How should we live?

After debating today with my pastor whether what the world needs is more or less government intervention in the cooperative actions of individuals (ie, the economy), I rediscovered the following from De Tocqueville (1835/1840). The passage paints his vision of a future democratic society, indicating how he foresaw people might live:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

This does appear to be more or less where we are today. Thankfully, De Tocqueville ends with one option which is cause for optimism:

A constitution republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts has always appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.

Certainly we are close to ruin and certainly we are weary of our representatives: shall we create freer institutions or stretch at the feet of a single master? It should be obvious to even the most inconstant reader that I propose freer institutions and a life of responsible liberty under the rule of law.

A problem with this approach is that at least a significant minority insist on choosing actions which harm others or which produce in themselves harms which the compassionate seek to remedy. Perhaps wide-ranging freedom from government coercion can only survive if what is within us produces free choices which promote the well-being of ourselves and our fellows.

One source of this morality within is well-understood Christianity. What is to be offered to those and by those whose reason or disposition rules out Christ? Perhaps rational self-interest would do:

When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept “rational” is omitted from the context of “values,” “desires,” “self-interest” and ethics.

So, we should live in freedom, but we should recognise for ourselves the boundaries to that freedom. For many of us, that requires a change within. For those who fail to recognise the boundaries of order, there must be law.

Read more of “What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear” here.

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