Political Liberty and Material Comforts

A long passage from Tocqueville that captures one essential theme of his work, followed by a short comment by me.

“I have often wondered where this passion for political liberty comes from—a passion which, throughout all ages, has inspired men to the greatest accomplishments of human kind—and what feelings feed and foster its roots.

I see quite clearly that, whenever nations are poorly governed, they are quite ready to entertain the desire for governing themselves.  But this kind of love for independence, which has its roots only in certain particular and passing evils brought on by despotism, never lasts long; it disappears along with the accidental circumstances which caused it.  They seemed to love freedom; it turns out they simply hated the master.  When nations are ready for freedom, what they hate is the evil of dependency itself.

Nor do I believe that the true love of liberty was ever born of the simple vision of material benefits it makes available, for this vision is often hidden from view.  It is indeed true that, in the long term, freedom always brings with it, to those who are skilled enough to keep hold of it, personal comfort, wellbeing and often great wealth.  But there are times when freedom briefly disturbs the enjoyment of such blessings; there are others when despotism alone can guarantee a fleeting exploitation of them.  Men who value only those material advantages from freedom have never kept it long.  What has tied the hearts of certain men to freedom throughout history has been its own attractions, its intrinsic charms quite separate from its material advantages.  It is the pleasure to be able to speak, act and breathe without restriction under the rule of God alone and the law.  Whoever seeks anything from freedom but freedom itself is doomed to slavery.

Certain nations pursue freedom obstinately amid all kinds of danger and deprivation.  It is not for the material comforts it brings them that they appreciate it; they look upon it as such a valuable and vital blessing that nothing else can console them for its loss and when they experience it they are consoled for all other losses.  Other nations grow tired of freedom amid their prosperity, which they allow to be wrenched from their hands without a fight, for fear of compromising, by making an effort, the very wellbeing they owe to it.  What is missing to keep such nations free?  The very desire to be so.  Do not ask me to analyse this lofty desire; it has to be experienced.  It enters of itself into those great hearts which God has prepared to receive it.  We have to abandon any attempt to enlighten those second-rate souls who have never felt it”  (167-68; end of Book III, Chapter 3 of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution).

Lots to say here, but I will try to restrain myself.  “Freedom” in Tocqueville is as content-less as it is in Arendt—and requires love.  It must be pursued for its own sake.  And the ability to pursue it in such purity is a gift from the gods, is a function of grace.  And there is also the familiar Christian paradox that you’ll get other rewards (namely “material comforts” in this case) if you don’t pursue such rewards directly.  You are aiming for salvation, but you must have faith or do good works (depending on your version of Christianity) for their own sakes, not because you want salvation.  A pure heart is everything.

Also the persistent—unto our own day—association of vulgarity with the pursuit of money.  “Great hearts” have other things on their mind.  Leave it to “second-rate souls” to be the business men.  Almost everyone I know (as my generation reaches its fifties and slides into its sixties) wants to write a novel.  A surprisingly large number of them has actually done so.  Art is today’s way of avoiding vulgarity, of attending to things that matter, of having an ambition one needn’t apologize for.  Tocqueville’s idea that politics can be so lofty is, in our day and age, risible.  Politics is even dirtier than business.  At least in commerce there is some possibility of an honest day’s work honestly done.  The desire for purity persists; the ability to find a place to experience such purity (outside of art and the private realm of family and friends) recedes.

Tocqueville’s conservatism lurks beneath the surface, especially in the way that “freedom” in his view always brings “order.”  He is of “the party of order” despite his not feeling comfortable with many explicit paeans to that virtue.  It’s rather a neat rhetorical trick to praise “freedom” when, in many cases, what you really admire is order.

That said, however, it is worthwhile considering the extent to which “order” does deliver “material comforts.”  I have always thought that there should be an “order” tax.  That is, when thinking about economic competition between nations, we greatly underestimate the extent to which investors crave order.  A well ordered nation does not need to match wages or other economic incentives 100% to attract investors.  That’s why—as Tocqueville shrewdly notes, even though it rather undermines his point–“despotism” can also provide material comforts.  (Think Singapore or China.)  And that “order premium” or “order tax” should underwrite stricter laws for capturing tax revenues from companies like Apple that free ride on US stability and rule of law while using shell games to claim their profits are generated in Ireland—or some such tax shelter.

Tocqueville does seem right in suggesting that fear of losing prosperity will lead to the sacrifice of freedom.  It does often seem to me that the “stability” of US democracy (which is, in actual fact, a plutocracy at this point, offering freedom of the Tocqeviullian sort to few, if any) boils down to the fact that people are managing to get by, and are more terrified by the thought of losing what they have than by any other thought.  People are grimly hanging on for sheer life—and can only imagine that any change would be for the worse.  They have no faith that politicians or the government could ever do better; they could only make things worse.  So they acquiesce, as Tocqueville suggests, in their unfreedom in return for getting by.  A very bad bargain, no doubt.

It is interesting that Tocqueville always writes as if freedom once did walk the earth.  It is always something that has been lost.  A skeptic like me would like to see some attempt to prove that point.  The middle ages just don’t appear to me a golden age of freedom.  But I must also admit that the same habit of thought pervades my thinking.  When I say the American people has made a bad bargain, I am basing my claim, in part, on the notion that the freedom that has been lost since 1950 has not come with economic benefits.  Except for blacks (and even there the record is very, very mixed) and for the top 10%, Americans today are demonstrably worse off economically than they were in 1965.  All the statistics about average wages and family wealth prove that point.  The erosion of the average American’s prosperity has been slow but steady since 1970.  So we have sold our freedom for a mess of pottage, not even for the real goods.


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