Posted: July 30, 2012
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is no doubt the greatest book ever written by a foreigner about this country. It may be one of the greatest books written about any country by someone outside of it. The volume shows the extent to which Tocqueville had separated himself from one version of the Enlightenment. The English Enlightenment, which occurred in the 18th century and lasted into the 19th, was one that promoted liberty and self-study, did not attack religion, valued common sense, and was tempered by the operations of a decentralized state. The French Enlightenment—of which Tocqueville was not a part, but which had produced the French Revolution—was a movement that promoted not only liberty, but equality, and fraternity (one might add adultery), attacked religion, valued ideology, and was made worse by a centralized state. Tocqueville was apart from his culture; John Stuart Mill, one of the great reviewers of Democracy in America, made these flattering remarks about what he said. Tocqueville was in many ways more English than French.
When he wrote about America, he said that this country "was only the frame, my picture was democracy." In 1835, democracy was a new phenomenon in the world, and when he described it he described it in eminently practical terms. He went out and talked to people on the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, and in the nine months he spent in this country he learned about democracy from the experience of ordinary people. And so in his book on democracy he did not quote John Locke; there was no contract theory; he did not discuss James Madison; there was no theory of representation; he did not describe Aristotle's alternative view that a state might produce or elevate human character. Instead he talked to ordinary people because to him a democratic revolution was an irresistible fact—it would sweep the world, and in this sense he was absolutely right, though it took at least two centuries for that to happen.
In his book he talked about the limits to democracy. He suggested that the desire for equality might trump the desire for liberty; he talked about Americans suffering from excessive individualism; he feared the tyranny of the majority, a phrase he later modified to indicate that it was not necessarily the tyranny, but it was the despotism of public opinion. In his views on democracy and equality he was not very clear about what democracy meant. He defined democracy in some places as equality of conditions, by which he meant that Americans were free-born—they had no aristocratic ancestors and had been born equal without having to become so. In other places he meant by democracy the absolute sovereignty of the people. And these two definitions—equality of condition on the one hand and the control by the absolute sovereignty of the people on the other—produce some contradictions in these writings, which I'm not sure he ever entirely resolved.
When he talked about equality he said that it was to be preferred by most people to liberty because equality had huge advantages. Freedom was valuable to the few who spoke out against the regime, but most people didn't, so freedom was valuable to people who were dissidents but not valuable to the ordinary person. Equality, on the other hand, was available to everyone, and thus equality would be preferred to freedom. Moreover, the value of freedom is delayed; only over the long run would you see its advantages. Equality, by contrast, was immediately available; if people were equal—or could be made equal—then they would appreciate it immediately. And finally, he said, freedom can lead to excesses.
Equality and Liberty
This argument that Americans, by being democratic would come to value equality more than liberty, is, I think, profoundly wrong. Americans, to a greater degree than the citizens of other democratic nations, value freedom today as much, if not more, than they valued it in 1835. We accept economic inequality here to a much greater degree than it is accepted elsewhere. Scarcely any American gets mad at Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Michael Jordan or anyone else who has earned incredible amounts of money, so long as Americans feel the money was fairly earned. If a crime boss earns money at the point of a gun, that of course is a different matter, but that's not a rejection of liberty in favor of equality, it is a rejection of criminal as opposed to law-abiding behavior. If you look at the American people, not only do they accept the economic inequality that exists here, they oppose the inheritance tax. This is a remarkable thing: why should average citizens be so determined to oppose the inheritance tax when it could not possibly affect most of them? I think the reason they oppose the inheritance tax is two-fold. First, they believe that their children may become wealthy enough to have the inheritance tax imposed upon them and it would be unfair for Americans to punish their children in the name of the government acquiring more revenue. The other reason is that they feel that the inheritance tax is wrong because the money that people had earned had already been taxed when they earned it—why should it be taxed again when they die? This is a problem that Congress has had great difficulty getting its arms around. Congress would like to have the inheritance tax because it is a source of revenue, and Congress likes having more sources of revenue. But Congress knows that the inheritance tax does not sit well with the American people.
Moreover, Americans object to quotas; that is to say, to any artificial effort to produce equality by assigning merit on the basis of who you are rather than on the basis of what you have achieved. They will support affirmative action, if by affirmative action is meant a search for freedom, a search to find talented people, the desire to make opportunities available to people with respect to their talent without regard to their race or sex. But if you define it in terms of a quota, they object.
If you ask returning service people from Iraq what they think they have been doing, the most common phrase you'll hear is that they're fighting for freedom. Now that's a rather astonishing remark; American leaders do not think we went to Iraq in order to defend freedom, they thought that we went there to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, change the balance of power in the Middle East, or combat radical Muslims. But when the troops come back they think they were defending freedom. Why do they think that? They think that, I believe, because that is the central organizing story of American life. American life is a struggle about freedom. And the satisfactions of American life are the freedoms that we confer on people, and when soldiers fight in any cause in which the U.S. is engaged they talk about freedom as the motive for being there.
Charting a Course
Tocqueville also talked about excessive individualism, which he deplored. Individualism, he said, dries up the source of public virtues and ultimately converts itself into selfishness; the bond of human affections, he wrote, is loosened by our concern for individualism. Later on he modified this a bit to say that public opinion is an irresistible force that may encourage tyranny or at least the omnipotence of the majority. But that is not the American experience. Individualism is a sense that we are masters of our own souls, and although we are individuals we have the highest rate of membership in voluntary associations to be found in any democratic nation. How can you reconcile a commitment to individualism with this commitment to group enterprise? I think that in fact individualism to Americans means the ability for one person to chart his or her course, but it does not mean that we are selfish, it does not mean that we are indifferent to the interests of others, and it does not mean that we wish to impose on the opinions of others.
Tocqueville spent much of his time—and this is the best part of his book—in talking about how we resist majority opinion. All of these comments, I think, are familiar to most of you. He talked about freedom of association; interest groups are an evil, but a necessary one. Americans join interest groups because of the early absence of government, the tradition of weak government, and the influence of Protestant religions that are organized by self-governing communities of believers. He wrote about jury service as a way for individuals to participate in the political system. He noted that the federal system relied on township government, and this aided freedom by allowing people at the local level to combat the possibility of a larger and more powerful government. The only aristocracy to be found in the U.S. was the natural aristocracy of lawyers and judges. The American Bar Association has not quoted this as frequently as it might, perhaps because most Americans think that the distinction between aristocracy and the jurisprudential tradition is a bit wider than Tocqueville imagined.
Habits of the Heart
But his most interesting argument was that the mores and the habits of the people are what keep the U.S. great. As you all know, many countries have adopted a system of constitutional arrangements very similar to that which you find in the U.S. In Mexico, in the Philippines, indeed, in most of Latin America you find duplicates of the American Constitution. But despite these duplicates and despite the fact that some countries, like Argentina, are rich in natural resources, you do not find our tradition of settled government, a respect for the rights of others, and the slow emergence of freedom which leads you to give due regard to the interests of other people without abandoning your commitment to the country as a whole.
How can you explain this? Tocqueville said that our habits of the heart reflected self-interest rightly understood. Self-interest rightly understood is different from individualism; because individualism, he argued (I think wrongly) means withdrawal into a private sphere and the abandonment of collective and public action. But self-interest rightly understood means that individualism has to be tempered by the view that Americans feel it is in their interest to be perceived to be honest and reinforced by a religion which Americans practice without shame. This was in strict contrast with France. "In France," and I quote from him now, "the philosophers said that religious zeal will be extinguished as freedom and enlightenment increase. It is unfortunate that the facts do not accord with this theory." This is a remarkable view for somebody to have in 1835. Freedom, enlightenment, the expansion of human opportunities, not only did not temper religion in the U.S., they encouraged it by turning over religious development to people who were in a competitive struggle to build religious movements. The place where religion suffered was not the places where the English Enlightenment spread, it was in places such as France and Prussia where churches had once been controlled by the government. These government-controlled enterprises were highly vulnerable to political changes that led people to oppose religion as a consequence of opposing the party in power.
Understanding the Regime
Let me conclude by saying a few things about the relationship between Tocqueville's views and those of the framers of the American Constitution. Though I have said some things critical of Tocqueville, this is not because I am critical of him; on the contrary, Democracy in America is in fact a great book. But I want to put Tocqueville in context; I do not want him to be a cardboard hero of American thought with all of his arguments left unexamined. Tocqueville did remarkably well—as I said at the outset, he was the best foreign commentator ever to write about the U.S.—and you can read his book and learn more things that are true about the U.S. today than you can learn by reading any other single book. But he did not understand, I think, the essence of the American enterprise. Let me explain why I think that.
When Tocqueville approached the question of what the people want, he said the people will want equality. When the framers asked this question, they concluded that they wanted liberty. The struggle over the Constitution was not a struggle over equality, it was a struggle over guaranteeing freedom. And the framers by and large succeeded. There are pressures to use the national government to encourage equality, but those pressures have generally been resisted by people who think the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve liberty.
When Tocqueville asked the question: "how will people act politically," he said the country will suffer from uniformity of opinion-the tyranny of the majority. The framers didn't think that; they believed that we would form factions. Madison put it in his defense of the Constitution: human nature will be unchanged, we must adapt the Constitution to the realities of human nature and design a system in which ambition will be made to counteract ambition.
How will we deal with threats to liberty? Tocqueville said that we must rely on the customs and mores of the people to defeat threats to liberty. The framers had a different argument. They said we must rely on institutional arrangements: the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and the like. These institutional arrangements will do more to preserve liberty from the threats of a government than relying upon the customs and mores of the people.
What role for religion in society? Tocqueville made the argument that religion will improve self-interest, and in this respect I think he was correct, more correct than the framers. The framers abandoned any intention to rely on religion in designing the Constitution because they realized that no Union would be possible if the Constitution had to be written in a way that would accommodate the very different religious practices that then existed in the 13 colonies. The only way to have a national Union is for the national government to be silent on the subject of religion, and to make it clear—as the First Amendment to the Constitution did—that Congress shall not impede the free exercise of religion. And the first Congress added the most mysterious phrase in the Bill of Rights: Congress shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion," a phrase that 200 years of jurisprudential scholarship has never clarified.
And finally, on the role of business and commerce, the founders were divided. Alexander Hamilton wanted a national commercial regime; Thomas Jefferson opposed it. In the long run Alexander Hamilton succeeded and the country has been, I think, made greater by this: we have a sound currency, free enterprise, and encouragement for entrepreneurship. For Tocqueville commerce was vulgar. He was, after all, an aristocrat; he thought that a democratic regime would sacrifice many of the aristocratic virtues in order to achieve some unanimity of opinion. To him commerce was undesirable insofar as it encouraged a materialistic way of life. The American Founders were divided, but the ones that prevailed—Hamilton and his descendants—I think were correct, and Tocqueville on this matter was wrong.
In short, I am a huge admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville and have learned a great deal from his book. I apologize for these critical remarks about him, but it is too easy to idolize a person who wrote a century and a half ago and to believe that everything he wrote must surely be true. Most of the things he wrote were completely true, but on these fundamental questions where Tocqueville's view of this country and the founders' view of this country differed so profoundly, it seems to me that we have to be clear that the founders had a better understanding of what would make a regime work than Tocqueville did. We have become, contrary to Tocqueville's suspicions, a commercial republic that greatly values liberty and in which individualism has coexisted with the highest level of philanthropy to be found anywhere in the world. As much as I admire Tocqueville, what he wrote left a bit to be desired.