing a school or hospital), it never occurred to him to petition the government for aid. Even if these projects often were carried out less efficiently than if the government had been involved, a nation composed of such individuals could achieve far more than any central administration ever could. Moreover, the moral benefits accrued by a people that learned the value of responsibility and autonomy by taking charge of their own fate could not be underestimated.

The young French aristocrat was struck by this phenomenon and noted how extraordinarily rare it was for a people to be able to get on without government. So rare, in fact, that Tocqueville maintained there were but two types of people who could do so, and these existed at “the two extremities of civilization. … Savage man, having only physical needs to satisfy … counts only on himself; for a civilized man to do as much, he must have reached that social state where his intelligence permits him to perceive clearly what is useful, and where his passions do not prevent his executing it.”

Tocqueville may have found America’s men unrefined, its women unattractive, and the lot of them horrid musicians, but he had no misgivings about which extremity of civilization they belonged to.

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.

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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