Liberty Matters

Tocqueville’s Balancing Act

Let me return to Aurelian Craiutu’s reflections on Tocqueville’s new science of politics and Dan Mahoney’s comment that perhaps Tocqueville’s science of politics is not as new as we might at first imagine.
There are three obvious ways in which Tocqueville followed the conventions of his day. First, he agrees that something, if not everything, can be learned from the physical location and form of a country. Note that the first chapter of Democracy in America is devoted to an examination of “the external configuration” of the United States. Second, although he does not make much of this in his published text, Tocqueville assumes, like Montesquieu and others, that climate has an impact upon the behavior of a people and therefore upon its politics. Third, he believes quite strongly that the national character of a people has an important bearing upon its political institutions and practices. Here Tocqueville specifically accepts the then widely held view that, in terms of language and heritage, Americans possessed no distinct national identity: hence his frequent reference to Anglo-Americans.
Perhaps more importantly, Tocqueville assumed that it was politics and political institutions, and not economics, which acted as the principal drivers of the development of a society. To state the obvious: as political scientists we now tend to assume that it is the other way around. It is this primacy accorded to politics that in part explains the frequent criticism directed at Tocqueville of late that he failed to take adequate notice of the economic and technological innovations that were so transforming America in the early decades of the 19th century.
It can also be argued that Tocqueville shared what was the prevailing assumption that, if the tide of democracy could not be turned back, democracy was also potentially dangerous and needed to be kept in bounds. On this view, Tocqueville simply repeated the Federalist line of argument he had been fed by those he met in Boston upon first arrival in the United States. To this we might add that it can likewise be argued that Tocqueville said little about the functioning of democracy in America that was not already common knowledge.
As an example of the above, we might cite Basil Hall’s Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828 – the second of the two books taken by Tocqueville when he set sail from Le Havre in 1831.[87] The practical operation of democracy, Hall wrote, “neither brings the most qualified men into power, nor retains them long” because “the actual, practical, efficient government of the country has got into the hands of the population at large.” “The voice of the multitude,” he observed, “regulates everything.” The effects of this “torrent” of democracy extended across both public and private life. They lowered “the standard of intellectual attainment” and diminished “the demand for refinement.” Consequently “great men” – be they politicians, scientists, or writers - were in short supply. The abolition of primogeniture meant that, if Americans were good at making money, they lacked “the art of spending it like a gentleman.” American judges disregarded “the collective wisdom of ages” in preference for “what appears right and proper at the moment.” Everybody in America, Hall observed, was “on the move.”
Nevertheless, it is Tocqueville we still read and not Basil Hall, nor many other visitors to America in this period. Why? Well, it might not be because Tocqueville set forth a new science of politics.
This in turn invites us, as Dan Mahoney suggests, to reflect upon what kind of liberal Tocqueville was. Conventionally, liberals of a European stamp are divided up into Kantians, utilitarians, and advocates of versions of Lockean natural-rights theory. None of these adequately describes the position taken by Tocqueville. Mahoney suggests that Tocqueville is best seen as a liberal conservative, and this rings true, but might it be better simply to see Tocqueville as a conservative? Admittedly this is hard to contemplate in a French context, where conservatism might conjure up names such as Maistre and Bonald, but from a British 19th-century perspective this would make perfect sense. For all the fact that Tocqueville thought that Edmund Burke misread the French revolution, there is undoubtedly something of the Burkean about him. For Tocqueville’s admiration of associative life in America read Burke’s famous evocation of the little platoons; and so on. No one can deny that Burke, like Tocqueville, was a defender of individual liberty, but each feared the actions of the impulsive masses and each, to quote Mahoney on Tocqueville, rejected “the ideal of humanity emancipated from divine and natural restraints.” Jennifer Pitts has pointed out the similarity of their views on Empire. Both saw its potential benefits for the colonized, but both were equally adamant in their condemnation of its abuses.
Of course, and as we agree, labels are at best imperfect, but here they do perhaps highlight another problem that faces admirers of Tocqueville. It is hard not to empathize with Aurelian Criautu’s account of his own reading of Tocqueville in the aftermath of the fall of communism in eastern and central Europe. Many of us, I am sure, have been moved by the autobiographical accounts we have heard from colleagues condemned to decades of sterile Marxism-Leninism and their sense of personal liberation when they were at last able to read and talk freely of the works of Aron, Popper, Hayek, and, of course, Tocqueville. Yet, if we are honest – and as Craiutu acknowledges – the outcomes were not always as promising or as positive as originally hoped. Can Tocqueville still act as a guide in these postcommunist societies? Craiutu thinks that they can, but his is far from being a resounding endorsement!
Filippo Sabetti next asks if, in the light of the recent praise for Thomas Piketty’s international bestseller, Tocqueville can have much purchase in a world where western societies are increasingly characterised by growing inequality. Here, for the sake of argument, let us grant that Piketty is right in his claim that under the normal conditions of capitalism the rate of return on capital will tend to be larger than the rate of growth and therefore the rich will continue to become relatively richer.[88] It was only the unusual circumstances created by the global conflicts of the 20th century, Piketty contends, that temporarily masked this tendency. Tocqueville, contrary to what is sometimes argued, was far from economically illiterate, but he, unlike Karl Marx, seems to have started from the assumption that inequality would decrease with the development of commercial society. Adam Smith shared this assumption. Yet, in the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville identifies an emerging “manufacturing aristocracyone of the harshest that has appeared on the earth,” and clearly saw that the profits generated by their large industrial enterprises ran counter to what he took to be the democratic and egalitarian direction of society as a whole. At this point he escapes the difficulties this might pose for his account by suggesting that such enterprises were “an exception, a monster, in the entirety of the social state.” Nonetheless, in describing this new aristocracy as “” he perceived that its existence might generate renewed class struggle.
This fear was only confirmed with the passage of time. In a letter written to Theodore Sedgwick in October 1856, Tocqueville spoke of a “race of desperate gamblers” brought forth by American prosperity that combined “the passions and the instincts of the savage with the tastes, needs, vigour and vices of civilized men.” Who can say, he continued, “where this might lead if they ever gain the upper hand.” As Aurelian Craiutu and I commented in our introduction to Tocqueville on America 1840, “[I]mplicit in this passage is the idea that the market was difficult to control once free reign was given to individual ambitions and interests.”[89]
In truth, we did not need Thomas Piketty to tell us what the dangers were. It has long been recognized that free-market economic policies run the risk of destroying the cultural resources of social solidarity and association that occupy such a central place in Tocqueville’s hopes for the maintenance of a democratic polity. The unequal distribution of wealth, in other words, destroys the social glue that holds society together and that allows it to function. In such a society there can be no talk of the common good and of social justice and little, if any, benefit accrues to the worst off.
How could Tocqueville respond? Tocqueville, it might be argued, faced the dilemma of having to reconcile the claims of liberty and individualism and those of stability and a sense of community. But if we take Tocqueville to be a liberal, he is forced to prioritize the former over the latter. Accordingly he has little by way of intellectual armory to respond to the free-floating, self-realizing individual so dear to modern liberal philosophy, or to the utility maximizer of market economics. The Tocquevillian balancing act collapses.  
There is much that might be added to this by way of commentary on the fit, if any, between Tocqueville’s ideas and the structure and dynamics of actually existing society, but here it might be sufficient to say that what I have characterized as Tocqueville’s dilemma is one that those of us who continue to admire his work also share and need, with increasing urgency, to resolve. If not, we might all find ourselves paying “Piketty taxes”!
[87.] Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828 (Cadell: Edinburgh, 1829), 3 volumes.
[88.] The Financial Times has challenged these statistical findings.
[89.] Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings, eds. and trans. Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.30.