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The Capacity for Self-Government

Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States in the late spring of 1831. His official business was an investigation of American prison reforms as a potential model for France, but his gaze was considerably broader and deeper. Tocqueville’s nine-month visit resulted in Democracy in America, a towering achievement that looms even larger in a time like ours, when political attention spans seem to last no longer than the latest trending topic.

This post, intended as the first in a series, attempts to consider today’s controversies through a Tocquevillian filter—which is to say from the standpoint of what makes the difference in whether we live our lives in freedom, civility, and prosperity, or in mankind’s default misery.

Back then there was much to observe on the national political landscape that could have consumed Tocqueville’s attention. In 1832 there was a presidential election, and it was a clash of antebellum titans: Henry Clay, then of the National Republican Party, against the incumbent Andrew Jackson. One could easily have focused on the equivalent of today’s typical debate question: “Henry has called Andrew a mere military chieftain. John [Quincy Adams] said something similar. What do you think, Thomas [Hart Benton]?”

Or, Tocqueville might have attempted to make sense of the constitutional crisis emerging during his visit over the federal “tariff of abominations,” which the South Carolina legislature would declare void not long after he returned to France. In the same way, one might start a discussion about President Obama’s serial efforts to expand executive power beyond any recognizable boundaries—a good discussion to have, if not comprehensive enough to address the troubles of our day.

What Tocqueville did, rather than choosing between the high partisan debate over the tariff and nullification, or the low partisan debate over Jackson’s fitness for office, was inquire into the nature of American democracy itself. He saw it as part of a 700-year movement in the broader European world toward the equality of conditions, a providential fact to be reckoned with, whatever one’s private views on democracy. For Tocqueville, democracy was more than a method of selecting leaders. Its overarching  claims would tear down the most firmly established political and social orders, reconstituting fundamental institutions like the church and the family, and carrying all arguments concerning justice before it.

Tocqueville shows us the full reach of democracy to dignify and elevate human choice. When we speak today of the trajectory of history or the claims of democracy, we do so far too often for insincere partisan purposes, reasoning backward from our conclusion to give the moment’s mission a grandeur it so rarely deserves and acting as if history and philosophy are but tools of ideology, rather than its principal correctives. We limit rather than liberate.

Tocqueville’s effort presupposes that one can examine the ideas and artifacts of political history, and arrive at a faithful likeness to the truth. He never denies that partisanship is a necessary part of politics, but shows that it is essential to examine politics philosophically. In his time, politics was in danger of being reduced to mere partisanship; in ours, the reduction to partisanship is even that much more pronounced.

The author of Democracy in America was aware that his approach was not likely to earn him instant popularity: “I finish by pointing out myself what a great number of readers will consider as the capital defect of the work.” The defect? That “This book follows in no one’s train exactly; by writing it I did not mean either to serve or to combat any party; I set about to see, not differently, but farther than parties; and while they are concerned with the next day, I wanted to think about the future.”

What did the future hold? First and foremost, a wide array of opportunities for common people to shape their political future like never before. More and more, men in a democratic age could examine and judge matters of public consequence—evaluating even the merits of democracy itself. Yet this new authority would come with no promise that they would be able to see and to judge things well. “The future liberty of the species” depended upon democratic citizens getting politics right.

With so much at stake, the Frenchman came here to study the place where the democratic revolution had advanced the farthest—that is, where he might see the flower while his native country yet revealed only the shoot. Never in doubt as to who would win among the friends and foes of democracy, he hoped to shape the type of victory won—to “instruct,” “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify” the French democracy.

Our (hyper-)partisans do not divide today over the merits of democracy, yet their unwillingness to examine democracy carefully, never mind to “instruct,” “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify” it, has all but disarmed us in the battle for responsible self-government. Tocqueville, looking past the parties, shows us how to take human sight and judgment seriously and how, albeit imperfectly, to direct them in ways that make democracy a more certain blessing.

Today’s dysfunctional politics is much less likely to be improved by the next Twitter zinger, clever set of talking points, or even thoughtful working paper than an effort to restore the moral seriousness to our political choices—to remind ourselves that the case for democracy rests on the capacity of mankind of self-government, and that the capacity of mankind for self-government is as much an empirical claim as a political dogma.

Reader Discussion

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on October 23, 2015 at 11:04:33 am

Nice piece!

1) "He saw it as part of a 700-year movement in the broader European world toward the equality of conditions..."

Hopefully, the letter "s" on the end of the word conditions is intended to convey a desire / historical trend toward a more "open access" for all segments of the society and not an equality of outcomes, correct?

2) With regard to "“instruct, “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify,” whom would you say Tocqueville expected (anticipated?) would fulfill this function?
Clearly today it is absent, yet, and I hope this is not simply wistful historical nostalgia on my part, there was a time when this function was fairly robust and considered essential to self governance for Tocqueville to have observed it nearly five decades after Ratification.

Although the media of those times were highly partisan (perhaps far more so than today) it seems as if their partisanship was at least in part predicated upon some discussion of fundamental / foundational principles, i.e., which group better represented those principles.

Not so today - clearly not! So how does one begin to "revive" etc. when the media, our elected representatives and even the citizenry do not appear able or willing to *subject* themselves to this sort of self examination?

Hopefully, your future posts may shed some light on this.
Looking forward to them (also some comments from Ken Masugi in this area).

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gabe
on October 23, 2015 at 11:22:54 am

"The case for democracy rests on the capacity of mankind of self-government."

I am a chemical engineer who has studied civic issues for thirty years, civic meaning human connections brought about because we occupy the same land rather than preferential associations such as church or vocation--social groups. I do not understand "democracy" in your context. It seems to mean whatever a person wants. I know you do not intend mobocracy. Why is democratic-republic or rule of law with representatives, some elected and some appointed, both in states and in the union of states not used to describe the USA's constitutional government? Please enlighten me.

"the capacity of mankind for self-government is as much an empirical claim as a political dogma."

IMO, that is perhaps a shockingly blunt assessment of the case for self-government and I congratulate you.

It serves well the theory I write about in this forum. The theory is that these 227 years of operation of the USA give ample evidence that governance under a god of everything cannot succeed. Further, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg dream, "government of the people, by the people, for the people," is a false premise.

Both of those premises hinge on the opinions of men. Men form opinions only because they do not know the truth. For example, there is no opinion about the earth being like a globe: that's a fact. But there is opinion about extraterrestrial life. Men earn opinion by doing the noble work to understand that they are addressing an unknown and, based on their faith in their methods, have a theory for what is real. For example, none of the Gods men have invented seem to represent the god of everything, yet there is no proof that there is no god of everything. For these reasons, men governing men, in other words, ""the capacity of mankind for self-government," is a non-entity. Mankind requires a mediator on which they can depend to lessen as much as possible the loses and misery people suffer.

The age-old debate is that religion fails as a basis for civic morality and therefore mankind must turn to science or vice-versa. However, science only slowly corrects religion, because science itself is imperfect. Therefore, humankind must resort to what is real to negotiate political methods that may lead to civic morality. Fortunately, there is physics--energy, mass and space-time--from which everything emerges. Physics yields to neither science, religion, faith, reason, force, words, agenda, policy, politics, indeed anything mankind devises cannot change physics. Invent, adapt, alleviate, yes, but change, no.

Let me explain. Before the big bang there was whatever may correct the frailty of my understanding of physics, stated above. Maybe it was an infinitely dense, infinitely small singularity. Maybe only potential energy. Maybe nothing. However, at a moment 13.7 billion years ago, energy, mass and space-time emerged. Then cosmic chemistry; inorganic chemistry; planets; earth; low-oxygen organic chemistry; life; high-oxygen organic chemistry; awareness; placental mammals; bipeds; humanoids; tools; symbols; language; politics; trade; culture; law; religion; lies; ethics, etc. Thus, ethics is an emergence from physics.

The emergences from physics may be discovered and studied to understand how to benefit from them. The interrelated system of benefits from the emergences from physics constitute civic ethics. A person may understand civic ethics and act accordingly, but he or she cannot force another person to benefit from physics, no matter why the person alienates from physics.

Most people will collaborate to benefit from physics, but some will not. Therefore, humankind must have conventions and laws. Wherein most people accept benefits from physics, conventions are adequate, but when there is disagreement, there must be laws. But those laws must be grounded in physics. Nothing else can mediate civic affairs.

Physics does not negate the idea of a god of everything. Therefore, no-harm theisms, non-theistic religions, and philosophies are protected as private pursuits. However, religious morals do not apply to either civic morality or laws.

A theory for using these ideas is on our website at the post dated 7/12/15.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 11:49:56 am

Sorry, Phil but it may be plausibly argued that it is this precise infatuation with "physics" that has contributed to our inability / unwillingness to “instruct, “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify"

Not all problems are reducible under the heat of the alchemists' flame; nor do all questions present themselves to the holder of the flame.

(But have fun anyway - the provisions are on their way).

take care

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gabe
on October 23, 2015 at 13:29:35 pm

There you go again, Gabe. Your strawman for physics--mass, energy and space-time--is science, a study pseudo-researchers as well as religious ones may falsify. Physics does not yield to science.

When you erect your straw man you are addressing the anonymous labeled "Gabe."

If you are going to insist on dribble, I hope "take care" was sincere.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 14:56:26 pm

Phil, the Physics-based Ethics just sounds weird. Most people aren't going to pay too much attention.

If I may, can I suggest that you approach the topic as Rational Ethics. I think that's what you are trying to develop.

The "physics-based" thing just sounds too hypernerdy for most people, even for nerdy me, so no one is going to relate. If no one relates, it isn't going anywhere. Ethics are about human relationships, not chemical relationships, therefore ethics needs a human gestalt. What are the "physics" of sentiment and moral sense? Try that approach and see what happens.

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Scott Amorian
on October 23, 2015 at 15:01:37 pm

I think this is going to be a lovely series. I can't wait to see what they have in store.

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Scott Amorian
on October 23, 2015 at 15:38:12 pm

As I am old, all I can do is dribble (still it is a form of relief, mental or otherwise); that being the case I will leave you with some more dribble: "Time" is a *human* construct - I guess there ain't no escaping the need for something that goes beyond mass, energy and space - even if it is between my ears.

BTW: Take Scott's advice. He is younger and does not need to dribble!

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gabe
on October 23, 2015 at 15:46:37 pm

Phil:

On a somewhat more serious (if only temporary) note:

Your postings seem off topic; this, in itself, is OK. However, it does seem as if it may be deterring others from joining in (especially those who are new to the site). Expecting a discussion on Tocqueville and the possibility for self governance, one finds all manner of esoteric postulations.
Again, please consider Scott's advice. He responds, as he is not only a bright fellow but a gracious one.

I, on the other hand, respond only on those days when there are no episodes of Ancient Aliens on TV. After all, one must occupy oneself somehow!!!

Take care (sincerely)

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gabe
on October 23, 2015 at 16:33:44 pm

Scott, I thought I saw in your posts an intellectual empathy that can help, and I thank you for this first step.

Any novel first principle, which this theory for establishing civic morality may be, meets resistance because of fixed thought processes. Thinkers resist both the phrase and its applications. But once the word usages and concepts are 1) considered, 2) understood, and 3) collaborated on, the idea flourishes if it promises to reduce human misery.

At library meetings here (see "Discussions" on our website) the phrase to represent a novel approach has been brutally debated with shouts of anguish to collaborate but inability to express (have?) thoughts. In the last effort it seemed "evidence-based ethics" would suffice. But evidence is subject to human opinion--can be manipulated, like science can be manipulated, so we returned to physics. Physics does not yield to opinion.

Applications are worse. In our most recent meeting, for Constitution Day, we agreed to conduct a special meeting to collaborate on abortion as viewed from physics-based ethics. My opinions (favoring Roe v Wade), without the benefit of civic collaboration, are expressed in a post on the website.

The physics-based ethics theory starts with Albert Einstein's 1941 speech, "The Laws of Science and The Laws of Ethics." Einstein, who in my opinion never understood religion (or perhaps science, for that matter), was addressing a Chicago conference on science and religion. Like Corbin and Parks today, Einstein was then trying to lessen "mankind’s default misery." Einstein claimed, I think correctly in his language, that "Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science."

Einstein's only illustration addressed the practice of lying. My paraphrase is that a civic people never lie to each other, so that they can collaborate. For example, a person with a civic complaint cannot expect relief if he or she presents the opinion and request as a lie.

Each of us is locked into his or her mind tunnel, and Einstein was no better than any of us on that score. In fact, Einstein cheated his own brilliance by using a "cosmological factor" to force a dynamic universe into his mathematical model. The model informed him that the universe is dynamic and expanding; but he rejected his own brilliance by using a fudge factor! Yet in this 1941 speech, 15 years after Edwin Hubble kindly corrected Einstein's blunder, Einstein focused on science, a method of study, instead of physics, the basis of everything.

The dictionary (MW) says "Full Definition of PHYSICS 1: a science that deals with matter and energy and their interactions 2 a : the physical processes and phenomena of a particular system b : the physical properties and composition of something." That's fine, but if you consider Item 1, the interactions of mass and energy are expressed by E = mc 2 which expresses mass, energy and space-time. So, I define "physics" as not the study, but the entity mass, energy and space-time, from which everything emerges, as explained earlier.

I hope that a few constitutional law professors will attach to this theory and help develop it. I also want to involve some theoretical physicists, who can reduce my naiveté respecting speculations about what may have been just before the big bang and how that might impact my "fixation" on energy, mass and space-time. But it really is not important to the evolutionary argument that everything emerges including ethics. So I think the civic morality collaboration should begin.

In this explanation, prompted by your kind statements, I recognize a new approach. The definition of physics becomes a footnote, since the leap from the big bang to politics is some 13.7 billion years, whereas English common law has a span of maybe 600 years. We assert that everything emerges from biological and cultural evolutions, including both civic morality and religious morals. The biological evolutions are determined by physics and the cultural evolutions involve opinion. Thus, we may have something more people might be able to grasp. Civic morality is determined by discovered physics (respecting the unknowns) and religious morals are determined by opinion.

In this discussion it is important to consider key words, such as "civic" which refers to collaboration for civic morality because we occupy the same land or real estate versus "social" which implies preferential associations versus "the people" which refers to human misery because some persons cause harm, invoking the need for civil law.

I hope this motivates your razors-edge phrase we can use, but regardless of that eureka, you have helped, and I cannot wait to see the fruits in my writing and perhaps beyond.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 16:46:51 pm

"This post, intended as the first in a series, attempts to consider today’s controversies through a **Tocquevillian filter** —which is to say from the standpoint of what makes the difference in whether we live our lives in freedom, civility, and prosperity, or in mankind’s default misery."

**added

An interesting scholarly quest. Yet, to a mere reader there are some cautions to be observed lest the "virtual" be confused with the "real."

Tocqueville [hereinafter T] was observing "democracy" in its true historical label as the expressions of the powers of a people (in a particular society) over their circumstances, relationships and means of determining them. He was observing the "real," not some idealized classical concept. He was observing how far "down," that is, to the individual members of the society those expressions extendeded (and the forms they took). His observations were made in the light of his experience with other forms of expression of power by members of his immediate society and with the knowledge of the suppression of some of those powers by the 1815 Treaty of Vienna.

What T observed in the American society of that era, were forms of expressions of power, which, because of their general dispersion, "offset" other forms of power appropriate for order in other societies. He also observed the effects of individual exercise of those powers.

Furthermore, T's observations were made during the beginning of the end of a society of almost entirely inter-personal social and commercial relationships, to be replaced with more and more extensive impersonal relationships as the specializations of labor and commerce evolved.

"He saw **it** [the forms of expression in America, by its individuals of their power in determining the nature of their society and their relationships in it ???] as part of a 700-year movement in the broader European world toward the equality of conditions, a providential fact to be reckoned with, whatever one’s private views on democracy. For Tocqueville, democracy was more than a method of selecting leaders. Its [expressions of "peoples' powers" ??]
overarching claims would tear down the most firmly established political and social orders, reconstituting fundamental institutions like the church and the family, and carrying all arguments concerning justice before it."

An explication of that particular kind of "vision" will be enlightening; particularly in the light of the differences of what occurred in Europe after 1815-30 from what occurred in America.

If we are to judge the value of this " T-filter" to what has followed let us also follow his thinking after the events of the 15 years following "Democracy in America."

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 16:47:44 pm

Gabe,
You would not try to restrict freedom of thought, would you? Some people do not understand collaboration. Corbin and Parks wrote great phrases that inspired my creative thought.
What you don't seem to grasp is the creative thought is at the edge of everyone's acceptance, patience, care, concern, interest, energy, agenda, expectations, emotions, wrath, coercion, force, plans, and for some very special cases, interference with TV time.
You can bet I paid attention to Scott, and you can read about it. Maybe some day you'll collaborate.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 16:53:56 pm

Richard:

As always - an insightful series of comments.

AND ALL THIS COMING ON YOUR BIRTHDAY (I won't mention the number as it would only confirm what the Chinese believe about advanced years - Venerated, if I remember correctly, was for your last decade - what is it for this one?).

Anyway, to all readers of this site, Let us wish Richard a very

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!

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gabe
on October 23, 2015 at 17:01:26 pm

May I suggest you take this line over to Cato Unbound where self governance is the current topic this month.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 17:04:09 pm

Freedom of **thought* is one thing; diverting a discussion topic is quite another. It is a matter of consideration and courtesy.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 17:14:05 pm

Sounds like some good ole boy propriety to me. With all due respect for you and Gabe.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 17:16:07 pm
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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 22:21:28 pm

Which propriety has a respectable place in the civil society you admire and seek.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 22:30:14 pm

"In Vino Venerato"

An old saying I just made up.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 22:35:22 pm

No respect for persons, right? I seek civic morality, not civil society.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 23:03:34 pm

Why the contention? Can there be "civic morality" without a civil society within which it exists?

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R Richard Schweitzer
on October 23, 2015 at 23:10:26 pm

I just finished reading "How Private Governance Made the Modern World Possible"
By Edward Peter Stringham

Indeed self-management in the financial world, despite often seeming like self-management by the criminal world, such as the Mafia, touches on what I seek for civic morality.

I think 70% of inhabitants can be influenced to think that, just as a person must earn his or her money with which to have personal liberty, he or she must spend time on collaborating for civic morality in order to have personal liberty. Most people already use civic morality for lots of behavior: observing traffic signals, queuing for symphony hall entrance, on and on. Most of us can learn to function on civic morality, leaving civil law for monopolies on force for dissidents, criminals, evils and such--the other faction of We the People of the United States.

To accomplish civic morality, there must be a common mediator, and religious morals are too diverse. Also, science is merely a study. Humankind is already engaged in discovering and benefiting from the emergences from physics. For example, humankind has discovered that slavery is not beneficial: a person cannot by force own the products of another person's labor. Civic morals based on physics are stable, whereas morals based on opinion, such as religious opinion, cannot ultimately be resolved.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 23:44:46 pm

What contention? I see a lot of whining about my creative thoughts.

Yes. There can be civic morality without civil society. In fact, the civil society this forum debates is not civically moral. It is exclusive. It is at odds with itself over originalism and other such scholarly pursuits without regard for the cost to humankind.

I repeatedly define physics for my arguments as energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges and grown men pretend not to be able to understand what I have written. Is that contentious?

Count me selfish, but other than Gabe's wastage, I have learned a lot and want to continue in this forum.

(A friend has died in another town, and I will not be reading for a few days.)

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Phil Beaver
on October 25, 2015 at 12:35:28 pm

Sounds a little uncivil to me!

Even if Richard had spent some time in the South that does not make him a "good ole boy."

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gabe
on October 25, 2015 at 13:45:55 pm

Assuming "gabe" is a person past age 25 (when the body has completed those parts of the brain needed to develop wisdom) this is another example of psychological adolescence during chronological adulthood.

"Good ole' boy" behavior has no geographical, cultural or temporal constraints. Contemporaries Adam Smith and Edmund Burke recorded their "good ole' boy" philosophies and used them to repress persons and thought. Scholars mimic those practices today.

For example some scholars pretend inability to understand "physics: energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges." That's a first principle which science, the study of physics and its emergences may revise in particulars. That could happen when the details of what there must have been before the big bang are understood.

Now, I must return to my preparations to travel.

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Phil Beaver
on March 24, 2020 at 13:15:46 pm

Have all the old comments been lost ? i don't see them here or elesewhere.

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Randy Taylor

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.