Posts Tagged ‘Self-government’

Alexis De Tocqueville wrote the following in Democracy in America, published in 1834-35.  I offer it to you for deep thought and reflection.  It is somewhat lengthy, but please read it.  I believe he was writing prophetically.  This is not a Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal thing, for those carrying all banners have advanced tyranny.  This is about the existence of freedom in our country:

“I had noted in my stay in the United States that a democratic state of society similar to the American model could lay itself open to the establishment of despotism with unusual ease…

When the Roman emperors were at the height of their powers, the various nations inhabiting the Roman world still preserved their different customs and manners: although they obeyed the same monarch, most of the provinces were administered separately: they abounded in powerful and energetic townships and, although the whole government of the empire was concentrated in the emperor’s hands and he remained the arbiter of everything when the need arose, the small details of social life and private everyday existence normally eluded his control…their tyranny was an excessive burden on a few people but never spread over a great number; it latched on to a few main objects, leaving the rest alone; it was violent but its extent was limited.

If despotism were to be established in present-day democracies, it would probably assume a different character; it would be more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them

I, too, am having difficulty finding a word which will exactly convey the whole idea I have formed; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. This is a new phenomenon which I must, therefore, attempt to define since I can find no name for it.

I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, father-like, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it.  It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principle concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances.

Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?  Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize, but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the needed to be directed as well as the desire to remain free…They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government but one elected by the citizens…Under this system citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it.

At the present time, many people very easily fall in with this type of compromise between a despotic administration and the sovereignty of the people and they think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to a national authority. That is not good enough for me. The character of the master is much less important to me than the fact of obedience…

Equally, I realize that when the ruling power represents and is dependent upon the nation, the powers and rights taken from each citizen do not simply serve the head of state but the state itself, and that private individuals derive some advantage from the sacrifice of their independence to the public good…

We forget that it is, above all, in the details that we run the risk of enslaving men. For my part, I would be tempted to believe that freedom in the big things of life is less important than in the slightest, if I thought that we could always be guaranteed the latter when we did not possess the former.

Subjection in the minor things of life is obvious every day and is experienced indiscriminately by all citizens. It does not cause them to lose hope, but it constantly irks them until they give up the exercise of their will. It gradually blots out their mind and enfeebles their spirit, whereas obedience demanded only in a small number of very serious circumstances involves enslavement on rare occasions and burdens only a certain number of people.  It will be useless to call upon those very citizens, who have become so dependent upon central government, to choose from time to time the representative of this government; this very important but brief and rare exercise of their free choice will not prevent their gradual loss of the faculty of autonomous thought, feeling, and action so that they will slowly fall below the level of humanity.

I may add that they will soon lose the capacity to exercise the great and only privilege open to them.  The democratic nations which introduced freedom into politics at the same time that they were increasing despotism in the administrative sphere have been led into the strangest of paradoxes.  Faced with the need to manage small affairs where common sense can be enough, they reckon citizens are incompetent; when it comes to governing the whole state, they give these citizens immense prerogatives.  They turn them by degrees into playthings of the ruler or his masters, higher than kings or lower than men. Having exhausted all the various electoral systems without finding one which suited them, they look surprised and continue to search, as if the defects they see had far more to do with the country’s constitution than with that of the electorate.

It is indeed difficult to imagine how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them, and no one will be convinced that a liberal, energetic, and prudent government can ever emerge from the voting of a nation of servants…

The vices of those who govern and the ineptitude of those governed would soon bring it to ruin, and the people, tired of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or would soon revert to its abasement to one single master. 

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In our time, everywhere you look, the Constitution has come under fire.  In its July 4th, 2011 issue, TIME Magazine’s cover had a picture of the Constitution being shredded and the title of the issue was “Does it still matter?”  The Constitution has, for several decades now, been described as a “living document,” conveniently and insidiously implying that all who disagree with such a characterization believe that it is a “dead document.”  Even more recently, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, told an Egyptian interviewer that she would not recommend the U.S. Constitution to them.  It is the supreme law of the land, and yet it is not even taught from in the contemporary law school.  The Federalist Papers are not required reading, civics education is in a decrepit state across the country, and most Americans cannot even pass the test that all legal immigrants to the United States must pass in order to attain their citizenship.  The American Civic Literacy Program of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has a test it uses in order to study the civics knowledge of the average American.  In its 2008 test, the average test score was only 49%.  Among college educators, it was only slightly better, 55%.  [Perhaps this explains why that election turned out how it did…]

Now, in the limited time I have, I have not the time to fully explain this phenomenon, nor go into every reason why the Constitution is important.  But if I may be so bold, I would like to offer for your consideration a few thoughts on that subject, as well as a way in which the importance it once held in our society can be regained, but much more importantly, why.

The first thought I would like to offer to you, assuming that, like myself, you hold the Constitution in high esteem, is that we must not allow the Constitution to become an idol.  As ingenious as it is, as foundational as it is, and as essential it is, we must not allow our honest and well-intended efforts to restore it inadvertently become an effort in which the idol of our age, namely the state, is simply replaced with another.  The fact of the matter is that the only way to truly restore the Constitution is not to idolize it, but to recognize the true source of its power, which is a derived power, not an inherent one.

The second thought I offer to you is directly related to the first.  If we ought not idolize the Constitution, even when it is in its most perilous situation yet, why is this so?  Because the Constitution is not the foundation of our rights and liberties, it is merely a reflection of the true foundation: the Creator spoken of in the Declaration of Independence.  The foundation of this country is based on the idea that the light of liberty, like the light of the sun that bathes the earth, comes from God, and the Constitution, like the moon, finds its radiance in the light of this sun.  So while the Constitution is important, it is important because of Him from whom it derives its radiance.  If we forget this, then like the moon that reflects no light from the sun, the Constitution will simply become a black hole in the American sky, an object of immense power, but only the power to destroy.

This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in today.  Every aspect of the decay of our culture, the destruction of our liberties, and the descent of our government from the Constitutional Republic envisioned by the Founders to the bureaucratic utopia of the Statist, can be traced not so much to our rejection of Constitutional principles, but to our abject rejection of God.  Even amongst those of us who claim to believe in and live our lives based on God, more often than not we find ourselves content with the dead letter of religion rather than the living reality of the Spirit, the outward appearance of religious convention rather than the radical transformation of the inner man.  We have fallen for the lie that instead of beauty, it is in fact truth that is in the eye of the beholder.  And with the surrender of truth, can we honestly be surprised that we are now being forced to surrender everything else?  For if truth is indeed in the eye of the beholder, than all of life becomes a ploy for who can garner unto himself the most power, and whoever wins defines “truth.”  We have forgotten that freedom is worthless if its trustee cannot exercise self-government independent of any external coercion, for as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America: “How can those who have given up the habit of self-government successfully choose those who shall exercise it for them?”  Life, liberty, happiness, rights, freedom: all are now defined in purely human terms, and are now seen to be as dependent upon, and in some ways, found in the state.  In other words, with our rejection of God and His truth, all power has slowly, but most assuredly, been going to the next most powerful bidder: the state.  The moon has become the sun, and we wonder why we live in a country increasingly cold to the truths upon which it staked its existence and in which it finds its greatness.

The great British historian Arnold Toynbee noted: “Sooner or later, man has always had to decide whether he worships his own power, or the power of God.”  The time has come for us to decide as individuals, and as a nation, “What ought we worship?”  Or to be more precise, “Who ought we worship?”  Man will always worship something, and whether he acknowledges it as divine or not, its hold upon his soul will always have supernatural and eternal consequences, for good or for evil.  In this perilous hour, we must not work to restore the Constitution in society so much as we must be restored by being connected and in relationship with our Creator.  Any rightful restoration of the former will simply be bastardized and counterfeit without a true restoration of the latter.  As John Adams noted of the first American Revolution: “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced.  The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”  From this pure fountain alone will we find the will, and the ability to carry out another American Revolution, one whose consequences would be immensely more profound in this international and global age.  The spectacle of a people who expect, and who know, that their liberty is found in God, not in the state; who have decided that the object most fit for their worship is not the created, but the Creator; a nation that is dedicated to the idea that men can never be equal, and man can never be free, unless he was created to be such, and thereby has an inheritance derived not from his fellow man, but from his God, would indeed be a sight to behold.  It would be a “City on a Hill” to which the entire world would be drawn.

That is why the Constitution is important.  Not because of what it is, but to whom it points, and upon whom it depends for its grandeur and timelessness.  Checks and Balances, Separation of Powers, Federalism, and all of the other grand features of the Constitution are based on the timeless truths of God’s laws and human nature, but they lose all meaning if the people over whom it operates are ignorant of their duties and obligations as free men and women.  Freedom does not exist in a vacuum.  It exists for a purpose, and that is to love God, and to serve our fellow men as we ought.  We recognize the importance of our Constitution only when we recognize that this truth is of infinitely greater importance.