Thomas Sowell Is Right to Predict a Socialist America
Recently, Thomas Sowell appeared on the Fox Business Network. The host, David Asman, asked Sowell whether America will go down the dark and dangerous road of socialism:
The future of America — do you think that we are destined to go through a period of socialism, a period where these ideas that have not worked wherever they have been tried and will not work here, will be tried here, and could bring down our country?
Sowell responded by offering sober and troubling thoughts:
I do have a great fear that, in the long run, we may not make it. I hate to say that. ... And so, we may make it, but I wouldn't bet on it. (March 6, 2019)
To understand Sowell's pessimism as to how and why America, a nation built on capitalism, would adopt socialism, the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, offers a cogent explanation.
Tocqueville noticed that in America, there is a lack of middle institutions, which are intermediary associations that stand between the individual and the state. These intermediary bodies serve as a deterrent to one party or person gaining too much power and authority over the rest of the country, a concept he referred to as "the tyranny of the majority." He knew "[t]here are no countries where associations are more necessary, to prevent the despotism of parties or the arbitrariness of the prince, than those where the social state is democratic."
Among aristocratic nations, secondary bodies form natural associations that stop the abuses of power. In countries where such associations do not exist, if individuals cannot artificially and temporarily create something that resembles those natural associations, I no longer see any dike against any sort of tyranny; and a great people can be oppressed with impunity by a factious handful of individuals or by a man. (pp. 182-183)
These middle institutions prevent centralizing authority and a concentration of power. They either have vanished or are hanging on by a thread in our lives (Putnam, 2000).
Tocqueville further noticed, as he said repeatedly, that a nation whose moral foundations are democracy and equality fosters envy. He understood envy's presence in democratic nations in the following way:
One must not conceal from oneself that democratic institutions develop the sentiment of envy in the human heart to a very high degree. It is not so much because they offer to each the means of becoming equal to others, but because these means constantly fail those who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely. Every day this complete equality eludes the hands of the people at the moment when they believe they have seized it, and it flees. ... [T]he people become heated in the search for this good, all the more precious as it is near enough to be known, far enough not to be tasted. (1836, p. 189)
Essentially, when everyone believes we are all equals and then looks up to see a person who is above him, it is human nature to want to yank that person back down. When it is not about raising yourself up higher, but rather about yanking the higher person down, this is the hallmark of the emotion of envy.
Tocqueville also understood what makes a nation crumble or survive. He explained, "In order that a confederation subsists for a long time, it is no less necessary that there be homogeneity in the civilization than in the needs of the various peoples that compose it" (p. 158). Despite what social justice warriors will tell you, diversity is not necessarily a strength. Robert Putnam's research in E pluribus Unum (2007) informed the public that diversity does not cause people with differences to connect, but rather causes people of similarity to retreat inward with their own kind, a phenomenon also known as "tribalism."
Many of these issues are easier to deal with on a smaller scale. When a nation becomes too large, they can become too difficult to manage. Tocqueville informs us:
I shall refuse to believe in the longevity of a government whose task tis to hold together forty diverse peoples spread over an area equal to half of Europe, to avoid rivalries, ambition, and conflicts among them, and to unite the action of the independent wills towards the accomplishment of the same design. (p. 363)
Tocqueville is pessimistic about a nation as large as America, with this many diverse peoples and interests. When the people in a nation are this diverse:
... they differ from themselves for they constantly change place, sentiments and fortunes. The mind of each of them is therefore not bound to those of all the others by common traditions and habits, and they have never had the power, the will, or the time to understand each other. (p. 448)
The freedom citizens possess in democratic nations endows them with the ability to exercise great levels of autonomy. Unfortunately, these freedoms keep us further estranged from our neighbors and ancestors, "for in a democratic nation, each new generation is a new people. In these nations ... it is almost impossible that it is ever subjected to permanent rules" (p. 448).
The permanence in this instance is the political and social foundations of America. These foundations consist of a republic with restraints on direct democracy, as outlined explicitly in The Federalist Papers, and free-market economics.
Unfortunately, when a civilization has too many atomized family units — meaning broken family units — civilization begins to break down. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 25% of all children are born to single-mother homes. This is relevant because, according to Carle Zimmerman's Family and Civilization (1924), two consequences of a civilization with too many atomized family units are that a country's history and its folk heroes degenerate from sources of pride to sources of shame.
Our history and our foundations are now sources of shame instead of pride. Simply ask any social justice warrior if America was ever actually great. A constitutional republic and free-market economics driven by capitalist ideals are no longer laudable institutions, but instead are viewed as sources of corruption and evil.
Tocqueville spent a significant portion of his work discussing the influence of the Christian religion in America. He understood that Christian morals regulated the hearts and minds of Americans. When "religion has lost its empire over the souls of men, the most prominent boundary which divided good from evil is overthrown; the very elements of the moral world are indeterminate; the princes and the peoples of the earth are guided by chance, and none can define the natural limits of despotism and the bounds of license (p. 299)."
The boundaries that religion exerts on the American people's conscience can break down and disappear. When that happens, the people are "no longer able to recapture their former beliefs, they give themselves a master" (p. 448). According to another Pew Research Poll, religion in America has been steadily declining. Russell Kirk knew that "man must adore something, and, having denied God, he will find his deity somewhere much lower than the angels" (1954, p. 303). Kirk, in his lifetime, saw that when "faith in transcendent moral order ... ha[s] vanished ... Big Brother appears" (1954, p. 470). As religion in America declines, socialism will likely take its place.
Sadly, the astute scholar of Tocqueville and democratic institutions in general understands that equity and democracy inherently lead to the vices that promote our destruction. As President John Adams once warned:
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. ... Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
America's size, diversity, and democratic character are precipitating our demise. The emphasis on equity, a moral foundation that causes envy, will surely lead us to a political ideology, socialism, that is widely known as the "politics of envy."
To conclude, the many characteristics of the American democracy that made it great are simultaneously contributing to its downfall. As man grows estranged from his ancestors and his institutions, we will look for easy answers in all the wrong places. Socialism is the lowest hanging fruit to pick for modern man, and we will reach that fruit by trampling our own democratic principles.
Tocqueville, A. de. (1835). Democracy in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Kirk, R. (1954). The conservative mind: From Burke to Eliot. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing.
Zimmerman, C. (1924). Family and civilization. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Image: Hoover Institution via YouTube.