Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Two

Click HERE for Part One

Glen Beck's revival couldn't have come off more tragic and misdirected. He called the American people to turn back the clock to a time when we were more faithful and pious, as if that would solve all of our cultural, political, and economic ills. Beck is somewhat right--religion can be extremely powerful in operating as a glue that can bind a people together and it has a profound impact on their culture. Late 19th century German sociologist and politico-economic theorist Max Weber described the intrinsic ties between northern European religion and socio-economic culture in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Beck isn't wrong in his assumption that an abandonment of religion (as well as many other traditional mores) has had a deleterious impact on American society.

Beck's detractors have been wont to point out that "turning back the clock" involves the re-imposition of segregation and undoes much of women's liberation. In a sense they're right, but they're also purposely misconstruing Beck's call for revival.

"What's all this got to do with Alexis de Tocqueville?" you might ask.

Simply, Glenn Beck doesn't realize the exact nature of the transformation he's trying to combat. American culture has been experiencing a gradual shift in values and ethics.
"But epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation, when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed, religious belief shaken, and the spell of tradition broken, whilst the diffusion of knowledge is yet imperfect, and the civil rights of the community are ill secured, or confined within narrow limits. The country then assumes a dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens; they no longer behold it in the soil which they inhabit, for that soil is to them an inanimate clod; nor in the usages of their forefathers, which they have learned to regard as a debasing yoke; nor in religion, for of that they doubt; nor in the laws, which do not originate in their own authority; nor in the legislator, whom they fear and despise. The country is lost to their senses; they can neither discover it under its own nor under borrowed features, and are emancipated from prejudice, without having acknowledged the empire of reason; they have neither the instinctive patriotism of a monarchy, nor the reflecting patriotism of a republic; but they have stopped between the two in the midst of confusion and distress.

"In this predicament, to retreat is impossible; for a people cannot recover the sentiments of their youth, any more than a man can return to the innocent tastes of childhood: such things may be regretted, but they cannot be renewed. They must go forward, and accelerate the union of private and public interests, since the period of disinterested patriotism is gone by forever."
De Tocqueville is here describing a transition from the childlike patriotism underneath a monarchical yoke to an enfranchised patriotism in a republican government. His error is that he didn't see that this stage can exist while the government progresses in the reverse order, as happened with the ancient Romans. Much of this has been brought about by a lack of enfranchisement in the political destiny of the nation--which has been stripped from our hands and placed into the clutches of an incredibly small, moneyed minority that concentrates a great percentage of the available wealth among themselves. Now, this does not mean that I disapprove of capitalism or the Protestant work ethic, but instead goes to show that the Protestant ethic is, for all intents and purposes, dead, and nothing Glenn Beck attempts will ever succeed in reviving it.

In February of 2009, The Wall Street Journal's Ian Salisbury invoked de Tocqueville when he wrote an article asking whether excessive pay for executive officers is dangerous for democracy. He posted an interesting comparative chart that is reproduced below.

If the amazing similarities between the pay-scale of the reconstituted French monarchy and the currently United States doesn't surprise and dismay you, I'm not certain what will. I feel it is quite necessary to ask, why, exactly, is the pay-scale this ridiculous? Why does the Goldman Sachs CEO need to pull in 5,267 times more money than a teenage register-jockey at Burger King? I mean, the President of the United States actually has taken a pay-cut over the past 180 years, but he was one of the highest-paid people in the entire country during the Jacksonian era. And I must also ask, what is Lloyd Blankfein going to do with that $69 million that he earned? Likely reinvest it. But that's sound, right?

I won't get into all of the myriad problems with this, but instead get myself back onto track and continue with de Tocqueville's discussion where I had left off. The last thing I had discussed in Part One was the concept that equality and liberty were not synonymous. This was a striking revelation, partially because this key idea sums up a great many problems with the divisiveness of American culture. De Tocqueville seems to believe that diffuse wealth spread among a broad and powerful middle class will naturally give the populace a sense of investment and enfranchisement in the state of the nation and government.

He keys in on the decentralization of a state. Law exists, but its agents of enforcement are invisible--free citizens, through tacit agreement, were the primary agencies of law enforcement. So long as administrative power is decentralized and the impetus exists among the individual and the communities themselves to enforce the laws, the centralized government will always be comfortably weak and removed from the day-to-day affairs of the individual. If the central government ever manages (which it has, by the current time) to amass centralized administrative power at the expense of the local authorities, then the individual will be isolated and subjugated.

De Tocqueville describes an America in which the populace is entirely self-motivated to act for the common benefit. Government undertakings succeeded wholly through the popular support of the citizenry, who saw themselves as enfranchised. Contrary to our current time, the populace was not dependent upon the government for administrative authority, but rather for a more distant, vague sort of guidance. Nowhere is this more evident than in de Tocqueville's description of a criminal investigation.
...A state police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public agents are not numerous; they do not always initiate the measures for arresting the guilty; and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Yet I believe that in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the crime and in seizing the delinquent. During my stay in the United States, I witnessed the spontaneous formation of committees in a country for the pursuit and prosecution of a man who had committed a great crime. In Europe, a criminal is an unhappy man who is struggling for his life against the agents of power, whilst the people are merely a spectator of the conflict: in America, he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him.
This makes the argument that the police are an extra- (and perhaps un-)Constitutional entity a compelling argument, especially when they've amassed so much authority and power unto themselves that the common citizen is afraid to question them. This is especially apparent when a citizen is operating a motor vehicle--the sort of terror the average citizen lives with in the back of their mind of being pulled over is the antithesis of the sort of criminal justice system that existed in the Jacksonian era. The phrase "police business" apparently didn't exist--or was at least uttered on remarkably rare occasions--when de Tocqueville visited. Currently, the common welfare is so far from the minds of the citizenry that we are perfectly happy to stay silent and hide while someone else is brutally murdered, screaming for help. That we live in a police state should be patently obvious by now, especially since the news media is only giving the recent trend in arresting camera holders (who happen to be taping police officers making arrests) only a cursory treatment. According to Gizmodo, "cameras are the new guns." This even extends to the military, which is, at this point, subordinate to the paramilitary police organization. The police officers' ability to give an order, and then arresting someone with "failure to comply," regardless of circumstances, feeds into this fear and creates a cowardly American populace that can easily be controlled.

Where de Tocqueville's observations are most painful to the current reader is his analysis of judicial power. He isolates three primary forms judicial authority takes:
  1. Arbitration (such as lawsuits, divorce proceedings, etc.)
  2. Pronunciation on special cases and not on general principles.
  3. Limitation of action only to when it has taken cognizance of an affair.
De Tocqueville was impressed by the American judge's immense political authority, saying, "Americans have acknowledged the right of the judges to found their decision on the Constitution rather than on the laws. In other words, they have not permitted them to apply such laws as may appear to them to be unconstitutional." Assuming that judges serve the common good and not the law, de Tocqueville describes American justices as "at once the most favorable to liberty and to public order." Increasingly, we can observe instances in which judges are legislating from the bench. The ability for a judge to render null any statute that is deemed unconstitutional, once "one of the most powerful barriers which has ever been devised against the tyranny of political assemblies" is being eroded by judicial activism and political loyalties.

In addition, such precedents as jury nullification, which guarantees that justice, and not the law, is served by a jury, has a sordid and suppressed history in the United States courts. Videotapes shown to potential jurors inform then that their duty is not to be concerned with truth or justice, but the law.

De Tocqueville noted that "by minor prosecutions, which the humblest citizen can institute at any time, that liberty is protected, and not by those great judicial procedures, which are rarely employed until it is too late." However, we are all well aware of instances where major corporations have bullied smaller entrepreneurs, wearing them down by paying vast sums of money in attorney and court fees, until the small business or individual is exhausted, whereupon they move in and crush them ruthlessly. The labyrinthine nature of the law in this epoch makes the barrister necessary, and in order to engage in successful litigation, great sums of money are required. This has empowered that class of wealthy aristocrats, mentioned earlier, who are amassing huge sums of wealth.

The entire system has been subverted. However, the American populace doesn't quite realize it. They likely have never read de Tocqueville. Most of the people with whom I discuss politics don't even know who Alexis de Tocqueville is and why his observations and analysis of Jacksonian American democracy and society are so vital to comprehend how devolved we have become.

Unlike the first entry, this entry only focused on a bare minimum of pages. Hopefully I'll be able to write less lengthy and more succinct posts covering larger chunks of Democracy in America in the future.


intrcptr said...

In a rather important way, Dave, the subversion began about 25 years before DeToqueville arrived here.
What he observed in the judiciary does not appear to be commentary on the Federal Courts, which is where the concept of activism traditionally lies.
What he is identifying is an odd quirk in the Constitution; it nowhere states whose job it is to interpret itself, when a perceived conflict between law and Constitution are recognized; as late as the 1830s local judges were well within their authority in laying aside a law that they felt conflicted with the Constitution, it seems.
In Marbury V. Madison, delivered in 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, in a splendid piece of obiter dicta, announced that there was no other task for the Supreme Court in the Constitution than that of nullifying Federal laws. He concluded that since that was the only real task afforded the Court, then that role was exclusive to the Court.
President Jackson himself actually followed this rationale in the Nullification Proclamation Crisis in 1832. South Carolina forcibly prevented federal agents from collecting import duties in SC, declaring that such tariffs were unConstitutional. Jackson basically threatened them with war if they didn't alter their position. They did, but obviously they weren't happy about it, even 30 years later.
Although I would argue that the stress fractures that have done us in were in fact suffered through the schools. But I mean here rather the universities. It is there after all that judges are taught that jury nullification is the subversion of law, or that since driving is a privilege, the 5th Amendment does not apply when one is driving.

StocksDoc said...

Dave .. you seem quite misdirected.
First you agree then disagree with Glenn Beck.
It comes across as you having a hidden agenda with an underlying bias.