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In American election cycles all of the possible candidates for government office of both major political parties assure those who may vote for them in primaries and the general election that they are voices for the real or true “American values.” Voting for them is voting for what America has been, is, or should be all about. But what are “American values”?
After the famous Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) visited the young United States in the 1830s, he wrote what is still considered one of the great classics of political philosophy, Democracy in America (1836; 1840). He said that what stood out most about the Americans was their “habits of the heart” and their “character of mind.”
The quality of the people amazed him, with their belief in personal freedom, self-responsibility, a strong spirit of enterprise, and an attitude that social problems were not the concern of government, but could and should be effectively handled through voluntary association and local community effort.
Here were a people — blended together from many different lands — who refused to bow before kings, who believed in their capacity to be self-governing individuals over their own lives, and who considered the role of government to be a protector of their liberty, not the controller of their destinies.
The long history of ruler and ruled
That was unique, Tocqueville understood, because throughout history in almost all places around the globe, it had not been the case. Men bowed low before their political rulers, accepting, or at least acquiescing in, submission and obedience under the threat and reality of physical punishment. The general presumption was that people were naturally unruly, with their individual and collective actions being inconsistent with an asserted higher common good, as declared and reflected in the purposes and policies of those in governmental authority, most often in the form of a “divinely” appointed monarch.
Humanity has always been involved in production and various forms of trade. After all, how else can people live? No matter how modestly, to consume, people must first produce. But, again, through most of history, society was divided into two general groups: those who did the actual producing and others who extracted a portion of what they produced through political plunder, whether it was called tribute, tithe, or tax. This was a fundamental difference between the rulers and the ruled.
By the 1600s and the 1700s, many kings in Europe had consolidated their power over the landed aristocracy — the lords of the manor — and centralized control over all that went on in their domains. The monarch was the owner and planner of all in the confines of his realm: the land, livestock, and the people. This economic system of governmental planning was known as mercantilism. The ministers and agents of the king commanded and controlled domestic and foreign trade, set the prices and wages at which goods might be sold and workers hired; and dictated the patterns of investment and production as presumed “affairs of state.”
Emergence of the philosophy of freedom
There slowly emerged a change in attitudes, ideas, and allegiances. That shift in society is symbolized by the arguments in John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689). In the first treatise, Locke challenged the prevailing presumptions concerning the notion of a divine right of kings. In the second treatise, he presented his positive case for the natural rights of every individual; each person’s right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.
Government was instituted among men to secure and protect those individual rights from the predation of their fellow humans. But governments needed to be constrained in their powers precisely to prevent the protector of liberty from becoming its violator. Hence, the idea was that the fundamental purpose of constitutions is to enumerate the designated functions of government to limit its ability to encroach on people’s liberty.
Ideas do not change over night, or usually in one generation. Ideas and the institutions in which they are socially embedded have an inertia reflecting the influence of the persisting old conceptions and the fact that the prevailing institutional order creates interests in their continuance. Hence, in the same social space arise conflicting notions about man, society, and the place of government in human affairs.
It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that the intellectual currents ran sufficiently in the direction of individual liberty and limited government that a revolution occurred in the British colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America.
Fredrika Bremer finds the spirit of freedom in America
It is always easy and open to the most misplaced exaggeration to make sweeping statements of an era or a people, who at the end of the day are as diverse as the number of individuals who constitute that group of humans. But there is a meaning and a sense to the “spirit of the times,” and the type of attitudes, beliefs, and activities many of the people at the particular time think and act within. Fredrika Bremer (1801–1865) was a Swedish author, feminist, and classical liberal reformer who spent two years traveling around a good part of the United States from 1849 to 1851. Upon returning home she wrote The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America (1853). In one of her “letters” to a friend back home, she says in the book,
You know that I did not come to America to seek for a new object, but to establish a new hope. While one portion of the people of Europe, after a struggle for light and freedom [the revolutions of 1848] … seemed (perhaps merely seemed) to sink back again under a despotism … in that gloomy season my soul raised itself in deep faith and love toward that distant land, where people erected the banner of human freedom, declared the human right and ability to govern themselves, and on this right founded a monarchy of states — the commencement of the world’s greatest governmental culture.
That which I sought for there was the new human being and his world; the new humanity and the sight of the future on the soil of the New World….
Fredrika Bremer, like Alexis de Tocqueville before her, was much taken by the spirit of freedom of association, through which in voluntary collaboration with others of similar interest and concern, people of diverse backgrounds found each other out and formed organizations and groups to solve problems of common concern. Said Bremer,
Whenever any subject or question of interest arises in society which demands public sympathy or co-operation, a “convention” is immediately called to take it into consideration, and immediately, from all ends of the city or the State, or from every State in the Union, all who feel an interest in the subject or question fly upon the wings of steam to the appointed place of meeting and the appointed hour…. It is always admirable with what readiness, with what savoir faire, this people advances onward in self-government, and how determinedly and rapidly it proceeds from “proposed” to “resolved.”
Of course, she also pointed out the cruel mistreatment of the Indians by the European settlers and immigrants. And expressed her deep moral disapproval with the persistence of slavery in the midst of a country claiming to be based on liberty. She found the Americans of the time frustrated and divided as to what to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.” After all, at the time of her visit, Southern secession and the Civil war were still a decade away.
She greatly admired Oberlin College in Ohio, which she visited during her travels in America, “where the youth of colored as well as white people, both boys and girls, study and take degrees in all those branches of knowledge which are taught in the American academies. Among these I place the works and opinions of many distinguished men, who are occupied in organizing a more complete and comprehensive scheme of education for women as well as men.” Here in the practices of free people in the voluntary institutions of the United States did she see the hope and likelihood of a fuller and more consistent practice and reality of the American ideal of individual liberty and equality before the law for all.
Albert Jay Nock on the progress toward collectivism
Are these still the “habits of the heart” and “character of mind” in the American people today? In some it certainly remains so. But for too many of our fellow Americans, their minds cannot conceive of a world without government paternalism “caring” and “providing” for them in one form of another. And their hearts are fearful of a life of self-responsibility in which the government does not guarantee them a job, provide for their old age, give them an education, supply their health care, or protect them from their own bad choices.
This is a trend, unfortunately, that has been going on for a long time. During the New Deal years of the 1930s, libertarian essayist and author, Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945), reflected on it in an essay, “Progress toward Collectivism” (The American Mercury, February 1936). He said that in conversation a friend had suggested that many people, including many in the business community, would be delighted if all the government interventions would simply go away. Nock strongly disagreed:
I did not agree. My belief was, and is, that the business world would have acted like a herd of drug-addicts whose rations had been suddenly cut off…. [Too many in the business community have] always believed that the one government function which dwarfs all others to insignificance is to “help business.” Let any kind of industry get itself into any kind of clutter, and it is the government’s duty to intervene and straighten out the mess….
… All a government can properly and safely do to help business is what the Declaration [of Independence] says it is supposed to do — maintain individual rights, punish any trespass on those rights, and otherwise let the individual alone….
An acquaintance said to me the other day that he did not believe the country could stand another four years under Mr. Roosevelt. I said I had no opinion about that; what I was sure of was that no country could stand indefinitely being ruled by the spirit and character of a people who would tolerate Mr. Roosevelt for fifteen minutes, let alone four years. I was of course speaking of the generic Roosevelt….
What really counts is the spirit and character of a people willing under any circumstances whatever to accept the genus, whether the individual specimen who offers himself be named Roosevelt, Horthy, Hitler, [or] Mussolini….
Loss of hearts and minds for liberty
It is now not just business that expects the helping hand from the government, but virtually every sector of American society. The entire debate on the political future of America in this upcoming presidential election year is concerned not with whether government should “do something” in some corner of society, but by how much and for whom. Loss of freedom, narrowing of personal choice, and the tax and debt burdens never even come up in the discussions and debate.
Nor does anybody seem to want to raise the question of the size and scope of government in the arena of political discourse. So what is in dispute? Are you for the current intrusions of the interventionist-welfare state (now labeled “Neo-Liberalism” by its critics on the Left), or shall the country go farther down the collectivist road to a fuller and more direct “democratic socialism”?
Too many Americans seem to have lost those “habits of the heart” and “character of mind” that represent a spirit of a devotion to freedom and free enterprise. It is not that most of our fellow Americans consider themselves enemies of freedom. Their view on the role of government is one that just takes for granted the collectivist way things are, because they cannot imagine a way of living other than the one right now.
Market-earned money and political plunder
Let me give an example. A good number of years ago, I was invited to deliver a series of keynote addresses at several annual conventions at a number of state Farm Bureau Associations around the country. I discovered two categories of people among the farmers with whom I spoke. The first group consisted of those older than, say, 60. When I asked any of them whether they considered the government farm-subsidy programs to be desirable for the country as a whole, almost all of them said they would be happy to see them gone, as long as they were abolished for everyone in the farming community, so that none had a government-sponsored advantage over the rest. Government, many of them said, should not be in the farm business.
However, when I asked the same question of those in the farming community who were, let us say, less than 40 or 50 years old, many of them did not seem to understand my question. Their words or their facial expressions conveyed the counter-question, What’s wrong with government-subsidy and price- support programs? In their minds, business revenues earned from selling their agriculture products to consumers on the market were no different from revenues received from government transfers paid by taxpayers.
The younger group of farmers could not distinguish between the proceeds from voluntary exchange and those from coerced redistributions. That mindset and attitude, I would suggest, permeates the vast majority in American society today. What’s wrong with others’ being taxed to pay for my Social Security check each month? I paid my “fair share” all during my working years.
I need health insurance and medical treatment. So why shouldn’t government pay for it in one form or another. Isn’t medical care a “right”? Don’t we all owe it to each other? Isn’t that fair? It’s expensive to go to college, and I’ll be burdened with decades of debt to pay it back. Why shouldn’t existing college debt be forgiven and all higher education from now on be free? Don’t we all benefit from a better-educated society?
Returning to first principles about freedom
The list could go on and on. So what is to be done? We must return to first principles, and take every opportunity that we can when it is found appropriate in conversations with our fellow citizens to politely, peacefully, and respectfully challenge the premises and presumptions in those views about the role and purpose of government.
In one sense, we need to help our fellow Americans understand the ethics and the economics in Frédéric Bastiat’s (1801–1850) famous works, The Law and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” Do you consider it right and reasonable that people, including yourself, should be free from the reality or the threat of murder, theft, or fraud? Should not the purpose of a government, if it exists, be to recognize, secure, and protect you and everyone else from such violent intrusions into your life and theirs?
If you agree that every person should have his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property respected and protected from any who might try to plunder it, does it matter whether such an attack is made by one person, or two people, or twenty? Surely the number of people in a predatory gang does not change the immorality and the undesirability of an unwanted invasion of your person and property.
If that is agreed to, does it matter whether such a group of people calls itself the downtown plunder gang or the electoral majority who vote for those whom we call politicians to do the same type of taking under the name of taxes through the agency of government? Is not legalized plunder as undesirable and indefensible as illegal plunder by neighborhood hoodlums?
Admittedly, at this point the conversation begins to get tricky. But wait! Did we not all participate as citizens in choosing among the candidates running for public office? Isn’t that what democracy is all about? That requires that we go back, again, and ask whether the number of people agreeing to do something makes it right. What might be the things that we all can generally agree on as not right for private plunderers or political paternalists to do, no matter how many may make up a majority of voters in a society?
And as part of this same discussion with our fellow citizens there will need to be an explanation of how much of what government does through its interventions and redistributive policies not only fails to do what has been promised, but often makes things worse, even for many of the people the intervention or redistribution was intended to make better off.
A hundred-year change in American attitudes
A hundred years ago, there were already advocates and agitators for political paternalism and collectivism under a variety of names. But at that time many, if not most, Americans would not have considered such government intrusions and controls into people’s lives to be right or necessary, even if most of those ordinary people could not effectively articulate why.
The spirit of the times, and Tocqueville’s habits of the heart and character of mind, were still basically grounded in the idea and everyday sense of personal freedom, economic liberty, and limited government. We are not in that situation today.
Instead, we must reawaken the meaning, understanding, and value of liberty once again, here in America, where so many European visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century, such as Fredrika Bremer, found and were amazed by the culture of freedom in the attitudes and actions of the vast majority of the American people with whom they interacted.
They considered the America they saw and experienced to be the great hope, model, and guide for the rest of the world. As friends of freedom, we must do all we can to help restore that spirit of liberty, as a hope for ourselves, for the rest of humanity, and for our own children and grandchildren, so they too will have the chance to live a real life of liberty.
This article was published in the October 2019 issue of Future of Freedom.
[Originally Published at the Future of Freedom Foundation]