Our Problems, and Tocqueville’s
To the Editor:
In his “Our Current Problems/A Comment on Wettergreen” (Spring 1987), Thomas G. West misunderstands what I have written about the current problem of American politics (“Why Conservatives Can’t Govern,” same issue).
According to West, “[a]s Wettergreen tells it,” our current problem is the centralization of administration in Congressional subcommittees. However, West maintains, our current problem is really or ultimately the “moral [sic] stance” of today’s bureaucratizers; their moral views cause them to long for the soft despotism which Tocqueville so ably described.
It is true that, as late as 1970, I believed that centralization of administration or bureaucratization was the chief domestic evil facing the United States. At that time, I believed, as West does now, that Tocqueville’s soft despotism was the aim of the bureaucratizers. However, today, as my article was intended to explain, we cannot be so optimistic as was possible in 1970.
Today’s bureaucratizers are not soft despots at all. The political use of the criminal law, such as began during the Watergate scandals and has begun to be regularized during the Reagan administration, is characteristic of tyranny—not Tocqueville’s “new,” “soft” one, but a harsh one. That is why I concluded by saying, “To the carrot—spending unlimited by law—the legislature has added the stick—the penalties of the criminal law.” (See, for example, Maurice H. Stans, The Terrors of Justice: The Untold Side of Watergate [New York, 1978], especially pp. 23-79. Solzhenitsyn has shown down to the last detail why the political use of criminal law must be tyrannical.)
Tocqueville’s democratic despotism does not use criminal penalties; “it would degrade men rather than torment them.” Because he supposed that modern democrats have trivial passions, soft mores, limited educations and ambitions, deep religious convictions, and habits of hard work, he did “not expect democratic leaders to be tyrants, but rather schoolmasters.” On the evidence of the twentieth century alone, he was drastically wrong. Democracies—in Tocqueville’s sense of that term—have proven capable of tyrannies more brutal and more pervasive than anything imagined in previous ages. It is not to our purpose here to explain why Tocqueville was in error, but perhaps it will suffice to say that he misevaluated the human desire to rule. This is an error characteristic of modern political philosophy from Machiavelli on: the assumption that human nature (or a part of humanity) is non-political.
John A. Wettergreen
San Jose State University
Thomas G. West responds:
John Wettergreen attacks me for offering what I thought was a supplement to his fine article.
He is right, however, to stress that the new despotism which our elites would like to impose on us will be anything but soft. I am convinced by his argument. As for myself, I did not mean to address the soft vs. cruel question. My point was to explain the degraded vision of humanity that animates, however dimly, the despotic fancies of our rulers. Does Wettergreen agree that I am right in this? If so, our arguments are complements, not adversaries.
In sum: like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, today’s “liberals” (would-be despots) want to rule over a population that has no conception of humanity except being at one with the rest of humanity. That means they would grant superior “rights” (i.e., government favors) to all who are least capable of being independent, self-governing human beings. For these are the ones most likely to be most capable of submerging themselves in the will of humanity—that is, in the will of the centrally administered state.
Others have no “rights,” as we are now being told quite explicitly. In the recent women’s affirmative action case, Justice Brennan wrote that male workers’ rights may be trammeled as long as they are not “unnecessarily trammeled.” The Court and the bureaucracy decide when and how far it is necessary to trammel your rights. In other words, men, especially white men, have no rights under the United States Constitution that the Supreme Court is bound to respect.
I am also persuaded by Wettergreen’s thoughtful point about Tocqueville’s defect.
To the Editor
Please excuse a criticism of the best essay on the Constitution I have seen in a long time (“The Iran-Contra Affair and the Real Crisis of American Government,” Spring 1987). Your argument “from the Constitution” to support a reinvigorated Presidency is less effective than it might be, because it misses an opportunity to raise the point about the Presidency which is chiefly offensive to its enemies and at the same time the most important to the people. . . . [W]hat we need to employ to adequately describe America’s executive are terms adapted from-classical political philosophy. This is compatible with, and I believe made necessary by, the Founders’ thought.
To illustrate, Jefferson adopts Plato’s device of matching political arrangements to elements of the soul in Query XIII of Notes on Virginia: “[T]he purpose of establishing different houses of legislation is to introduce the influence of different interests or different principles.” And he goes on to give an example: “Thus, in Great Britain it is said their constitution relies on the house of commons for honesty, and the lords for wisdom.”
Similarly, Publius in Federalist 51 remarks on the kind of men who will occupy different branches of the separated powers. It is a remark that has been prepared by his previous discussions employing ethical terms to describe constitutional officials after he has first applied less exalted descriptions to their electors. . . . An example is that “industrious” Americans are said to be represented by a “temperate” Senate and a “magnanimous” President. . . .
Publius, like Jefferson, surely meant that qualities of character—different “virtues” to use an older term—were to characterize the different “wills” going to make up the composite which is constitutional representation. And since all “wills” contribute to the whole which is constitutional policy, it sounds exactly right when Publius talks (in Federalist 10) about constitutional representatives as a whole being those “whose wisdom may best discern the whole interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations. . . .”
The executive seems to dominate [for the Founders] because it was invented to represent (and also to reinforce by rhetoric) those particular qualities of virtue in the people which most powerfully resist self-indulgence and slavish comforts. Such qualities are decisive to self-government, more important by far than the simple moderation which constitutional legislatures encourage. . . .
To elaborate . . . while the president is often concerned with economic policy, his must be an enlightened concern. It cannot be with maximizing wealth independently of how that wealth is earned or how it is used for great national purposes. Indeed, the breadth and height of Publius’ thinking on this subject is indicated when he argues (in Federalist 35) that national powers over taxation, and thereby over the whole political economy, require a knowledge not only of narrowly economic facts, but of “the general genius, habits and modes of thinking of the people at large.” A man with such knowledge will be least likely to resort to oppressive expedients, or to sacrifice any particular class of citizens to the procurement of revenue.” Further, Publius anticipates that:
. . . under a vigorous national government, the natural strength and resources of the country, directed to a common interest, would baffle all the combinations of European jealousy to restrain our growth.
And the result would be that America would do no less than “vindicate the honor of the human race.”
The second great national power, honorific command of our position among competing regimes, is undoubtedly a second great prompter of proud principle. To put it in a nutshell: by exercising his command functions both at home and overseas, the President is supposed to embody our dignity, honor and principle. His is an essential contribution to a politics recognized by Aristotle—a politics of friendship in noble activity. . . .
What the partisans of Congress [today] really want is a government without the Founders’ executive, and without their executive-led legislature and judiciary, too, as a matter of fact. They want a government which does not exalt “the honor of the human race” at the expense of mean self-gratification, one in which only “values” and “minorities” with different value sets are recognized and encouraged. Such a government they think could be administered, not governed, by the mild science of neutral rules. It would not require harsh self-discipline among citizens or harsh government adjudication between competing groups. In the eyes of its advocates their alternative is an admirable effort to establish a new ideology of scientific cultural relativism. . . .
Voters since World War II have been attempting to retain their political dignity by the separated powers of the Constitution. No matter how loyal they remain to the Democrats in Congress, they have tried to use the Republican Party as a Presidential party in order to keep the old politics alive. This appeal to distinct elements of the public soul was anticipated by the Founders. But the voter today is handicapped because of the failure of Republican leaders to properly appreciate their constitutional duties. It is truly astounding that, after six years in Washington, Republican candidates for the 1986 Senate remained uninformed about and indifferent to the critical constitutional problems of the executive branch. How little they seem to understand what the Constitution is all about, and how much their electoral success depends on their support of a proper executive! In this we see the most disheartening evidence that conservatives as well as liberals are ill equipped to rally the people to resist the latest and most revolutionary onslaught against our Constitution.
Wake Forest University