Local Government Serves As Foundation Of Freedom
Monday, July 25th, 2016 @ 12:00PM
Alexis de Tocqueville saw the writing on the wall. Luckily for us, he wrote it all down. An aristocrat, lawyer, and member of the French government, he journeyed to America at age 25 to study the American prison system. And study he did. A prodigious note taker, he wrote down everything – everything he saw, everything he heard, everything he read. Along with his compatriot and travelling partner, Gustav de Beaumont, he wrote a treatise on the American penal institution which won literary acclaim in his native France.
But he wrote something else, too. Democracy in America, published in two volumes (1835 and 1840) became an instant bestseller in France and has been called both “the most important book ever written about democracy” as well as “the most important book ever written about American government.” And, yet, it was in truth an accident, a book that almost never was.
Assigned the task of determining the efficacy of criminal rehabilitation in the American corrections system, Tocqueville had no intention of writing about democracy. However, shortly after arriving in New England in May 1831, Tocqueville became intrigued by American government at all levels – municipal, county, state, and federal. Tocqueville, knowing that France’s aristocratic form of government was nearing an end (an end that began during the French Revolution of 1789), decided to analyze the American democracy in order to extract ideas that might help shape and improve his own nation’s fledgling democracy.
After traveling the countryside for months and meeting with everyone involved in government from local officials to the president of the United States, Tocqueville reached one of his most profound conclusions about our representative democracy – that centralized “administration” of government was potentially injurious to democracy itself and that the most effective protection of freedom was local administration by local governments. Without such local control of various activities, power would eventually accumulate at the federal level to which all below would become subservient.
Tocqueville acknowledged that the federal government played a vital role in the overall functioning of the American democracy. Only the federal government, Tocqueville explained, could issue currency, engage in foreign policy, and raise and maintain a standing army for national defense. Most all other activities, he argued, should be “administered” at the local level.
Tocqueville suggested that, to be effective, the electorate must embrace the political process at the individual level. The more citizen involvement, the more responsive was the government overall. Fewer people involved at the local level, he explained, meant less trust in government at all levels. Tocqueville described the numerous town hall meetings he attended throughout New England as the bulwark of American freedom.
Tocqueville believed the most effective education in government was gained by serving in it. Only by serving in government could one learn the lesson of “self interest well understood” – the notion that by serving in government at the local level, whereby one served the people directly, a person could learn that placing the interests of others above one’s own interests made society better as a whole which, in turn, actually benefitted the servant himself.
Though he did not actually live through the French Revolution (having been born in 1805), Tocqueville nevertheless heard the stories of aristocratic and monarchal tyranny firsthand from older relatives who had lived through it. From these stories, Tocqueville learned to be suspicious of overly powerful central governments – a notion he shared with Americans who had not so long before fought a war against such tyranny. Only by dividing power among as many citizens as possible at the lowest levels of government, warned Tocqueville, could a free people remain free.
We should all heed Tocqueville’s warning from history and embrace the governing process at the local level by voting and, if possible, by serving. We must never forget nor take for granted that, in our American system, local government serves as the foundation of freedom.