The Wellspring of Individual Will

We find ourselves now at a severe turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present. Yet, this is also an opportunity, a rare moment in history that calls us to clarify our purpose and correct the attitudes and behaviors that brought us to this place.

We have lost a sense of ultimate purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends. This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

To straighten things out will require that we address tough questions with open-minded objectivity. The effort may not be comfortable, but it will be essential if we are to regain our balance and rebuild our resolve.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson has provided us with a compelling review of what has come to pass. He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability in the United States has had devastating consequences.

His four areas of concern are, to use my own words, 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of our past, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America: “I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted? I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from the first volume of his famous commentary, Democracy in America, which was published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion. There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened to American civil society? And what is the consequence of this loss?

As Tocqueville reports, Americans had once succeeded in overcoming constraints to freedom through their own initiative and sense of community.

Unfortunately, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement, based on committed interpersonal relationships, has been replaced by a self-centered attitude, the loss of community, and the isolating influences of the automobile, television, and the digital age.

Surely it is time to restore what we once did so well, and to address the great challenges ahead with renewed strength and responsibility.


Next week: When individual will is co-opted by government.