Regressivism

by Don Boudreaux on May 10, 2009

in Nanny State

I read Tocqueville's Democracy in America well over a decade ago.  I now want to read it again.  This desire is prompted by this passage below, taken from today's column by George Will.  I'm chagrined to admit I do not recall, from my own long-ago reading of that great book, the Tocqueville quotation :

In "Democracy in America," Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated people
being governed by "an immense, tutelary power" determined to take "sole
charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate." It
would be a power "absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident and
gentle," aiming for our happiness but wanting "to be the only agent and
the sole arbiter of that happiness." It would, Tocqueville said,
provide people security, anticipate their needs, direct their
industries and divide their inheritances. It would envelop society in
"a network of petty regulations — complicated, minute and uniform."
But softly: "It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and
directs them" until people resemble "a herd of timid and industrious
animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

So what today seems as modern as Matisse once seemed was foreseen 17 decades ago.

I have in my living room an engraving of New Hampshire's state motto, "Live Free or Die."  It's a proud and worthy sentiment for a free people, but not one shared generally by Americans today — or by any other peoples, it seems.  Increasingly, Americans' sentiments would be more aptly captured by the motto "Exist as Coddled Children or Cry."

And I have hanging in my office a replica of the revolutionary-era flag "Don't Tread on Me" — another proud sentiment worthy of a free people, but one that now, in America, ought to read "Please Care for Me."

Update: My friend Fred Foote suggests that the image to accompany the motto "Please Care for Me" would be, not a fierce and coiled snake, but a begging piglit.

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{ 50 comments }

John Reed May 10, 2009 at 9:17 am

Sadly appropriate mottoes for too many of us! Thanks, Don.

geoih May 10, 2009 at 9:45 am

I tend to agree. The magic is gone.

vidyohs May 10, 2009 at 10:28 am

That ultra loud hum you heard just now was the responsive chord you struck in me.

Sam Grove May 10, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I was just pondering similar thoughts recently.

Those who think society needs "to be planned" hold people as so many sheep to be shepherded by either a moralistic or "progressive" government.

They go to government indoctrination centers, or sometimes private replicas, to learn how to be good docile sheep.

Tocqueville was a very wise fellow.

Brandon May 10, 2009 at 1:08 pm

The image of schoolmaster despotism is one of the most vivid and most valuable from Tocqueville's work. Note how he is careful to explain it is despotism of the schoolmaster–and not of the *paternal* variety–because, he says, parents exercise authority in order for children to one day grow up. The schoolmaster has no such interest–he'd more likely see them stay children.

paul May 10, 2009 at 1:28 pm

ditto vid.

Curious May 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

It is the natural course of things for liberty to be lost. There is no such thing as individual freedom in nature, the stronger always kills the weaker. In a democracy, the sheep are the stronger ones.

Liz May 10, 2009 at 1:44 pm

I have the best of both worlds: the Culpepper Minutemen flag, adjacent to my American flag.

Unfortunately, they just make people think I'm "crazy." Weird how things change.

a Duoist May 10, 2009 at 2:09 pm

150 years ago, Judaio-Christianity began to substitute 'helplessness' for 'happiness' as the ultimate virtue. In the Tocqueville/Hayek/Schumpeter cautions, the ultimate outcome of such a fundamental cultural shift will be voluntary totalitarianism.

muirgeo May 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

"Exist as Coddled Children or Cry."

"Please Care for Me."

Where are the people who you think feel that way? Most people (progressives) myself included are pretty independent by the standards libertarians might set. We educate ourselves, we put ourselves through school, gets jobs and raise our families just like the libertarians.

Likewise the libertarians except mail from the US Postal Service, they drive the inter-states and eat food inspected for contamination.

So who are these people you claim that want coddling. I think you confuse wanting organization and rules for coddling. Yet you accept and take advantage of the government services available to you on an almost hourly basis and I bet to a similar degree then the people you claim want coddling.

Mace May 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

To borrow a phrase I recently came across, many people seem to be looking for the "chains that we can believe in."

TrUmPiT May 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Many people are sickened, made feeble or killed from the toxic by-products of industry – think mercury in fish and in the air, lead in paint, and asbestos in your home. A money judgement is often a feeble attempt to compensate for damage to one's health. More usually the victims or their surviving family members are not compensated at all for what harmed them, and they are kept in the dark by the very industry that was poisoning them for monetary gain. The latest non-guilty verdit came from a Montana jury who found that no one was responsible for thousands of deaths and injuries from an asbestos company.

People who are made sick or become bedridden from poisons in their environment often have no one to turn to. Yes, if they would just die quickly, then we could sweep them under the carpet and forget about them. Why should the government pay their medical expenses; it didn't cause their diseases? The infirmed do not make for popular patriotic slogans like "Live Free or Die", or "Eat Your Wheeties." More to the point would be a last gasp cry like, "You Killed Me, I'm Now Ready to Die." Die with dignity after it's been stripped away and laid bare by people who don't give a damn? How now brown cow? Dignity, pride, is just more bullshit to add to the mix. We've been trodden upon, chewed up and spit out for the almighty buck. Love it or leave, why don't you? Am I not as important to you as an aborted fetus? How simplistic and jingoistic of you to demean me that way! How dare you!

Brandon May 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Muirgeo:
Because I "except" mail from the Post Office, and because I drive on interstates–this proves I'm a progressive, albeit one suffering from some kind of cognitive dissonance?

What would I have to do to qualify as a bonafide libertarian?

Also, if being a progressive means only "wanting organization and rules," then I suppose you've got me again. Besides anarchism–which, of course, is not even approximately coeveal with libertarianism–what "ism" deliberately eschews rules?

If, on the other hand, "wanting rules" means "I would like a job and health care now, and to be taken care of in old age later," then maybe I could be forgiven for confusing it with "coddling."

Kevin May 10, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Brandon add food, shelter, education, and insurance/put options to your list and you'd really be forgiven for the confusion.

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Likewise the libertarians except mail from the US Postal Service, they drive the inter-states and eat food inspected for contamination.

Yes, I will continue to accept mail from USPS, drive on interstates and eat food supposedly inspected by Federal Agency. I do it in the interest of me and my family. A large chunk of the fruits of my efforts are plundered for the purpose of doing all these disservices. I have no second thoughts about getting at least some of my money back.

As for who some of these coddled people are – you have to just look in the mirror. If you want to see a few more, you could have watched the 20/20 on ABC last friday.

Don Boudreaux May 10, 2009 at 4:19 pm

The implicit logic of Muirgeo's argument — such as it is — runs as follows: a person has no right to complain about government if that person voluntarily uses something supplied by government (such as highways and postal service).

Flaws aplenty infect such poor reasoning. One flaw is pointed out in an earlier comment by Brandon: only a tiny fraction of libertarians believe that government can and should be done away with altogether. So it hardly follows that if government supplies things commonly regarded as public goods (such as roads) and a libertarian uses those goods, that that libertarian is somehow being hypocritical or inconsistent or has implicitly conceded the wisdom of having the state take on vastly greater responsibilities.

Here's another ill in Muirgeo's illogic: his argument can too easily be turned against him. I'm certain that he buys many goods and services from private markets. So behold! He implicitly grants that the market should reign supreme. He's hypocritical, for while voluntarily and knowingly enjoying the many bounties of free enterprise, he seeks to rein it in.

Now I do NOT believe that this argument (in the previous paragraph) is a compelling or a logical one. There are many, many good arguments to use against positions such as the one Muirgeo routinely advances, but the argument in the previous paragraph is not among those good arguments. It is infantile.

The argument in that paragraph, however, IS identical logically to the one that Muirgeo makes in his first comment on this post.

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Don Boudreaux says….Here's another ill in Muirgeo's illogic: his argument can too easily be turned against him. I'm certain that he buys many goods and services from private markets. So behold! He implicitly grants that the market should reign supreme.

He, in fact, have in the past, made many infantile attempts to divert blame on such matters. His having to drive around in government designed suburbia, in his luxury car, on the fact that oil COMPANIES ( plural ) are a monopoly ( singular ). He, adminttedly, doesnt bike, jog, walk or take public transport ( buses ) to work. Neither does he drive a car that runs on bio-diesel, electricity, natural gas or any other alternate forms of energy.

Don Boudreaux May 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm

One more response today to Muirgeo: You repeat endlessly that libertarians believe that society needs no rules and regulations.

You have been told repeatedly that this belief of yours is mistaken. I know of no libertarian or classical liberal who believes that society needs no rules and regulations. (Here are just two titles of books for you, written by well-known, Nobel laureate libertarian/classical-liberal economists: "The Constitution of Liberty" (F.A. Hayek) and "The Reason of Rules" (James Buchanan) — the titles of these books belie your straw-man belief.)

Where libertarians part company with you and your fellow "Progressives" is on the best source of rules. We believe that rules are generally best supplied and enforced privately; you believe either that rules MUST be supplied and enforced by government, via statutes and bureaucracies, or that such government-supplied rules are superior to privately supplied rules. (By the way, most common-law rules evolved out of private behavior; I count these rules as private.)

So, please, let's hear no more of your asinine accusations that libertarians don't believe in rules.

I recommend to all readers of this blog to ignore any future posts by Muirgeo that contains such a ridiculous accusation – for any such post will be evidence that Muirgeo himself ignores what is read here.

Mathieu B├ędard May 10, 2009 at 4:45 pm

muirgeo's argument is like saying "you can't be credible commenting on a book if you've read it"…

Yet another way to look at it; in a land where food would be exclusively provided by government services, would you need to starve to death to be in favor of free-markets?

indiana jim May 10, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Was Tocqueville's "American exceptionalism" just a myth? Not at all it existed as he observed it. Of course today our movement toward nationalized health care, banking,autos, etc. move America in the direction of France, de Tocqueville's home point of reference. Au revoir American exceptionalism; c'est domage!

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm

(Here are just two titles of books for you, written by well-known, Nobel laureate libertarian/classical-liberal economists: "The Constitution of Liberty" (F.A. Hayek) and "The Reason of Rules" (James Buchanan) — the titles of these books belie your straw-man belief.)

I have not read those two, but I will read them someday. However, I think "The Law" by Frederic Bastiat is a must read on the topic.

Don Boudreaux May 10, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Another must-read — and another book whose very title belies Muirgeo's absurd claims that libertarians want a society without rules — is Richard Epstein's book "Simple Rules for a Complex World." This book is one of Epstein's best.

MWG May 10, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Prof. Boudreaux,

Though your response to muir was a perfect refutation of his lame "argument", I'm not sure what's worse… the fact that he continues to make these lame arguments, or the fact that you, the creator of Cafe Hayak, continue to give him the time of day.

vidyohs May 10, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Let me add weight to Don's correction of muirduck.

Even I, T-Brazorian, ultra conservative, near anarchist, Kritarchy embracing, freedom loving vidyohs, being far more leary of government than any libertarian ever has or would, yet has acknowledged that there must be some rules and regulations in order for masses of humans to inter-relate in peace and profitability.

As Don said, it is not the question of rules, it is the question of what rules and who makes them.

muirduck, well…….it's muirduck, what the hell else do we expect but his usual piddling and yipping.

kebko May 10, 2009 at 6:13 pm

I do think there is an interesting point to be made in Miurgeo's comment. I think Don has the sentiment slightly wrong in the original post.
I don't think there are a majority of people who are helpless whiners sucking at the government teet. I think there are a small number of people in any given context who might fit that description. But I think there is a much larger number of people who are independent, but who gain a feeling of easy righteousness by imagining a world of helpless people who need to be patronized, and those people feed their moral cravings by demanding a government who claims to take care of the problem. There is another group of parasites who are happy to use the centralized power that results for their own benefit.
This is probably an even worse problem, because a class of helpless whiners can see the error of their ways, but the modern liberal voter sees their part in this equation as a vindication of their good intentions & high moral position. It's practically impossible for someone to give that up. Even giving 20% of every dollar they earn to the polical class in Washington, for very little benefit, doesn't seem to be a deterent

Sam Grove May 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I don't know why he does that. I can think of several reasons:

1 He doesn't comprehend our explanations of rules for a free market.

2 His brain has been implanted with the meme that "free" is equivalent to "no rules".

3 His covert mission for the ministry of truth is to plant this straw man whenever he can as part of the mission of "the powers that be" to discredit the idea of markets uncontrolled by "the powers that be".

4 His ideological partisanship prevents his brain from contemplating ideas at odds with his indoctrination.

5 He is SBB.

Dan Phillips May 10, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Kebco has it exactly right. Liberals like Muirgeo and TrUmPiT, who by all accounts are totally independent of government largess, and probably would refuse it if it were offered – just like we libertarians! – go all wobbly in the knees at the prospect that there are people who can't take care of themselves.

Rather than say "it's our moral duty to help our fellow man," they prefer to use the police power of the state to accomplish their virtuous goals. And for some strange reason (at least it's strange to me) they cannot see the immorality of what they advocate.

This has been the stumbling block in every discussion I have had with a truly committed liberal. They think that because it is moral for a person to help another in need, then it is likewise moral to force everyone to do so.

No amount of appeals to reason can move them from their position. It only reinforces in their own minds their moral superiority.

It's damned frustrating, let me tell you!

DAVE May 10, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Folks like muirgeo have their own definition of freedom and rights. While most of the commenters here believe in freedom as a negative he and many others see it as a positive.

I believe in freedom FROM X and he believes in freedom TO X.

Where he and his ilk draw the line changes every day, which is why they will be fighting for rights today that to anyone's knowledge did not exist yesterday.

How they decide what rights should and should not be and who is and is not entitled to them is beyond me.

So today he will tell you that he is free to this part or aspect of your property and tomorrow it will be something else of your property And while you try to explain that you have freedom from him and those whom he wishes to enforce these perceived rights, he will not understand.

What's more, because he's a decent guy and cannot imagine himself committing theft, he will say that it never was your property, because he had the rights to it all along. That's how he justifies it.

Gil May 10, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Poor muirgeo! It's hard not to see a Libertarian with a worldview of: "we vidyohs-types, who makes up 10% of the population, pay 90% tax rates so the rest of the 90% hippies can use our money to do everything but create wealth".

Nonetheless, yes, unless you're a anarcho-Libertarian then you are hypocritical – you want the government to socialise what you desire but get angry when others want to socialise what they want. Or, if you want government to support your rules but don't want government to support others' rules. Or, if someone want a few more rules and regulations than you see fit and they are a 'Socialist' then, yes, you're a Socialist relative to an anarcho-Libertarian. Or, to an anarcho-Libertarian you're still 'ilk' because you government to do your dirty work. And, of course, to anarcho-Libertarians you are thieving from them and violating their property to support your preferred programs.

Cheers May 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Trumpit,

People who die from lead poisoning do so because they purchased a house with lead paint or purchased lead paint to paint their house with.

People who die from asbestos poisoning do so because they choose to live in houses filled with it.

Progressive taxes are to pay for people who can't or won't pay for themselves.

Once upon a time, people took responsibility for their choices. Whether that meant figuring out which products their house was built of, or whether that meant figuring out what chemicals were poisonous to begin with. Nowadays, for a small fee, you can even get someone else to do it for you! But why should you have to pay someone to inspect a house you're going to buy when you just don't wanna? :'(

I have a question for you. If you have such issue with the corporations who don't care for the people who live in these terrible houses, don't you just absolutely loathe the parents who could imagine placing their helpless children in such a dangerous house just to save a buck on the construction?

Gil May 10, 2009 at 9:20 pm

"We believe that rules are generally best supplied and enforced privately; you believe either that rules MUST be supplied and enforced by government, via statutes and bureaucracies, or that such government-supplied rules are superior to privately supplied rules." D. Boudreaux

Isn't that scenario what anarcho-Libertarian are arguing for all along? The government is dissolved and the organisatons are then left to the free market – if it is a genuine service then it will survive and continue to be provided, if it was a government waste then it will cease to exist and people won't have to waste any more money on it.

Mike Farmer May 10, 2009 at 9:23 pm

AdeT was a brilliant visionary — That his predictions are so close to our reality is eery.

brotio May 10, 2009 at 9:32 pm

5 He is SBB.

Sam,

Would the last word of that acronym happen to be "belief"?

I love the game, "Acrophobia"!

LowcountryJoe May 10, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Dan Phillips, I think that you have it exactly right. And I bet that you'll get no responses from the usual suspects, as they skirt any statements that illustrate their totalitarian behavior and pretend that they do not see the comment.

Dan Phillips May 10, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Gil:

I only speak for myself, but I would say yes, you have explained MY anarcho-libertarian position to the T.

muirgeo May 10, 2009 at 9:55 pm

What would I have to do to qualify as a bonafide libertarian?

Posted by: Brandon

You would have to move to a country in which libertarian principals are closely followed. Granted you don't have many options, but I suggest there is a good reason it is so.

Dan Phillips May 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Muirgeo:

It is my understanding there is only one libertarian principle, and it basically says "Do anything that's peaceful."

You are in error when you say we libertarians don't have many options. I'm not aware of ANY options for us!

You say there is a good reason this is so. In all honesty I would like to know what that reason is. Why are there no options for advocates of individual liberty?

muirgeo May 10, 2009 at 10:26 pm

"The implicit logic of Muirgeo's argument — such as it is — runs as follows: a person has no right to complain about government if that person voluntarily uses something supplied by government (such as highways and postal service)."

Don Boudreaux

No you have every right to complain about government services you don't deem necessary. That's how democracy SHOULD work. But when you start claiming the next guy is asking for coddling you might want to think of what the anarchist is saying about your governmental excesses.

The purpose of the government is to serve the needs of the people. As much as you believe those needs are best served with less government involvement others see things differently and suggest their needs are served with somewhat more governmental oversight then you would suggest. That's why we have a representative form of government.

You happen to believe YOUR desires represent the best route to liberty and economic efficiency and many others happen to disagree with you and would argue that somewhat more or better government regulation is key to improving liberty and economic efficiency.

The recent report in Forbes suggest that people are generally happier in slightly more regulated countries then ours. Such as Canada, New Zealand and in most of Europe.

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Do you know how many references of the word "democracy" in our constitution?

Muirgeo says…No you have every right to complain about government services you don't deem necessary.

Since we have the right to complain, you just leave us alone.

Muirgeo says…suggest that people are generally happier in slightly more regulated countries then ours.

If libertarians are supposed to move to libertarian countries, by the same logic, shouldn't you move to one of these "happy" countries?

I have seen, in print, studies that say People in Bangladesh are the happiest in the world.

Dan Phillips May 10, 2009 at 10:53 pm

"The purpose of the government is to serve the needs of the people." There we have the liberal argument in a nutshell.

Question: where do the needs end?

An old axiom states cleanliness is next to godliness. We all know that a clean environment is superior, and far healthier, than a dirty one. Therefore, would you advocate that the government provide vacuum cleaners to all households?

It is obviously dangerous to walk in shoes without shoelaces. Should the government dictate shoelaces for all?

Of course these are ridiculous questions. But they operate under your guidelines for the purpose of government.

Using your definition of government, my claims for the issuance of vacuum cleaners and shoelaces are just as valid as your demand for rationed health care.

Can't you see that?

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Gil,

You need to understand what positive and negative liberties are and your confusion will be cleared. It is impossible to enforce someone's idea of positive liberty without violating someoneelse's negative liberty.

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Muirgeo…

You may or may not have a legitimate argument at times. I would say it is always the latter, but that is up for debate. However, what is not open for debate is the fact that you often repeat the same tired strawman argument, which people call you out on. Have you ever apologized to others for your lies?

MWG May 10, 2009 at 11:12 pm

"The recent report in Forbes suggest that people are generally happier in slightly more regulated countries then ours. Such as Canada, New Zealand and in most of Europe."
-Muirdog

Once again, you speak without knowing what you're talking about.

http://www.freetheworld.com/2008/EconomicFreedomoftheWorld2008.pdf

(See page 8)

New Zealand is considered more economically free than the US

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 11:21 pm
muirgeo May 10, 2009 at 11:26 pm

You are in error when you say we libertarians don't have many options. I'm not aware of ANY options for us!

You say there is a good reason this is so. In all honesty I would like to know what that reason is. Why are there no options for advocates of individual liberty?

Posted by: Dan Phillips

Dan. Read some descriptive history of the times when Hayek claims markets were most free. Click on the clip in the link below. Yes it's from Karl Marx book but it is simply him reproducing the descriptions from actual magistrates and public officials. So please don't make the amateurish mistake lowcountryjoe does to discredit written history simply because of the messenger.

Listen to this clip and tell me why you think the majority of society should subject itself to such abuse. It makes Don's claim statement "We believe that rules are generally best supplied and enforced privately." appear to strain credibility.
The good ol days were so good and THAT'S why like an unfit genetic being these societies based on "private rules" have gone the way of the DoDo.

PS. Indeed your 11:12 PM post was very good and time permitting I will reply.

S Andrews May 10, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Indeed your 11:12 PM post was very good and time permitting I will reply.

No, let that bleeding heart of yours bleed for us instead. Since we have the right to complain, leave us to just complain without the interference from the heartless commentaries of yours.

S Andrews May 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

I was at a party last night where I met this nutcase, a manager at a technology company, who thinks that lifestyles like homosexuality should be made illegal. Since all of us live in "society", he thinks that such behaviors affect him and his family, and so violates his rights. I didn't argue with the man, but I reminded myself that I live amidst people whose idea of liberty is so warped. In one sense, he represents both the conservative and progressive views of today's world. Of course they have different opinions about how to enslave individuals.

Dan Phillips May 11, 2009 at 12:14 am

Muirgeo:

I tried your link and couldn't find what you were talking about. The post from Feb. 8, The Teaching Company, had no link to it.

I would like to say, however, I think you are under a false assumption of what anarcho-libertarianism represents. Frankly it's a free-for-all of ideas on how people can live their lives. One group wants to live the anarcho-socialist lifestyle, good for them! (Incidentally I tried that in the 1960's, and it wasn't very much fun.) Another group wants to live another way, by all means, have at it.

The point is a libertarian society is absent coercion. I'm afraid the culture you recommend is based on coercion.

A libertarian society, by the way, would allow you to practice your culture with others of your persuasion. So you could have the life you deem proper. You just couldn't force it down my throat, under threat of imprisonment, etc. if I objected (which I would!). By the same token I couldn't force you to live a life that was contrary to your perspective.

Now I readily admit that most libertarians today align themselves with the capitalist mentality. I certainly do. Most of us can see that capitalism is really the only way a free society can flourish. But we do not insist that you follow our prescriptions against your will. I don't know you, but it seems to me that you would have no problem forcing your prescriptions on me.

There's alot more I would like to say, but I'm afraid I have worn out my welcome on this post. Sorry, Professor B. if I hijacked your otherwise outstanding thread. I agree with you, by the way, although I can see how Muirgeo and others would feel besmirched by the "coddling" comment.

wilky May 11, 2009 at 12:18 am

"They think that because it is moral for a person to help another in need, then it is likewise moral to force everyone to do so"

I like to remind them that everytime I am forced to act moral, my opportunity for spiritual growth has been stolen by very people who claim that they want the rest of the world to act moral. And how moral is that?

S Andrews May 11, 2009 at 12:20 am

Dan Phillips says…"A libertarian society, by the way, would allow you to practice your culture with others of your persuasion. So you could have the life you deem proper."

Yes, groups who wants to practice socialism will be allowed to operate in a libertarian system, but libertarianism will not be allowed by socialists in their system.

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