Front Page Titles (by Subject) Administrative Instability in the United States - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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Administrative Instability in the United States - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Administrative Instability in the United States
In America, the actions of society often leave fewer traces than the actions of a family.—Newspapers, the only historical memorials.—How extreme administrative instability harms the art of governing.
Men hold power only for an instant and then are lost in a crowd that, itself, changes face every day; as a result, the actions of society in America often leave less trace than the actions of a simple family.a Public administration there is, in a way, oral and traditional. Nothing is put in writing, or what is put in writing flies away with the slightest wind, like the leaves of the Sybil, and disappears forever.
The only historical memorials of the United States are newspapers. If an issue happens to be missing, the chain of time is as if broken: present and past are no longer joined. I do not doubt that in fifty years it will be more difficult to gather authentic documents about the details of the social existence of the Americans of today, than about the administration of the French of the Middle Ages; and if an invasion of barbarians happened to surprise the United States, it would be necessary, in order to know something about the people who live there, to resort to the history of other nations.
Administrative instability began by entering into habits; I could almost say that today each person has ended up by acquiring the taste for it. No one is worried about what was done before. No method is adopted; no collection is assembled; no documents are gathered, even when it would be easy to do so. When by chance someone has them in his possession, he hardly holds onto them. Among my papers, I have original pieces that were given to me in the offices of the public administration in order to answer some of my questions. In America, society seems to live from day to day, like an army in the field. Yet, the art of administration is definitely a science; and all sciences, to progress, need to link together the discoveries of different generations as they succeed each other. One man, in the short space of a life, notices a fact, another conceives an idea; this one invents a method, that one finds a formula; humanity gathers along the way these various fruits of individual experiences and forms the sciences. It is very difficult for American administrators to learn anything from one another. Therefore, they bring to the conduct of society the knowledge that they find widespread in society, but not the learning that is their own.b So democracy, pushed to its extreme limits, harms progress in the art of governing.c From this perspective, it is better suited to a people whose administrative education is already formed than to a people who are inexperienced novices in public affairs.
This, moreover, does not relate uniquely to administrative science.d Democratic government, which is based upon such a simple and natural idea, always supposes the existence of a very civilized and learned society.5 At first you would think it contemporaneous with the earliest ages of the world; looking more closely, you easily discover that it could have come about only during the last.e
[If nations had begun with democratic government, I doubt they would ever have become civilized.]
[a. ] Variant: “<≠. . . a singular instability in the course of administrative affairs. No one finishes what he began; no one hopes to finish what he begins.≠>”
[b. ] In the margin: “≠Dem[ocratic (ed.)] government, the chef-d’oeuvre of civilization and enlightenment.≠”
[c. ] “Legislative instability in America, its effects, its causes./
“Mutability of public officials. Madison proves very ingeniously that this mutability, apart from its recognized ill effects, diminishes the responsibility of officials. New proposition, Federalist, p. 271 [No. 63 (ed.)]” (YTC, CVb, p. 25).
“After the electoral system, a small chapter on legislative and administrative instability in America is absolutely necessary. Show how, since nothing has any follow-up, no one can finish what he began. In this way responsibility diminished instead of increased, as is believed (Federalist, p. 268 [No. 62 (ed.)])” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 27).
[d. ] On Tocqueville and the science of administration, see Roland Drago, “Actualité de Tocqueville (Tocqueville et l’administration),” Revue des sciences morales et politiques, 139, 1984, pp. 633-49.
[5. ] It is unnecessary to say that here I am talking about democratic government applied to a people and not to a small tribe.
[e. ] In the margin: “Is this clear and developed enough? Ask G[ustave (ed.)] and L[ouis (ed.)]?”