QOTD 03/10/2015

This coming at you from Alexis de Toqueville

“So the State is full of solicitude for the happiness of the citizens, but it wants to be the unique agent and the sole (illegible word) of it. It is the State that takes care of providing their security, facilitating their pleasures, directing the principle affairs; the State itself creates roads, digs canals, directs industries, divides inheritances. It may even be able to plow the earth and finally take away from each man even the difficulty of living!

“Equality of conditions has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed them to bear them and often even to regard them as a good.

“This is how, aiding itself sometimes with the vices of men, sometimes with their weaknesses, often with their inexperience, the central power little by little and without effort takes hold of the entire life of a democratic people. It does not tear their rights away from them; their rights are abandoned to it. It does not do violence to mores; it does not overturn ideas, but it gently directs both towards servitude.

~Alexis de Toqueville, What Type of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear from American Democracy

I was reading a chapter from American Democracy and ran across this bit. Think on it. Especially those parts in bold.

P.S. The part in parentheses that says “illegible word” is because it was transcribed form a notebook.

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One thought on “QOTD 03/10/2015

  1. “It may even be able to plow the earth and finally take away from each man even the difficulty of living!”

    I’ll think of this out of the context of the State. In this case, I’m weary of thinking that automation is a loss. Keeping this in mind, isn’t it the aim of every innovator to produce technology that eases life’s trials, or frees up a person’s time for leisure? The State is abstractly defined, in this scenario, as an economy that supports that men’s lives are eased. Of course, de Tocqueville wisely warns his reader of the dangers of relinquishing total control to those mechanisms external to himself.
    So as not to make the State an enemy to be denigrated or defeated, I’ll compare it to a computer, which operates through mechanisms not obvious to the user merely by its interface. And, it is possible that, like the citizen relinquishes his/her money (or time) to the State, he/she also abdicates his/her responsibility to labor over his/her aim so that the machine can perform menial tasks, saving time (and money) (I mean to say that, say, a meteorologist uses a computer to model a storm system, instead of performing calculations by hand, saving him time for other things). The notable difference between the State and computers is, of course, whether the user can ultimately choose to employ the mechanisms by which the aim is achieved. But, by nature of the machine handling what the user does not (whether by complexity the user cannot comprehend or by mere transparency he/she never learns about those processes), the choice to employ the machine may or may not align with the user’s principles or aims. There seems to be a necessary component of “wait and see” how the machine operates.

    This is probably why de Tocqueville says the following:
    “It does not do violence to mores; it does not overturn ideas, but it gently directs both towards servitude.”

    Yes, he notes that the user’s lack of agency is subtle (non-violent). I’ll argue, then, that one simply has to look at the Twittersphere, or Reddit, to see evidence of servitude to the computer. I’m speaking of, peripherally, servitude as a dedication of one’s energies to a mechanism external to oneself (bearing agency in mind, also); and, more deeply, of the sinister implications of assuming that dedication to the machine implies autonomy of the human operating it. What of the time and human energy invested to communicate one’s ideas through the machine? Is the choice to spend energy not also a form of servitude, though to a personal agenda, in this case? Ayn Rand would point out here that the agenda, and the reasonable judgment on which it is founded, makes a difference. I agree; the user certainly exercises judgment to determine the agenda; but, then, no blame can be laid upon the machine for the outcomes, especially taking into account that the mechanisms by which it operates are secret to the user. In either case, the user broadly determines the machine’s actions, but it’s ultimately a toss-up how the process will turn out.
    I ask, then, how people can expect the State, a mechanized vehicle for human action, to teach the user (its constituents)? How can a machine internalize ideas into a man’s mind? De Tocqueville is right; citizens’ rights are not impeached; they are abdicated willingly.

    My aim here is not to complain or grovel for people to be reasonable. Instead, I’ll ask, where else in our lives does the relinquishment of responsibility, in order to conserve our time, parallel de Tocqueville’s imposing State?

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