Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tocqueville Question of the Day--Scale. What Size America?

By Gary L. Gregg, Ph. D.

Today's question of the day being pondered by me in Brighton, Michigan this winter morning, is the question of the proper scale of a good nation. Are there consequences to size? Can a nation be too small? Can a nation be too big?

Tocqueville's answer to this question is that there very much are great consequences to the scale of a nation.  The founders fought over this, too, but we seem to have lost the question along the way as we "manifest destinied" our way west.

Well, Tocqueville seems to say that small republics (though he does not define a particular size) are the natural home of liberty and happiness.  Indeed, he ominously warns, "The history of the world provides no example of a large nation that remained a republic for long" (256).  He says, "All the passions fatal to republics grow with the extent of the territory, while the virtues that serve to support them do not increase in the same measure" (257).

What does he see in a large nation?  Why, "Great riches and profound poverty, large cities, depravity of mores, individual egoism, complexity of interests," all which undermine liberty and happiness. I think about all of us from left and right can find something in this analysis to appreciate, but who among us are laying the blame on America being too big?

On the other hand, Tocqueville argues there are benefits in large nations because size bring strength and glory.  They can fight wars and they can be self-sufficient. In the America he observed coming into view in the 1830's, we had created a decent balance--our federal system allowed most decisions to be made at the local level so we built mores and habits in small republics. But we were able to combine strength for foreign policy and related matters across a much larger extent of territory and population.

And so the Big T must ask us to think about the state of federalism over the last 180 years. Is the America he describes still in existence? Have we over centralized?  Have we kept the balance between small republics and a broader confederacy? And, he even, I think, asks us to ponder the question that it seems un-American to ask: Have we grown too large? If we care for liberty and happiness, should America be broken up into smaller republics where we share more in common and can build the kind of mores of self-government upon which Tocqueville believed liberty was built?

And, we can play historical counterfactual and wonder what would have happened if the secession of the southern states in 1861 would have been taken as an appropriately republican remedy for the problem of scale and every thirty or 70 years or so America would have split again into smaller republics. How would American history (and world history) have unfolded differently?]

Big questions from the Big T.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tocqueville's Question of the Day--Decentralization

Question of the Day--Decentralization

By Gary L. Gregg

We have been fighting related questions for two hundred years, to one extent or another. Tocqueville offers some very powerful insights into the political consequences of where decisions are made that are worth tackling. These observations are found between pages 142-166 (the last section of Vol. I, part 1, Chapter 5).

While Tocqueville admits that a kind of European centralization of power can be more efficient and better organized, he marvels that no people on earth are more decentralized and still better (in the 1830s) at creating schools, roads, churches, civic organizations, etc. than are the Americans.  And they do it all without going to ask the government to do it for them. How can this be?

Well, it seems to be the effect of decentralized power.  When the core decisions of politics and life are made close to home, the people feel empowered. Their souls are transformed. They feel like CITIZENS and not SUBJECTS.  They voluntarily organize to take care of social problems like crime because they feel strong and free and responsible.  (Think about the posse of your favorite westerns--Tocqueville talks about this phenomena without using the name). 

The opposite effect is created by centralization of power, Tocqueville argues. As power is centralized, people feel weak and distant from decision-making. Eventually they feel like settlers in a land that is not their own and that they do not care to preserve or protect--"let the government do it." Citizens become subjects and democracies become despotisms.

Tocqueville's warning for our democratic society can be counter-intuitive: that no power on earth centralizes more quickly and ruthlessly than democratic peoples.  They see a good in centralizing power into few hands because those hands are their embodiment. 

Wow (this thought really did just hit me), from this Tocquevillien Angle, Lincoln's ideal of government "of the people, by the people, for the people" is just the kind of language that brings about centralization and the enervation of citizenship. Yikes. I must be wrong. . . please read and correct me!