A friend of mine recently complained that the reason the American dream has become so hard to obtain is because too many Americans selfishly “gun for themselves” at the expense of other Americans who are merely struggling to make ends meet. She says this is why we need to re-elect President Obama and other Liberals who simply want the rich to pay their “fair share” so that common folks can get things like a “living wage,” affordable health insurance, food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, or subsidies for a college education. This liberal friend of mine like so many liberals puts her faith in the promise of an all-powerful, benevolent central government, run by Democrats and liberals, of course. Let’s begin by examining my friend’s premise of the prevalence of selfish individualism. Perhaps her view is not quite accurate.
Let’s put aside the current state of affairs for the time being, we can have a look at that later. First, let’s look at the assumed existence of selfish individualism in America’s past. Surely it must have existed prior to the assent of the federal government during Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s. If that’s true, how did the people of our nation get along for the first 150 years? I have confidence there is ample evidence in the historical record that shows that a widespread state of selfish individualism never existed at all. In fact, just the opposite is true.
I refer you to the observations of a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who came officially to the U.S. in 1831 to study the American penal system. What he observed during his travels around the United States inspired him to do much more than just report on the American justice and prison system. Shortly after returning to France Tocqueville published his two-part masterpiece Democracy in America. It is one of the most insightful and descriptive works ever written on the state of and essence of American Democracy.
One thing Tocqueville noticed that set America apart from other nations was the prevalence of voluntary associations among the people.
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”
While leading Liberals often intentionally blur the distinction between government action and voluntary private action by using phrases like “it takes a village,” or “you didn’t build that,” Tocqueville distinguished between these two different forms of action.
“Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
“Thus the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes.”
Tocqueville’s observation of the prevalence of voluntary associations in America shatters the myth of selfish individualism in America prior to the New Deal that so many liberals claim made and continues to make government-run social programs necessary. It was not a widely held view in early America that all worthy outcomes required the determined and organized action of the central government. As we shall see later, just the opposite was true.
One of the basic differences between modern day conservatives and their liberal counterparts is the view of the role of the federal government. Conservatives generally believe like Tocqueville that private associations are preferable to the coercive action of centralized governments. Modern day Liberals turn to the central government whenever they see a problem that exists. While Liberals generally distrust institutions like corporations and religious organizations, they somehow put their full faith in government as though somehow government intentions are always pure and immune to the shortcomings of its stewards. Conservatives, like many of the founding fathers, generally mistrust the central government and believe that often big-government solutions create more unintended consequences that are worse than the original problem. Conservatives generally believe that the people closest to the challenges are better judges of the efforts needed to achieve the desired results. Federal help is less efficient, wasteful, prone to systemic corruption, less nimble, more costly, and almost always comes with strings attached. The federal government is currently $16 trillion in debt with no relief in sight and yet Liberals claim that this government needs to do more. We must not be getting a good bang for the buck if we still have all these problems that need to be solved even though we have already spent trillions of dollars on social programs and remain $16 trillion in debt.
“A government might perform the part of some of the largest American companies, and several states, members of the Union, have already attempted it; but what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association?”
“In democratic countries the governing power alone is naturally in a condition to act in this manner, but it is easy to see that its action is always inadequate, and often dangerous. A government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry.”
“No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands.”
Clearly Tocqueville felt that the central government could not effectively do what individuals could do for themselves by acting in concert through private associations. Furthermore, the central authority would become tyrannical through coercive measures; a consequence that he admits may be “unintentional,” yet “insupportable.”
So this idea that the central authority in Washington is solely equipped to solve this nation’s problems is simply not true. Tocqueville’s observations clearly demonstrate that prior the increase and consolidation of the federal power in America in the 20th century it was commonplace for private citizens to take on and solve problems of all kinds through united efforts organized by voluntary associations. The view that Americans are a selfish lot and are only out to “gun for themselves” is bogus and yet it is a view that is unfortunately held by too many Americans like my friend. Hence the popularity of Occupy Wall Street. It is a lie perpetuated by those who seek more power over our lives and this always comes at the expense of our liberties.
Americans are some of the most generous people on the face of the Earth. It’s time to deemphasize the role of the central government in Washington so that we can begin to restore America to the greatness that Tocqueville recognized. Charity, good deeds and problem solving can be collectivized on a national scale, but are generally much more effective and less likely to bankrupt the nation when left to the people.
That’s all for now. In a future post we will examine how centralized entitlement and welfare states corrupt society.