US Political Thought

Notes on Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life

This is a condensation of Croly's argument, not a commentary upon it.

1. A Critical Reconstruction of American Political Ideas; Its Conditions and Purposes

a). Croly’s critical account of majority tyranny. The American people’s loyalty to the idea of democracy, as they understand it, cannot be questioned. But what it means to them is “popular government” (441). Yet “individual liberty can be permanently guaranteed only in case political liberties are in theory and practice subordinated to civil liberties. Popular political institutions constitute a good servant, but a bad master. . . . They erect a power in the state, which in theory is unlimited and which constantly tends in practice to dispense with restrictions” (441).

But this is a “not a criticism of a certain conception of democracy, but of democracy itself. Ultimate responsibility for the government of a community must reside somewhere. . . . [Hence] There is . . . no logical escape from a theory of popular Sovereignty -- once the theory of divinely appointed royal Sovereignty is rejected” (442). Recall a similar point in Tocqueville--his rejection of the traditional republican conception of balanced government (that is, a balance of the classes in society). He argued that government must ultimately serve the interests of one or another class.

Granted, a democracy may impose “rules of action upon itself,” nevertheless “that body of law remains merely an instrument which was made for the people and which if necessary can and will be modified.”

“Individual freedom is important, but more important still is the freedom of a whole people to dispose of its own destiny” (442).

b). But democracy entails more than popular sovereignty. “It must at least mean an expression of the Sovereign will, which will not contradict and destroy the continuous existence of its own Sovereign power. . . A particular group of political institutions or course of political action may . . . be representative of the popular will, and yet may be undemocratic. . . . There can be no democracy where the people do not rule; but government by the people is not necessarily democratic” (443).

c). The American answer to this question of integrity has been the proposition of “equal rights for all and special privileges for none” (from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address). Yet “Such an organization may permit radical differences among individuals in the opportunities and possessions they actually enjoy” (443). Individual and social interests are held to be harmonized by the fact that the same liberties are enjoyed by all, and by the contribution individuals pursuing their own interests make to society as a whole.

Under this arrangement, there is supposed to be no room for permanent legal privileges for any class of citizens. Beyond this, “American political thinkers have always repudiated the idea that by equality of rights they meant anything like equality of performance or power” (444).

Americans who believe in the notion of an equal start but an unequal finish are “wholly blind to the fact that under a legal system which holds private property sacred there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be any equal opportunities for exercising such rights” (444). Comparative material conditions dramatically affect opportunities.

The conservative reacts to this by defining rights narrowly to mean those of personal freedom and private property protected by the law. The radical develops a “more or less drastic criticism of the existing economic and social order” (445).

Thus “The same principle, differently interpreted, is the foundation of American political orthodoxy and American political heterodoxy.” And reforming legislation typically pleases neither. Instead, society is fractured into contenting groups: the ‘people’ appeal to the state against the corporations, the federal government (ICC?) supports shippers against the railroads, corporations seek Federal judicial protection from state legislators, employers battle unions, free traders oppose protectionism.

Croly argues that in the youth of the republic, “as long as economic opportunities . . . had not been developed and appropriated”, “opportunities were open to the poor and untrained man”, and “the public interest demanded first of all utmost celerity of economic development”, “Individual and social interest did substantially coincide” (445-446) because the promise of prosperity was largely fulfilled via the expanding frontier: “the prodigious natural resources of a new continent were thrown open to anybody with the energy to appropriate them” (460).

But “With the advent of comparative economic and social maturity, the exercise of certain legal rights became substantially equivalent to the exercise of a privilege” (446).

Croly then argues that reformers and demagogues, and public opinion itself, have preferred to fix the blame for the contradictions of American development not on the ambiguity of its fundamental principle, but on the behavior of one or another social group (e.g., reformers argue that “some of the victors have captured too many prizes, because they did not play fair”). Hence the popular democratic politician assumes the role of prosecutor or “avenging angel” (446).

d). But a democratic society requires an underlying unity: “a democracy . . . cannot prevail unless the individuals composing it recognize mutual ties and responsibilities which lie deeper than an differences of interest and idea” (447).

Unfortunately, “The principle of equal rights encourages mutual suspicion and disloyalty. It tends to attribute individual and social ills, for which general moral, economic and social causes are usually in large measure to responsible, to individual wrong-doing.” Thus “personal and class hatred” are aroused, and “angry resentment becomes transformed . . . into righteous indignation” (447).

e). Critique of Jeffersonian tradition: Not the clearest exposition, but it seems to consist of the following points:

The Jeffersonian “dislikes or ignores liberty, only when it looks in the direction of moral and intellectual emancipation.” Because of this, “Americans have been encouraged to think those thoughts and to perform those acts which everybody else is thinking and performing” (448).

The Jeffersonian is fearful of the power of associated activity, but this fear chiefly concerned the state, because “The power to legislate implies the power to discriminate”, hence “The possible preferential interference on the part of a strong and efficient government must be checked by making the government feeble and devoid of independence” (449).

Even today, the traditional democracy “consents to use the machinery of government only for a negative or destructive purpose” (449), “to crush out the chief examples of effective individual and associated action, which their system of democracy has encouraged to develop . . . the economic organization which has been built up under stress of competitive conditions” (450). This is a belated effort to rectify its previous inattentive to the danger of private associations, that is, of corporate power.

Summary of developmental dynamic: “Thus in so far as the equal rights are freely exercised, they are bound to result in inequalities; and these inequalities are bound to make for their own perpetuation, and so to provoke still further discrimination” (450).

The Jeffersonian response to the corporate power is not only negative but “frankly representative of a class interest.” And even to assert this, Jeffersonians must abandon their previous doctrine of “national irresponsibility.” Now, they argue, government “must discriminate, not on behalf of liberty and the special individual, but on behalf of equality and the average man” (450).

f). Croly’s alternative of active government on (roughly) utilitarian premises:

“The nation has to have a will and a policy as well as the individual; and this policy can no longer be confined to the merely negative task of keeping individual rights from becoming in any way privileged” (450).

For the state to be effectively more active, legislators and the Executive must be given “as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency” (457).

While it is true that an active state can make “serious and perhaps enduring mistakes,” “inaction and irresponsibility are more costly and dangerous than intelligent and responsible interference” (451)

Moreover, “If a selective policy is pursued in good faith and with sufficient intelligence, the nation will at least be learning from its mistakes.”

There are numerous examples, historical and contemporary, of such policies: protective tariffs, the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Pure Food Bill, hours of labor and other industrial legislation.

In practice, “the state is usually asked to interfere by the class whose economic position has been compromised” (451).

Croly seems to regard “any genuine measure of economic or political reform” as essentially a zero-sum proposition, since the “better opportunities” it provides some come about only by “depriving other individuals” (452).

State intervention cannot be premised on impartiality, because “In economic warfare, the fighting can never be fair for long, and it is the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious. It holds ... a hand in the game. The several players are play, not merely with one another, but with the political and social bank” (452). It must look out for “the national interest”, and help those to win “who are most capable of using their winnings for the benefit of society” (452).

g). Critique of Hamiltonianism

The “friends of liberty [have] usually been hostile to democracy” (452), believing that “both civil and political liberty depended on the denial of popular Sovereignty and the rigid limitation of the suffrage” (455).

- A community with limited suffrage “can remain well united only at the cost of a mixture of patronage and servility” (456).

- “in the long run a class is never to be trusted to govern in the interest of the whole community.”

- “A limited suffrage secures governmental efficiency, if at all, at the expense of the political education and training of the disenfranchised class, and at the expense, also, of a permanent and radical popular political grievance” (456).

- The notion of officeholder independence achieved through exemption from democratic (re)election is “not only peculiarly liable to abuse, but it deprives the whole people of that ultimate responsibility for their own welfare, without which democracy is meaningless” (457).

- The denial of universal suffrage can only be justified “on the ground that the whole community is incapable of exercising . . .[political] responsibility . . . [because] the individuals constituting a community ... are more divided by social or class ambitions and prejudices than they are united by a tradition of common action and mutual loyalty,” such as “at present in the South” (456).

Liberal but undemocratic regimes “in which economic, political, and social power” are “very unevenly distributed” generally cannot endure due to lack of popular support.

“The favored minority, feeling as they do tolerably sure of their position, can scarcely avoid a habit of making it somewhat too easy for one another. . . . leadership, in order to preserve its vitality needs a feeling of effective responsibility to a body of public opinion as wide, as varied, and as exacting as that of the whole community”

Moreover, “a proper diffusion of effective responsibility and substantial benefits is the one means whereby a community can be supplied with an ultimate and sufficient bond of union” (453).

“The Federalists . . . sought to protect the property rights of the individual by the most absolute constitutional guarantees,” and American practice has exceeded even this. As a result, while this liberty “has undoubtedly benefited the great mass of the American people, . . . it has been of far more benefit to a comparatively few individuals. . . . It has tended to create a powerful but limited class whose chief object it is to hold and to increase the power which they have gained . . .[, an] aristocracy of money” (458).

h). Croly’s modifications of Hamiltonianism:

Fundamental dilemma: The democratic “community must retain an ultimate bond of union which counteracts the divergent effect of the discriminations, yet which at the same time is not fundamentally hostile to individual liberties” (454).

Fundamental problem: “It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual--both the individuals who benefit and individuals who consent--and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond” (454).

Fundamental solutions: “The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.” Earned distinction: “Individual distinction, resulting from the efficient performance of special work . . . is useful to the whole community . . . because it is formative and so helps to convert the community into a well-formed whole” (454). Versus unearned: The person who inherits wealth receives with it “no personal dignity of [sic] efficiency.” It becomes a source of personal “demoralization”, and his life is organized for “purpose of spending a larger income than any private individual can really need” (459).

Croly acknowledges that the institution of private property “always involves the inheritance of unearned power and opportunity”, but it is only “very large fortunes” which trouble him (459), because “Gross inequalities in wealth . . . as effectively loosen the social bond as do gross inequalities of political and social standing” (459-460).

“the interest of the whole community demands a considerable concentration of economic power and responsibility, but only for the ultimate purpose of its more efficient exercise and the better distribution of its fruits” (458). “A democratic economic system . . . must delegate a large share of responsibility and power to the individual, but under conditions, if possible, which will really make for individual efficiency and distinction” (459).

The integrity of a democracy is equally “injured by extreme poverty, whether deserved or not” and by a “widespread condition of partial economic privation . . . [and] economic dependence. . . . So a wholesome democracy should seek to guarantee to every male adult a certain minimum of economic power and responsibility.”

Moreover, “It stands to reason that in the long run the people who possess the political power will want a substantial share of the economic fruits. A prudent democracy should anticipate this demand” (460).

The “industrial system brings with it much more definite social and economic classes, and a diminution of the earlier social homogeneity” (460).

The key to reform is for the American state to provide “positive service” to the “economically less independent class”, chiefly by measures that achieve a “constantly higher standard of living . . . without doing any necessary injury to his employers.” Immigrants especially have been “explicitly promised economic freedom and prosperity” (461).

i). Croly’s synthesis -- the ameliorative national state in opposition to the internationalism of socialism

“The salutary and formative democratic purpose consists in using the democratic organization for the joint benefit of individual distinction and social improvement” (461). Thus such a democracy would be dedicated “to liberty and equality, in so far as they made for human brotherhood.” It is only in this way that democracy can “claim the allegiance of mankind on rational moral grounds” (462).

But this demands a subordination of the machinery of democracy to “a reconstructive programme and an efficient organization”

Popular government “is to make itself expressly and permanently responsible for the amelioration of the individual and society” (462-463).

Democratic nationalism versus socialism. This is not so much socialistic as nationalistic. Unlike socialism, it is dedicated to “the development of a higher quality of individual self-expression,” and this requires “the preservation of the institution of private property in some form, and the . . . radical transformation of its existing nature and influence” (463). Croly also rejects “violent means.”

- “The great weakness of the most popular form of socialism consists, however, in its mixture of a revolutionary purpose with an international scope” (463). It would undermine “national cohesion” for international class conflict. “permanent good” can only come “through the preservation and the development of the existing system of nationalized states” (464).

- Croly admits that “national traditions . . . contain a large infusion of dubious ingredients,” and that there are “governments whose ruin is a necessary condition of popular liberation” (464). But to “the extent . . . [a] government is representative of national traditions and is organized in the interest of valid national purposes” it is entitled to the citizen’s loyalty.

- Croly then proposes a very abstract formula: the more of a nation a people becomes the more democratic it becomes for that very reason. This is presented not as a truth but as an objective. Democracy would find its consummation in (democratic) national development (465).

This constitutes the final outcome of his synthesis of Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism.