Understanding America

There are many different ways people understand the tradition and history of American liberty. Some perceive within the American experiment a radical individualism that threatens our solidarity and human brotherhood. Others perceive an insidious and inevitable march towards collectivism. More often than not, these two tendencies are viewed in opposition. Usually they are held by people of opposite political persuasions. But are these two understandings necessarily contradictory? I think not.

A distinction between our political tendencies and cultural tendencies is helpful here. The great Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, argued (rightly, I think) that the movement of history was the unstoppable desire for more and more equality. This desire for equality, according to Tocqueville, tends to override all other concerns - even our desire for political freedom, our freedom from servitude. I think this is a strong force in our political culture. It is fair to say that both major parties value equality a priori, albeit in different ways.

And on the other hand, our culture is indeed poisoned by radical individualism. Most of us believe as a matter of faith that, so long as we do not intrude on someone else's freedom to do what they want, no wrong has been done. To see an example of this, think of those who argue for the legalization of suicide. It is accomplished with the specious 'don't tell me what to do with my body' argument, as if suicide has no effect on other persons or the well being of the community.

Both of these tendencies are poisonous to a healthy political community, and both of these tendencies are present in America today* . And they are related in a fundamental way. The radical individualism in our culture paradoxically affects our ability to control ourselves. As we isolate ourselves from each other and from moral truth, we start to lose control of ourselves. As we lose control of ourselves, we want the government to take control. This produces a something of a downward spiral towards some form of tyranny or corruption of the political order. Tocqueville and others thought American tyranny would be great but relatively benign - he was first to predict the nanny-state. But who knows how long the state will remain benign? What reason do we have to think that our power will always be used for the common good? I'm not sure.

So what is the necessary corrective to these two problems? Do we declare the American experiment a failure, as some are inclined to do? I think while the intentions of such an effort might be noble, it is ultimately wrongheaded. The problems we are discussing here are in no way unique American government. I think they can be traced to our fallen human nature, and will thus manifest themselves in any political community we establish.

So what is the solution? Both the Founders and Tocqueville though that the antidote was a religiously-informed people, a religious people. Why? Religion is the best teacher of self-government; of morals and mores; of discipline and prudence. And so I think this is what we should be demonstrating in our conduct in the public square - that we are a religiously-informed public. I'm not sure it's possible to recover such a thing, as it has already been lost. But I think we have to have hope, and I think we have good reason to hope if we get our principles right. There are great philosophical resources in the American natural law tradition that are worth rediscovering.

So the gist of this is as follows: the American experiment in self-government will fail if people who constitute the political community cannot self-govern. Individuals will not adequately self-govern unless commanded by some divine law. The more secularly-minded readers of this short essay might find themselves repulsed by such a conclusion, and that reaction is intentional. Criticism of any stripe is more than welcome!

(*I would argue both of these tendencies are in some way sown into human nature, but that's a topic for another day)


Ol' Blue said...

Great stuff sir. Tocqueville says at some point, and I paraphrase, that complete freedom is complete equality, and vice versa. I believe it. Think of the slave who, to be equal, was set free. In this respect, I understand America, and "the movement of history" as an unstoppable desire for freedom. Think of William Wallace concluding Braveheart. Equality in the modern sense is that--modern.
Suicide is only one of the many things which affects others and the well being of the community. Other things could include the death of a father because he chose not to wear a motorcycle helmet, or a seatbelt. Legislating healthy habits and communities is a murky business, even if outlawing suicide is clearly right to you.
I'm privileged tomorrow to hear Victor Davis Hanson speak about "Memory and Civic Education: The Perils of Cultural Amnesia." In his commissioned essay for the event he says: "Such gratitude and humility [towards our ancestors] in the moral sense are, of course, important for a free people, likely to think their present success is all their own, and therefore, in their self-congratulation, prone to hubris and a lack of reflection."
I think situating ourselves in the context or our ancestors and our progeny can provide some guidance for self-government.

Zachary said...


Thanks for the comments, I really appreciate them.

I agree that legislating healthy habits is generally a risky endeavor. Unfortunately, it is largely unavoidable in democracy. I think this is a good reason to stick to the constitutional form of government we were given, where power is divided amongst different competing spheres and such.

Also, yes, I do think it is obvious that we should outlaw suicide. I'd be happy to produce an argument, but I think most people are on the same page on this issue.

I guess I think suicide is a crime of a different kind as compared to not wearing a seatbelt. This is part of the reason it's easy to see why it should be illegal.