History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.
–Alexis de Tocqueville
I was re-reading some observations made by Alexis de Tocqueville on the American culture and our system of government in the early 1800’s. I thought I would share his thoughts with you, so you can consider them and what they mean for us today on your own.
On socialism vs democracy (note: de Tocqueville has a European notion of democracy. At the time, this was not the same as the American view of the term. You might want to keep this in mind, as de Tocqueville seems to believe his notion holds the same values as that in America, which he apparently admired. The problem is, he was wrong: the European model does not value the individual over the collective – as history has borne out):
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
[Some people] have a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom. I believe that it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government amongst a people in which the conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other; and I think that, if such a government were once established amongst such a people, it would not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
On the necessity of religion to the maintenance of a free and self-governing society:
The main business of religions is to purify, control, and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire in times of equality.
Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion- or who can search the human heart?- but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of their political institutions.
Make of all this what you will. As for me, I think de Tocqueville’s observations are as valid today as ever – because he is speaking to eternal principles (i.e. natural law – in the school of Locke, not Hobbes).