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Fourth of July

Happy Birthday, America!

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painting by Emanuel Leutze.

The United States of America was founded in a revolution which, unlike many other revolutions, succeeded...

Today, the Americans celebrate the anniversary of the United States, founded with the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. To me, the great historical puzzle is why the American Revolution was successful, whereas the French and the Russian Revolutions both ended in dismal failures. The main reason, I submit, is that the American Revolution was conservative in nature, paradoxical as this may sound. It was made to preserve and extend existing liberties, whereas the French and the Russian revolutionaries sought to reconstruct the whole of society according to the teachings of Rousseau and Marx, respectively, the popular will on the one hand and the dictatorship of the proletariat on the other hand. The crucial difference was between limiting power and trying to relocate it.

Barriers Against Tyranny

A thinker in the conservative-liberal tradition, Alexis de Tocqueville, tried to explain why equality did not destroy liberty in the United States as it had done in the French Revolution. He emphasised the strict separation of powers stipulated by the American Founding Fathers. ‘In this way they wanted to make authority great and the official small, so that society might continue to be well regulated and remain free.’ The United States was composed of many ‘small sovereign nations, that together form the great body of the Union’. The bicameral Congress was a compromise between two principles, the Senate being based on the idea of a federation of states and the House of Representatives on the idea of popular sovereignty. The division into two houses had the advantage that legislation was slowed down, each house serving as a court of appeal for the other one.

While government was centralised in the United States, administration was decentralised, Tocqueville observed, not least in the towns and the counties. The state has to be strong and speak with one voice; therefore some centralisation of government is necessary. But at the same time the state has to be limited, because ‘it excels at preventing, not at doing’. Decentralisation of administration encourages political participation by the citizens and their identification with their own country, as Tocqueville argued. ‘The inhabitant becomes attached to each of the interests of his country as to his very own. He glories in the glory of the nation; in the successes that it achieves, he believes that he recognises his own work, and he rises with them; he rejoices in the general prosperity that benefits him.’

Tocqueville found the independence of the judiciary an important additional safeguard of liberty. Judges have the right to base their decisions on the constitution rather than on laws coming from legislatures. ‘Enclosed within its limits, the power granted to the American courts to rule on the unconstitutionality of laws still forms one of the most powerful barriers that has ever been raised against the tyranny of political assemblies.’ Another restraint against the tyranny of political assemblies was, he said, the presidential veto which ‘forces the legislature to consider the question again; and this time, it can no longer decide except with a two-thirds majority of those voting’. Tocqueville held that the jury was also an institution which could serve to teach people civic virtue. ‘You must consider it as a free school, always open, where each juror comes to be instructed about his rights.’  Yet another restraint against absolute power was freedom of the press, Tocqueville found, although he hastened to add: ’I love it much more from consideration of the evils it prevents than for the good things that it does.’

Strong Civic Spirit

Tocqueville made some interesting observations about the size of nations. For him, ‘small nations have at all times been the cradle of political liberty’. One reason is that in small nations society keeps its eye on everything and that therefore the spirit of improvement gets down to the smallest detail, as Tocqueville put it (in modern times we would perhaps speak of transparency facilitating reforms). Small nations are also unlikely to waste their resources on the empty illusion of glory. But they suffer from their lack of strength. Therefore large states often succeed, where small states fail. But the American ‘federal system has been created to unite the various advantages that result from the large and the small sizes of nations’. In Tocqueville’s memorable words, ‘The Union is free and happy like a small nation, glorious and strong like a large one.’

This strength through freedom was not least, according to Tocqueville, because of the many intermediary institutions and associations in America (Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’), from the states down to the counties and towns. ‘It is in the town, at the center of the ordinary relations of life, that the desire for esteem, the need for real interests, the taste for power and notice are focused.’  The provincial liberties the Americans enjoyed were crucial: ‘So the municipal bodies and county administrations form like so many hidden reefs that slow or divide the tide of popular will.’ No less important was the role of non-political associations in sustaining the civic spirit, in restraining government and in keeping their members moral by non-obtrusive monitoring. ‘In our time, freedom of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority,’ Tocqueville wrote. Such civic associations maintain informal order. They are both democratic and conservative. His point about civic associations seems as valid today as in his time. Churches, clubs, charitable organisations, philatelic societies, neighbourhood watches, parents’ associations, bowling leagues, and the Boy Scouts are some of the many examples. It is no coincidence that in totalitarian societies such civic associations are viewed with suspicion and often even outlawed.

The civic spirit is still strong in the United States. According to the ‘World Giving Index’, citizens of the United States give much more to charity per capita than any European nation. In Europe, the two most generous nations are the Irish and citizens of the United Kingdom. Frenchmen are remarkably ungenerous. Some civic associations in free societies extend their activities to the well-being of non-members. Clubs like Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Junior Chamber did not exist in Tocqueville’s time, but they well illustrate his point: they tend to channel the energy of hard-working and occasionally greedy businessmen or professionals into activities such as collecting money for medical equipment in a local hospital, or for books to the local library, or for student scholarships. These clubs moderate the ambitions of their members, fulfil their desire for social recognition and are venues of self-improvement.

Modern American Society

Tocqueville was an acute observer of American society, and many of his comments on it still seem relevant. Here I shall only mention a few features of American society that we can observe with him. First, visitors to the United States are struck by the strong sense of individuality and deep-rooted suspicion of power. The principle is universally accepted in the United States, as Tocqueville says, ‘that the individual is the best as well as the only judge of his particular interest and that society has the right to direct his actions only when it feels harmed by them, or when it needs to call for his support’. In the second place, visitors notice, like Tocqueville, the restlessness of Americans, and their willingness to relocate whenever they think it would be to their advantage. ‘In America,’ Tocqueville remarked, ‘society seems to live from day to day, like an army in the field.’ He observed, like we do today, that Americans always seem to be in a hurry. He explained: ‘The man who has confined his heart solely to the pursuit of the goods of this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time to find them, to take hold of them and to enjoy them.’ (This can be put in modern terms: Opportunity costs are high, because opportunities are plentiful.)

Again, when I travel in the United States, I see the same conformity without uniformity that Tocqueville described almost two hundred years ago. The Americans ‘love order, without which business cannot prosper’. But I would add, and emphasise, that this order is for facilitating individual choices, not for replacing them. It is about providing the road, not determining the direction. Fourthly, Americans are much less interested in your history than in in your capacities. They do not ask wherefrom you are, but what you can contribute. America remains a country of opportunity. Fifthly, another prevalent characteristic of the Americans is that they seem to believe that all problems have solutions. There is a strong self-corrective element built into their emphasis on problems and solutions. Therefore, I am not as worried about America’s future despite recent difficulties, and the present Chinese challenge, as many pundits are.

Finally, visitors cannot but perceive the patriotism prevalent or even rampant in American society. The tacit assumption almost everywhere is that the United States is the best country in the world. I, and many other loyal and reasonably content citizens of European countries, would perhaps beg to differ, personally. We prefer, and love, our own countries, however much we may appreciate America. But there is at least little doubt that the United States is the country most in demand in the world. People vote for America with their feet, or in the case of Cuba, with their oars.