A Return to Enlightenment

June 30, 2010 - 4:46 AM
We have strayed so far from Alexis de Tocqueville's America that governments cannot bring themselves to permit private individuals (or businesses) to run projects that the government believes it can and should control.
During his time as Speaker, Newt Gingrich would occasionally slip back into his PhD-in-history, college-professor role and explain that successful organizations -- countries or corporations -- operate in "their own enlightened self-interest."
 
Newt, being Newt, cited Alexis de Tocqueville and his book, Democracy in America as his source material.
 
De Tocqueville toured America in the 1830's and found that our unique form of representative democracy is based upon the American view of personal responsibility which "constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state."
 
Sounds Norman Rockwellian, more than George Orwellian, doesn't it?
 
Before you start screaming at your computer screen, I will stipulate that America in the mid-19th century was a far more enlightened place if you had the good fortune to be White, Protestant, and a land-owner; than if you were Black, Catholic (or Jewish) and a share-cropper or a factory worker at the dawn of the industrial revolution.
 
One hundred years after de Tocqueville did his tour of America, the concept of "enlightened self-interest," as he defined it, took a hit when America and the rest of the industrialized world were plunged into what we have come to know as the Great Depression.
 
Post-war social theories effectively eradicated the motivation to help one another and do good works for our communities from individuals and moved it to the offices of bureaucrats through laws passed, and taxes levied, by elected officials.
 
Government spending for employees to work for the government is a good illustration.
 
There is no motivation for governments to urge their workers to be more productive.
 
Why? Because if a government's goal is to provide work, wages, health care, and pension benefits for larger and larger portions of its population, then departments, agencies, and bureaus are, in fact, rewarded with larger and larger budgets to hire more and more people to do the work which the existing people would not, or could not, do.
 
You can see that right here in Your Nation's Capital during just about any Appropriations mark-up: We need more people to do this important work because the people we have doing the work, aren't getting it done.
 
Do the letters: MMS strike a familiar note? I guarantee you that in the FY 2011 budget for the Interior Department, BOEMRE (the new name of MMS) will get more money than it got this year because its employees didn't do their jobs of checking the drilling and recovery plans of oil companies.
 
So, we need more people to do that checking, which will require more money.
 
Speaking of the Gulf oil spill, in de Tocqueville's America, the people along the beaches and wetlands; the fishermen and shrimpers would have banded together to help stop the oil from spoiling the area.
 
Oh, wait. They are attempting to do that. It is the government which keeps getting in their way -- the government which has become addicted to being the do-gooder in-chief by making small towns and great cities wholly dependent upon its largess.
 
There is a bridge in Michigan which connects Detroit with Windsor, Ontario. It was privately built, is privately maintained and the tolls collected go to its upkeep.
 
Not good enough. The Michigan House recently passed legislation that would get the state involved in the construction of a new bridge at a cost of $5.3 billion. This, in spite of the fact that, because of 9/11 and the recession "local border traffic remains at about half its 1999 levels," according to an article in Crain's Detroit Business.
 
There is a perfectly good bridge which is carrying a diminishing amount of traffic, but we have strayed so far from de Tocqueville's America that governments cannot bring themselves to permit private individuals (or groups of individuals assembled as businesses) to run projects that the government believes it can and should control.
 
The correction for all this may be: Governments all over the world are running out of money. The State of Michigan doesn't have $5.3 billion to build that bridge. Just as the governments of Greece and France don't have enough money to continue to allow people to retire at 50 (Greece) or 60 (France) in an era when the average life span has increased to 79.8 years (in Greece) and 81.1 years (in France).
 
Enlightened self-interest. Maybe its time has come again. That would be change we could believe in.
 
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: Links the Crain's Business story, to de Tocqueville's book, and to a story about Greek pension woes. A rare topic-appropriate Mullfoto, and a Catchy Caption of the Day.