Last week we talked about the differences between a nation which put liberty ahead of equality, and those who put equality ahead of liberty. This week we will discuss more from de Tocqueville and what he had said on the differences between Americans and Europeans as well as the gap between rich and poor
Then too there is the assumption, blithely accepted by the party of economic equality, that the gap between rich and poor—or even between the rich and the middle class—self-evidently amounts to a violation of social justice. Yet far from being self-evident, this assumption stems from a highly questionable concept of social justice—one that rules out or minimizes the role played by talent, character, ambition, initiative, daring, work, and spirit in producing unequal outcomes in “the pursuit of happiness.”
Furthermore, both the assumption and its correlative concept of social justice run counter to the American grain. As study after study has shown, and as the petering out of the Occupy Wall Street movement has recently confirmed, what Tocqueville observed on this point in the 1830s remains true today: Americans, unlike Europeans, he wrote, “do not hate the higher classes of society” even if “they are not favorably inclined toward them . . . .” Which is to say that most Americans are not prone to the envy of the rich that eats away at their self-appointed spokesmen on the Left.
Nor are most Americans subject to the accompanying passion for economic egalitarianism that made for the spread of socialism in other countries. What explains the absence of that levelling passion is that it has been starved by the opportunities America has afforded millions upon millions to better their lot and the advantage they have been free to take of those opportunities—which in turn explains how unprecedented and unmatched levels of prosperity have been created here and how they have come to be shared more widely here than anywhere else.
Tocqueville also put his finger on a second and related reason for the persistence of this particular feature of American exceptionalism: “The word poor is used here in a relative, not an absolute sense. Poor men in America would often appear rich in comparison with the poor of Europe.” A story I was once told by a Soviet dissident provides an amusing illustration. It seems that the Soviet authorities used to encourage the repeated screening of The Grapes of Wrath, a movie about the Great Depression-era migration of starving farmers from the Dust Bowl to California in their broken-down pickups. But contrary to expectation, what Soviet audiences got from this film was not an impression of how wretched was the plight of the poor in America. Instead they came away marvelling that in America, “even the peasants own trucks.”
Tocqueville further observed that in America, “the poor, instead of forming the immense majority of the nation, as is always the case in aristocratic communities, are comparatively few in number, and the laws do not bind them together by the ties of irremediable and hereditary penury.”
One thing I had found interesting is what de Tocqueville observed in America, as he wrote in the last paragraph, that the poor are “comparatively few in number, and the laws don’t bind them together by the ties of irremediable and hereditary penury.” Looking at America of the 21st Century you would have considered de Tocqueville crazy for writing that, but if you look at some of the plantations in the South, as well as some of the homes in the North, during the times before the Civil War you would think different. Actually, it was AFTER the Civil War (or the War Between the States, the war of Southern Independence, whatever you want to call it) where you see the lack of the nouveau riche and the sophistication that was popular before 1861. Keep in mind the South was in a total state of disarray and their main lifestyle was almost obliterated. The South had to rebuild somehow during reconstruction, but the economy had undergone a change in the south, and as such the poor (not only in the south but in the north as well) began to form the immense majority of the nation.
And if you look around the world, this is what Socialism and socialistic policies bring about as well. I am thinking Podhoretz is warning against this in the article, and if we fail to heed his words, then we will wind up like what we had read and seen in Atlas Shrugged.