Monday, January 18, 2016

Despotism in America

Count Alexis de Tocqueville on the (17th c.) Connecticut code of laws (Democracy in America vol. 1 ch. 2) [translation errors mostly mine]:
Among these memorials, we will particularly single out, as particularly characteristic, the code of laws given the little State of Connecticut in 1650.
The legislators of Connecticut begin with penal laws, and, for their composition, they conceive of the strange idea to borrow provisions from sacred texts:
“Whosoever shall worship any other God than the Lord,” says the preamble, “shall surely be put to death.”
This is followed by ten or twelve enactments of the same kind, copied verbatim from Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus.
Blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and rape were punished with death; an outrage offered by a son to his parents was to be punished similarly. The legislation of a rude and half-civilized people was thus transferred to an enlightened and morally mild community; the consequence was that the punishment of death was never more frequently prescribed by the statute, and never more rarely applied to the guilty.
Side note: I'm aware of the physical condition of many of the original pages, but Tocqueville is an eminently clear, vigorous writer. It is indeed a shame that so many English translations of DiA are prone to burdening his prose with extra baggage. If the original author writes clearly, a good translation should reflect that propensity, n'est ce pas?

Tocqueville was contrasting the character of the sons of the Puritans in New England with the more commercially-minded settlers in Virginia. His claim was that the character of the nation was as the character of a man: one might observe the traits of the adult in the behavior of the child. A nation forged by commerce is one likely to retain commercial virtues; a nation of browbeating harridans is likely to cling to petty despotism. The wonder of America, claims ol' Lexy, is that she is a land of both.

So there is, should you believe de Tocqueville, a curious bundle of predispositions in the United States. On the one hand, there is a deep and abiding appreciation for hard work, honesty, integrity, trust, professionalism, honor, and prudence. On the other hand, there is a deep skepticism about profligacy, ostentation, inequality, and aristocracy. We Americans appreciate the life of an honest yeoman, and revile the pomp of inherited privilege. Or so goes the predisposition anyway. The American mythology seems mostly consistent with that story, even if the actual experience says otherwise.

What, I wonder, might this tell us about the odd moral intuitions about commerce in America? The Connecticut anti-fops described above would doubtless appreciate Elizabethan sumptuary laws, and might find kinship with the petit paternalism flogged in the academy and on the campaign trail. The tight-buckled Capotain-doffing burgher might even see in this round's crop of insufferable presidential candidates something to love: here an authoritarian who promises to scour the land of undesirables, there another authoritarian who promises to purge ostentatious displays of illicit wealth.

I do wonder though. I wonder to what extent these national predispositions color our individual moral intuitions about the nature and extent of the market. Euvoluntary exchange is great, at least until it enriches someone enough that they start behaving boorishly? Exchange can't be euvoluntary if it violates the ancient legislation of a rude and half-civilized people? This presents a curious puzzle for those few of us not instinctively bound by the mores of either the Plymouth rockers or the Richmond rollers. How can you possibly argue convincingly against the crushing weight of four hundred years of national opinion? Reason is slave to the passions, nowhere so much as in the unexamined tabernacle of the poll.

Also, I had totally forgotten that de Tocqueville was nobility. I wonder why we don't include that little tidbit more often in class.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?