sábado, 19 de noviembre de 2016

Capitalism as a Road to Serfdom?

Tocqueville on Economic Liberty and Human Flourishing


This essay is the seventh in a series from the book Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, edited by AEI’s Michael R. Strain and Stan A. Veuger. Check back in every Tuesday for additional essays in the series.

Of Alexis de Tocqueville's many deserved claims to renown, his penetrating, prescient critique of socialism surely ranks right at the top. The prospect of socialism is so troubling to Tocqueville for two main reasons. First, the promise of socialism is pitched at precisely the level to entice the peoples of democratic modernity. Given the desires, values, and self-image of the modern human being—the being who has lost faith in aristocracy and believes in the self-evidence of equality—the socialist utopia may prove too seductive to resist. Second, for Tocqueville socialism constitutes the primary threat to—the very antithesis of—human flourishing. The dispirited souls of socialism would be incapable of perceiving, much less acting on, the freedom, responsibility and dignity unique to the human condition.

So how does Tocqueville understand human flourishing? In his view, the good life—the fully human life, characterized by the excellences and happiness appropriate to the human being—is the life of liberty. Without getting too far lost in the labyrinth of meanings Tocqueville ascribes to liberty, we can sketch out two basic notions he develops: the first he views as proper to the common man of democratic times, and the second is characteristic of the superior element of any age. We can call these, respectively, the liberty of the good citizen and the liberty of the noble personality.

The liberty of the citizen is comprised in no small part of the formal rights of conscience, speech, association, and property. But for Tocqueville these civil liberties—the right to be left alone, in the silence of the laws, within a legal framework that secures property and persons—are at most half the picture. At least as important is political liberty—political participation and the use of one's civil liberties in the exercise of political power—inscribed within a culture of robust political participation that reinforces the experience of real self-government. To enjoy the privacy rights—the "negative liberties"—of non-interference absent the opportunity, developed capacity, and habituated disposition for political association and action is to in effect suffer the experience of being free but powerless. For all of his newfound rights and liberties, the modern, apolitical individual can see and aspire only so far as to be "the king of his own castle." This is why, beyond the public life of voluntary associations in civil society—whether bowling leagues or mass interest groups—the specifically political public life of participation in local self-government is paramount for Tocqueville. In modern times, what Tocqueville calls the "art of freedom" is the "art of association"—and of political association in particular. Everyday political associations constitute the infrastructure of the good society and the good life for the citizens of democracy. It is where the individual becomes a citizen—achieves the station of citizen—by moderating and elevating his view out of narrow, unfettered partiality and developing his capacity for practical judgment through collective deliberation over practical political issues. Through political association the citizen at once exercises power and learns prudence. Thus for Tocqueville, we can say that liberty is realized through political public activity, just as for Aristotle virtue is realized through the practice of politics.

Tocqueville's second notion of liberty—that of the noble personality—subsumes but transcends the liberty of the good citizen. This liberty too implies a capacity for action, but one born of the virile force of one's inner resources rather than through the cooperation of the many. It is an aristocratic rather than a democratic liberty. In democratic times it takes shape in the romantic heroism of the principled, spirited, and above all passionate few. Where the exercise of good citizenship is driven by what Tocqueville calls "self-interest well understood"—the enlightened recognition that one's own good is always bound up with and contingent on the common good—this second notion of liberty follows upon immoderate self-transcendence and reckless self-sacrifice. Where Tocqueville found the liberty of the citizen in the energetic bustle and noise of American public life (at least in the North), he depicts the liberty of the noble soul as in full bloom in France, among the revolutionary "men of '89"—those who in a grand, sublime, tragic act of imagination attempted to remake the world in the name of the rights of man.

Socialism signifies the abolition of liberty in both of these iterations. In a famous debate before the Constituent Assembly in France on September 12, 1848, Tocqueville argued that "socialism stands for the community of property, the right to be provided with work, absolute equality, State control of all activities of individuals, despotic legislation, and the total submerging of each citizen's personality in the group mind." In a now-familiar argument that he pioneered, Tocqueville analyzes the advance of socialism in terms of the creep of "administrative centralization"—what Max Weber would later describe as the rationalization and bureaucratization of human life. Here, power concentrates in the organs of the state, and the state projects this power to plan, oversee, and regulate most every sphere of human activity. All the world is, in turn, represented as a system, a mechanical organization of complex but quantifiable materials and forces, which operates, if properly managed, predictably and efficiently according to design. Indeed, once we think and talk in terms of "systems"—"the economic system," for instance—we are well down the road to centralization and managerial administration. Human culture is abstracted into a "society" of homogeneous, disconnected but interdependent individuals. Human action is channeled into a productive workforce. Human judgment becomes, in turns, a matter of professional or scientific expertise, utilitarian calculation, and unmoored speculation. And in the consequent empire of bureaucracy, individual initiative and the human spirit whither. A totalizing network of uniform rules and regulations enables the centralized administration of the demographied nation and simultaneously suffocates personal responsibility and self-government.

The prospect of socialism is all the more troubling, in Tocqueville's eyes, because its promise is so tempting to modern democratic peoples. In the egalitarian mass of anonymous mediocrity, where the experience of individual insignificance—of being "lost in the crowd," as Tocqueville often writes, of innumerable similar others—is all but inevitable, we the people abdicate our newfound sovereignty, forsake our rights and responsibilities, and invite our own superintendence. The individual comes to feel powerless, unable not only to make a difference in the world but moreover to influence or even understand the societal tides that buffet his own existence. Adrift and submerged, he casts off all things demanding or higher and turns his attention toward his own most immediate material needs and desires. The inhabitants of democratic society end up in the terrible position of being wholly self-centered without the resources for self-respect. In their "excessive humility," as Tocqueville puts it, such a prostrate, infantilized people fall happily into the arms of the paternal (or better, maternal) state—the vast, impersonal power that relieves people of the burdens of thinking or acting for themselves and promises to take care of them. The outcome is the soul's degradation and the spirit's enervation. Along these lines, socialism strikes at the very roots of human pride and dignity, culminating in no less than a brave new world dystopia of humanity domesticated.

Tocqueville sketches this portrait of centralization, regulation, and servility most indelibly toward the end of Democracy in America, where he offers his vision of the rise of an "immense tutelary power" and its "mild despotism." In a chapter entitled "What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear," Tocqueville writes,

I am trying to imagine what new features despotism might have in today's world: I see an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal, endlessly hastening after petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them drawn into himself, is virtually a stranger to the fate of all the others. . . .

Over these men stands an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing their pleasure and watching over their fate. It is absolute, meticulous, regular, provident, and mild. It would resemble paternal authority if only its purpose were the same, namely, to prepare men for manhood. But on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them in childhood irrevocably. It likes citizens to rejoice, provided they think only of rejoicing. . . . It provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances. . . .

Equality paved the way for all these things by preparing men to put up with them and even look upon them as a boon.

The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men's wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. . . . Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.1

This extraordinarily rich passage is surely the most famous and often quoted in Tocqueville's writings, and it has become the touchstone critique of Big Government, the "nanny" welfare state, and creeping socialism. F. A. Hayek, for instance, quotes this passage prominently and at length in The Road to Serfdom and notes that the title of his book is a reworded homage to Tocqueville's phrase "the road to servitude."

A page from the original working manuscript of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville


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