The Corner

Why Barack Obama Needs to Read Alexis de Tocqueville

Presidential inaugural addresses are usually inspiring affairs, but the devil is invariably in the details. In that regard, President Obama’s second inaugural address proved to be no exception.

Of course there were all sorts of highly questionable assertions made in this address. “A decade of war is now ending.” Really? Someone obviously forgot to inform al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, not to mention the Americans and other innocents recently slaughtered by terrorists linked to that group in Algeria.

“An economic recovery has begun.” So why is the unemployment rate exactly the same as it was at the same point in history four years ago? And how about that $16 trillion debt, $5 trillion of which has been racked up over the past, ahem, four years?

But leaving that and other inconvenient details aside, there’s one thing that’s very, very apparent from this inaugural address. And it’s our president’s worldview that the government is the primary way in which we address our common problems and realize our responsibilities and obligations to each other as citizens and as human beings. That many such responsibilities and obligations might be realized outside the realm of politics is not, apparently, something that has occurred to the president.

In that regard, I’ve often wondered what President Obama would think if he took the time to put aside the bible of modern liberalism, John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, for a moment and picked up a far more interesting (not to mention readable) text, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One suspects the president would be astonished to learn how the Americans observed by the young French aristocrat dealt with all sorts of problems that were beyond the capacity of individuals to address and which were not resolved by the beneficial effects of commerce and business.

#more#Tocqueville noted that 19th-century Americans dealt with such matters through the habit of free association — especially through the medium of churches and other religious associations — rather than initially looking to the government. For Tocqueville, the contrast with France, where a highly centralized state was seen as the first port of call for help, was astounding:

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. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France . . . in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

The same phenomenon was noted 120 years later by yet another famous French Catholic living and working in America. The United States observed by Jacques Maritain in the 1940s and 50s was a very different society to that analyzed by Tocqueville, not least because of the economic and social effects of the New Deal. Yet despite these developments, Maritain (who knew Tocqueville’s writings very well) observed that something had not changed:

One of the most striking characteristics of the picture is the infinite swarming, on the American scene, of private groups, study clubs, associations, committees, which are designed “to look out for one aspect or another of the common good” . . . The effect is a spontaneous and steady collective regulation and prodding of the tremendous effort of the whole country, which is of invaluable importance.

This seemingly endlessly varied web of associational activity was matched by a financial generosity that plainly astounded Maritain:

Americans like to give. Of course, there is the exemption from taxes for gifts directed to the common welfare; but this very law about taxes would not have been possible if the astute legislator did not know that as a rule the American people are aware of the fact that it is better to give than to receive. Not only the great foundations, but the ordinary course of activity of American institutions and the innumerable American private groups show us that the ancient Greek and Roman idea of the civis praeclarus, the dedicated citizen who spends his money in the service of the common good, plays an essential part in American consciousness. . . . There is no materialism, I think, in the astonishing, countless initiatives of fraternal help which are the daily bread of the American people, or in the profound feeling of obligation toward others which exists in them, especially toward any people abroad who are in distress.

Naturally, as no less than Adam Smith pointed out, there are some things that only governments can do — national defense and public works being some of the more prominent examples used by the Scottish sage. But it’s our president’s constant equivalence of the common good with state initiatives, government schemes, and political programs that is perhaps one of the most troubling things about his inaugural address. Alas, I fear that that tendency on the part of the current occupant of the White House isn’t going to change any time soon.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.


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