Habits of the heart

I was talking to some foreign friends about American virtues I fear we may be losing in the time of Obama. Among other things, we talked about the culture of responsibility. It is a common complaint in many countries that people expect a lot from their government and that the government delivers much too little. Everybody talks about corruption scandals that seem to surface with monotonous regularity. IMO, many can be traced to high expectations mentioned above.

I mentioned the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. Any American who has seriously studied our history is familiar with Tocqueville, but his fame doesn't seem to cross our borders. I explained that Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who wrote about democracy in America in the 1830s. We Americans take lots of what he wrote as compliments; he didn't always mean it that way.

In the America that Tocqueville described, hard work, enterprise and money-making are the rule. Americans, he noted, do not defer to elites, as they still did in Europe. This included, to Tocqueville's distress, not deferring even to those of "superior talent and intelligence." America was a dynamic, although maybe a rude place. But the America was more exceptional in the amount of local and personal initiative.

In the Old World citizens petitioned their government to do things for them. After that they waited for it to happen and complained when it wasn't done right. Tocqueville observed that in America many "government" tasks were done by individuals in voluntary, often temporary, association. We formed task forces and committees to address local problems, bringing in government as last resort and even then resorting to government at the lowest level possible. In Tocqueville's France power to make decisions about local roads or building codes migrated to Paris and choices made there. In America, they were often not made by government at all and when government was necessary, it was usually the local officials who called the shots.

American tradition of working through voluntary associations has persisted to this day. One of our colleagues said that this surprised him when he was on an exchange in the U.S. He gave the example of his host family and all the neighbors getting together to do the dirty work, literally, shoveling manure in the barns at the Indiana State Fair. In most other countries, this just doesn't happen. At best, people might give money to hire somebody to do it.

I pointed out that government in the U.S. has plenty of problems but one reason why it has historically been more responsive to the people is that we, the people, ask it to do less. Tocqueville warned of a "soft despotism" in democracies, where citizens vote for politicians who promise to give them things. When people have the habit (Tocqueville called them "habits of the heart") to do things for themselves in voluntary association with their fellow citizens, it preempts the necessity of government intervention and also preempts the creation of a network of petty rules and regulations that are the bane of existence in the more bureaucratic states. Soft despotism is ameliorated if those voting benefits have to pay for them and even more so if they have to work in their creations.

Living in other countries has helped me see my America in more objective ways. I think there has been a convergence in the last quarter century. People in many other places are more active in doing things in voluntary association rather than waiting or demanding government action. On the other hand, America is getting more bureaucratized. Government has reached into voluntary associations in ways it did not before, establishing rules and standards that seem to make sense but end up crippling the voluntary impulse.

I read about an example where the authorities in New Jersey imposed regulations on church-run soup kitchens. People can no longer bring food from home to donate and there are stricter rules on facilities and reporting requirements that will cost more than big money. You can argue that such regulations are good, but they will have two effects. They will take it out of the hands of people and make another activity the responsibility of the government. In short order, costs will rise. The people who used to get satisfaction from carry out their responsibly as good citizens will resent the taxes and the recipients will get less and lower quality food.

Lawyers are also getting involved. People engaged in voluntary activities are now advised to get liability insurance. We are managing to make good citizenship costly and hazardous to your financial future. When you make things harder or more expensive, you get less of them.

America really was exceptional in the number of things we did voluntarily. Authorities are/were not always welcoming. I recall reading a biography of Ben Franklin, who was the godfather of many good citizenship practices. The local representatives of the king did not always welcome his self-help plans. They considered them subversive and they were right. When people can do things for themselves they become less dependent on the "beneficence largess" of the state. It weakens the power of despots.

I am glad to see that people in many places around the world are seeing the benefit of acting outside both governmental in NGOs and private spheres. People working together in voluntary association is the essence of community. We don't make friends face-to-face; we make them shoulder-to-shoulder working on common goals. I think it is healthy that many places in the world are becoming more like us, even if that means American is less "exceptional". But I am not happy that we are becoming less like we were when we built our greatness.

Posted by Christine & John at January 16, 2013 5:33 PM
Comment #360582

C/J, thank you very much for this post. I am an admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville and enjoy rereading his writings every now and then. I have also read numerous biographies on Franklin. There was a real man everyone can admire and hope to emulate.

Posted by: Royal Flush at January 16, 2013 5:57 PM
Comment #360713

I know I am very late at adding my comment, but I got tickled when you called Franklin a

godfather of many good citizenship practices

Since he was a known womanizer, and partier, I found myself wondering just what kind of ‘godfather of GOOD citizenship practices’ he would have actually made! Personally I suspect he would be offended by that description of himself. He did after all possess a fine sense of humor.

Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that maybe, just maybe George W.,Thomas J. and Samuel A. might have been given a tad too much credit for bringing about our country. Just maybe Ben ought to be given far more credit.

Posted by: Highlandangel1 at January 21, 2013 4:21 AM
Post a comment