Tocqueville foresaw how it would come.
Myron Magnet writes: Alexis de Tocqueville was a more prophetic observer of American democracy than even his most ardent admirers appreciate. True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called “democratic despotism.” That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.
“The man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.”
Readers don’t fully credit Tocqueville with being the seer he was for the same reason that, though volume 1 of Democracy in America set cash registers jingling as merrily as Santa’s sleigh bells at its 1835 publication, volume 2, five years later, met a much cooler reception. The falloff, I think, stems from the author’s failure to make plain a key step in his argument between the two tomes—an omission he righted two decades later with the publication of The Old Regime and the French Revolution in 1856. Reading the two books together makes Tocqueville’s argument—and its urgent timeliness—snap into focus with the clarity of revelation.
“True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called ‘democratic despotism.’”
What’s missing in volume 2 of Democracy is concrete, illustrative detail. Volume 1 mines nine months of indefatigable travel that began in May 1831 in Newport, Rhode Island—“an array of houses no bigger than chicken coops”—when the aristocratic French lawyer was still two months shy of his 26th birthday. Tocqueville’s epic journey extended from New York City through the virgin forests of Michigan to Lake Superior, from Montreal through New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee by coach, steamboat, and even on foot through snow-choked woods, until he and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, boarded a steamer for New Orleans.
“That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.”
From there, they crossed the Carolinas into Virginia, visited Washington, and returned to New York to embark for home with a trunkful of notes and American histories. Tocqueville had watched both houses of Congress in action and interviewed 200-odd people, ranging from President Andrew Jackson, ex-president John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Edward Livingston, Senator Daniel Webster, Supreme Court Justice John McLean, and future chief justice Salmon Chase to Sam Houston, a band of Choctaw Indians, and “the last of the Iroquois: they begged for alms.”
Only by the time The Old Regime came out, though, three years before Tocqueville’s untimely death from tuberculosis at 53 in 1859, had he amassed the wealth of practical political experience needed to flesh out the argument of Democracy in America’s second volume. After three terms in the Chamber of Deputies during Louis Philippe’s bourgeois monarchy, he had served in the Constituent Assembly following the 1848 revolution, helping to write the Second Republic’s constitution and serving as foreign minister, until president Louis Napoleon made himself emperor. He had researched The Old Regime by reading mountains of official reports and correspondence from the 1750s onward in the archives, chiefly of Tours and Paris. All this allowed him to document what had been inspired but mostly theoretical speculation in volume 2 of Democracy in America.
Tocqueville didn’t go to America out of blind democratic enthusiasm. “It is very difficult to decide whether democracy governs better, or aristocracy,” he mused: but the question is merely academic, because anyone who pays attention to swiftly shifting French affairs—from the Revolution, the Directory, and Napoleon to the Restoration and the constitutional monarchy of 1830—can’t deny that “sooner or later we will come, as the Americans have come, to an almost complete equality of conditions.” In that case, “[w]ould it not then become necessary to consider the gradual development of democratic institutions and mores not as the best way to be free but as the only way left to us?”
“In French, the word is moeurs, meaning manners, morals, core beliefs, and customs—what we would call culture. There are ‘three major factors that have governed and shaped American democracy,’ Tocqueville argued, ‘but if I were asked to rank them, I would say that physical causes matter less than laws and laws less than mores.’”
So he went to America in search of “lessons from which we might profit”—negative lessons as well as positive ones. And just after the publication of volume 1 of Democracy in America, he cast his own lot with democracy, marrying, to his family’s horror, a beautiful middle-class English Protestant, Mary Mottley, whom he considered “the only person in the world who knows the bottom of my soul”—but who never shed her middle-class outrage at “the least deviation on my part,” he complained. After all, who can stop his “blood boiling at the sight of a woman”? (And, already at 17, he had fathered a child, whose fate is unknown, with a servant girl.) Still, he at least remained faithful to democracy: when he inherited the title Comte de Tocqueville in 1836, he never used it.
In America, he believed, he’d find democracy in its purest form—morally pure but also unmixed with any vestiges of a hierarchical regime from which it had had to revolt, unlike any other modern democracy. The earliest Anglo-American settlers had crossed the sea to begin the political world afresh. This band of equals had “braved the inevitable miseries of exile because they wished to
ensure the victory of an idea,” he wrote—the Puritan idea that “was not just a religious doctrine” but that “coincided with the most absolute democratic and republican theories,” inseparably intertwining “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”
“’There is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.’ Free and collaborative: that’s the mainspring of American mores.”
For the Pilgrims, Tocqueville explained, “Religion looks upon civil liberty as a noble exercise of man’s faculties, and on the world of politics as a realm intended by the Creator for the application of man’s intelligence. . . . Liberty looks upon religion as its comrade in battle and victory, as the cradle of its infancy and divine source of its rights.” As the settlers believed, “religion subjects the truths of the other world to individual reason, just as politics leaves the interest of this world to the good sense of all, and it allows each man free choice of the path that is to lead him to heaven, just as the law grants each citizen the right to choose his government.”
“Nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering ‘public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion.’”
So Puritanism was the wellspring of American mores—a key term for Tocqueville that refers not just to “what one might call habits of the heart, but also to the various notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind.” In French, the word is moeurs, meaning manners, morals, core beliefs, and customs—what we would call culture. There are “three major factors that have governed and shaped American democracy,” Tocqueville argued, “but if I were asked to rank them, I would say that physical causes matter less than laws and laws less than mores.”
From the seventeenth-century Puritan acorn grew American culture’s fundamentally libertarian creed. Universal reason (which reveals Jefferson’s self-evident truths, for example) is the source of moral authority, “just as the source of political power lies in the universality of citizens.” Most Americans believe that “consensus is the only guide to what is permitted or prohibited, true or false,” and that “the man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.” And they believe in human perfectibility, the usefulness of the spread of enlightenment, and the certainty of progress, so that what seems good today will give way tomorrow to something better but as yet unimagined.
Why are your ships not built to last? Tocqueville once asked an American sailor. Naval architecture improves so quickly, the sailor replied, that the finest ship would be obsolete before it wore out. A Silicon Valley engineer would sound the same today. Read the rest of this entry »
Born 225 Years Ago, Tocqueville’s Predictions Were Spot On
Arthur Milikh writes: We often boast about having attained some unimaginable redefinition of ourselves and our nation. How odd then, that someone born 225 years ago today could understand us with more clarity and depth than we understand ourselves.
Back in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville accurately foresaw both much of what ails us and our remarkable uniqueness and strengths.
“Despots of the past tyrannized through blood and iron. But the new breed of democratic despotism ‘does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul.’”
Tocqueville’s deservedly famous book, “Democracy in America,” was the product of his nine-month excursion throughout Jacksonian America. The purpose of this trip was to study our country’s political institution and the habits of mind of its citizens.
America’s Place in the World
Tocqueville correctly thought the then-developing America was the way of the future. As such, he foresaw that Europe would never be restored to its former greatness—though he hoped it but could serve as the cultural repository of the West.
He also predicted Russian despotism, thinking that Russia was not yet morally exhausted like Europe, and would bring about a new, massive tyranny. In fact, he conjectured that America and Russia would each “hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day.”
“The majority’s moral power makes individuals internally ashamed to contradict it, which in effect silences them, and this silencing culminates in a cessation of thinking.”
He therefore hoped America would serve as an example to the world—a successful combination of equality and liberty. And an example of this was needed, since equality can go along with freedom, but it can even more easily go along with despotism.
“Tocqueville feared that the majority’s tastes and opinions would occupy every sphere of sentiment and thought. One among many illuminating examples is his commentary on democratic art.”
In fact, much of the world did go in the direction of democratic despotism—wherein the great mass of citizens is indeed equal, save for a ruling elite, which governs them. In a strange sense, Tocqueville would think that North Korea is egalitarian.
Despite his hopes for America, Tocqueville thought grave obstacles would diminish our freedom—though he didn’t think them insurmountable.
The Power of the Majority
Most alarming to him was the power of the majority, which he thought would distort every sphere of human life.
“The majority reaches into citizens’ minds and hearts. It breaks citizens’ will to resist, to question its authority, and to think for themselves.”
Despots of the past tyrannized through blood and iron. But the new breed of democratic despotism “does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul.”
That is, the majority reaches into citizens’ minds and hearts. It breaks citizens’ will to resist, to question its authority, and to think for themselves. Read the rest of this entry »
‘Blame America First’ Journalism Hits New Lows
“The very definition of Blame America First liberalism in the guise of ‘explanatory journalism.’ The U.S. never should have been created so it would be easier, 230 years or so later, for liberals to pass a carbon tax. How petty.”
…written by Vox‘s Dylan Matthews and headlined: “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake.” …Matthews argues that had the colonies remained under British control, slavery would have been abolished earlier, government would be more proactive, and calls for a carbon tax would have passed with ease…
“Save Harvard University the embarrassment and never again allow their graduates into journalism.”
— Media Research Center Vice President of Research Brent Baker
American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it…
I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier….
In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax.
Read the rest of this entry »
[Order Michelle Malkin’s book “Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs“ from Amazon.com]
“I think the ‘conservatarian’ term is not a linguistic trick, it is a substantive attempt to describe a certain coterie on the right,” explains Charles C. W. Cooke, a writer for National Review and author of The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future“. “These are the people who say when they are around libertarians they feel conservative, and when they are around conservatives they feel libertarian…(read more)
[Check out Charles C. W. Cooke‘s new book: “The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future” at Amazon.com]
Samuel Moyn writes: A generation ago the political philosopher Larry Siedentop published an essay called “Two Liberal Traditions,” its title a nod to his teacher Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” An American, Siedentop had traveled to the University of Oxford in the 1950s to study under the great Cold War liberal, and later he taught there for decades.
“How, against its original purposes, was the Gospel’s message brought down to earth?”
In his still mandatory essay, Siedentop persuasively argues that Anglo-American liberalism has never been the sole version of the tradition. There is also, Siedentop contends, a characteristically French approach, more historicist and sociological than conceptual and normative in making the case for modern liberty. Great nineteenth-century French thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville generally cast liberal values such as individual freedom as complex social achievements won over long periods, to be treasured and fostered precisely because they reflect collective advancement, not merely moral truth.
“There was a time before the individual, and Siedentop spends his first few chapters dwelling on it: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom.”
This line of thought suggests that history and experience are central to the making of liberal values and not simply the storehouses of wisdom for conservatives, better known for appealing to the past. Unlike their Anglo-American counterparts from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls, Frenchmen did not rely on the thought experiment of the social contract to motivate allegiance to liberal norms. Thus their approach, as Siedentop describes it, is an indispensable counterpart to the usual focus in our own liberal tradition, which prizes normative justification rather than a story about how we came to defend liberal values, through what institutions and practices.
[Check out Larry Siedentop’s book “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism” at Amazon]
Of course, a lot turns on how believable the narrative is. In his new book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop tries his own hand at telling how modern freedom came about. Channeling the project of the French tradition, he leans heavily on the almost-forgotten Guizot, the political theorist and government minister whose History of Civilization in Europe (1828) Siedentop in effect revives and updates. (If readers have any recollection of Guizot, it is probably because in the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx denounces him as a leading statesman of a conservative entente that had brought stability but not justice to post-Napoleonic Europe.)
There are a few powerful components to Siedentop’s rehabilitation of the French tradition. The most important follows that tradition’s most promising move, which is to treat modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact. There was a time before the individual, and Siedentop spends his first few chapters dwelling on it: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom. “They failed to notice,” Siedentop comments mordantly, “that the ancient family began as a veritable church.”
This history may be news to Anglo-Americans liberals, who routinely take the individual as a natural given. In the social contract, individuals are a premise, not a product. In economics, the satisfaction of individual preferences is the self-evident goal, but this is never explained or justified, even though it is an astonishingly rare commitment across the sweep of time. Siedentop wants to treat such first principles as the result of a history that made liberalism conceivable in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »
Private enterprise does more for the national good than it gets credit for
James Huffman writes: Alexis de Tocqueville reported that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. . . . Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
Tocqueville went on to observe that these civil associations serving every imaginable end were the product of what he called “self-interest well understood.” Tocqueville reflected that “the beauties of virtue were constantly spoken of” in “aristocratic centuries,” but he doubted that men were more virtuous in those times than in others.
In the United States, he had observed, “it is almost never said that virtue is beautiful.” Rather Americans “maintain that . . . [virtue] is useful and they prove it every day.” This is what Tocqueville meant by “self-interest well understood,” which he illustrated with this quotation from Montaigne: “When I do not follow the right path for the sake of righteousness, I follow it for having found by experience that all things considered, it is commonly the happiest and most useful.”
“self-interest well understood” “forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits.”
Twenty-first century Americans have forgotten this ancestral insight—that “self-interest well understood” “forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits.” Perhaps “self-interest well understood” sounds too much of Adam Smith’s invisible hand for present day Americans whose habit, like the French of Tocqueville’s time, increasingly is to look for solutions not to private collaboration but to an omnipresent government. Nineteenth-century Americans who turned to both neighbors and strangers in pursuit of mutual interests would be puzzled at the hard and fast boundary their twenty-first century descendants draw between public and private interest.
“People who spend every day in the week making money, and the Sunday in going to Church, have nothing to invite the muse of Comedy.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville
A history of American humor finds liberation in the horselaugh
Ben Schwartz writes: Who gets to be funny and who gets made fun of? Americans never get tired of that question. At least, we Americans in the think-piece-writing business don’t. Are women funny? Are fat jokes cruel playground humor or legitimate satire in an increasingly unfit culture? Did that comic you’ve never heard of before go too far on that talk show you never watch? Is that black comic who puts on a dress funny, or a demeaning Jim Crow minstrel? Is there such a thing as a man telling a funny rape joke, and if so, why hasn’t it been written yet?
Judging by most late-night talk shows, sitcoms, and stand-up clubs, we go about distributing the cultural authority to make fun of us in much the same way that we’ve gradually doled out other kinds of authority—to vote, own property, run Fortune 500 companies, or sit in the White House. Mainly, it’s been white men kidding, if not ridiculing, us and defining what’s supposed to be funny and what isn’t.
This is the first installment of a new series: a Frenchman reads Democracy in America and investigates how it applies to the contemporary United States.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes: In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville doesn’t waste any time letting you know what impresses him most about America. To Tocqueville, equality and, to a slightly lesser — but very important — extent, religiosity, are the two foundations of the American experiment. His understanding of them certainly challenges both liberal and conservative sensibilities. But what does it say about America today that these two aspects of the American experience seem to be at all-time lows? And does Tocqueville point to a way forward?
The importance of economic and social equality
Tocqueville praises equality in his very first sentence: “Among the many things which drew my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more than the equality of conditions.” Two paragraphs later: “As I went on studying American society, I saw more and more in the equality of conditions the main fact which seemed to cause every other particular fact, and I kept seeing it before me as a central point to which all my observations led.”
Conservatives might not enjoy Tocqueville’s praise of economic and social equality as key to the success of the American experiment, but with some thought, you realize that Tocqueville is giving us a welcome way out of our incredibly dreary debates on the topic. A lot of conservatives claim that while the Left believes equality means equality of outcome, the Right is for equality of opportunity — but that’s a load of hooey. Everyone agrees with equality of opportunity, and all non-communists agree equality of outcomes is not desirable. The question is whether too much inequality of outcome leads to a greater inequality of opportunity. It’s a stubborn fact that, as a matter of dollars and cents, American society has gotten more unequal over the past 30 years. Does it mean that it has also become unequal in other ways? And if so, should we do anything about it? And what? Does Tocqueville show us a way?
Master of many trades
Our age reveres the narrow specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things
Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.
We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?
As Americans gather to celebrate the anniversary of our nations freedom, we contemplate, on the one hand, the revolution in Egypt, where people crying out for freedom could only appeal to the military, having lost any power of self-government; and, on the other, the slow imposition of Obamacare in the United States, delayed only so that it might never be defeated, creeping gradually into every aspect of life, administered by agencies already shown to be hostile to freedom. We have much for which to be grateful–and much about which to be warned.
The words of Alexis de Tocqueville in Book Four, Chapter VI of Democracy America are particularly poignant:
I had remarked during my stay in the United States, that a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism…
I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest,–his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not;–he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their gate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industr, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
This, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successfully taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just desribed might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people….
It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other.
Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is vain to summon a people, who have been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.
I add, that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them….
A constitution which should be republican in its head, and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts, has ever appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the inaptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.
The old regime fears a revolution
Does Alexis de Tocqueville have anything to say to the current generation of Chinese leaders?
In recent decades, the case study of political change of greatest interest to Chinese leaders has been the passing into the dustbin of history of the Soviet Union, that most powerful of all Communist regimes. Some analysts blame Mikhail Gorbachev for political reforms that precipitously undermined the government’s hold on power; others point to the sclerosis that overtook the Soviet system and the failure of its leaders to adjust socialist principles to new circumstances; others still—good Communists to the end—see the hand of the West at work, manipulating internal weaknesses to bring down America’s superpower rival.
Interest in this question is more than academic. For the Chinese -government and its supporters, the overriding concern is to head off a similar fate for their own Communist party. But as a new generation comes to power, many increasingly doubt they can avoid such a turn. Major protests throughout the country continue to alarm and bedevil the government and the party, and with good reason. The economic growth that for 30 years helped keep hopes high and dampen social tensions is slowing dramatically. University graduates struggle to find good jobs, even as nouveaux riches proliferate. The party’s ubiquitous slogan, “Social Harmony,” is at odds with what everyone sees. Corruption remains pervasive, elites secrete their wealth overseas, and party “robber barons” appropriate land from farmers only to turn it over to the developer who promises the middleman the biggest cut. Add to this the environmental disasters China faces and the looming demographic crisis (too few females; too few younger workers to support a rapidly aging population), and it is no wonder that so many Chinese leaders worry about the future—not only for their country but also for themselves.
Given these challenges, some in China seem to feel they have extracted all the lessons one can from the fall of the Soviet Union. Which brings us to Tocqueville, who, according to the Economist, has “been enjoying an unusual revival in bookshops and in the debates of intellectual bloggers.”
Even high-ranking officials are now reading Tocqueville—apparently including Li Keqiang, China’s new premier. Feng Chongyi, a Chinese academic teaching in Australia, recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review that many Chinese government officials, “including two members of the all-powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party,” are studying The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville’s other classic, a book that analyzes the causes of the French Revolution and which is barely known to most Americans. Chongyi observes that while “it sounds bizarre that such a book published more than 150 years ago on the history of a seemingly remote country would become popular among top leaders in China at this juncture, . . . a lot of strange things are taking place in China nowadays.”
Strange indeed, but Tocqueville’s Old Regime may be exactly the book for this moment in Chinese history. As Tocqueville himself explains, his aim in writing about that bloody and ultimately disastrous revolution was “to discover not only what illness killed the patient, but how the patient could have been cured. . . . My purpose has been to paint a picture both accurate and instructive.”
Some major themes of the book cannot help but remind the Chinese of their own circumstances. For a Chinese reader, the revolution of 1789 is neither the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China, nor the Communist revolution of 1949, but the revolution they wish to avoid in the future by achieving a successful transition from their current situation to a more stable order. This reading suggests, paradoxically, that the Chinese are still living under the Old Regime.
CHARGES LEVIED BY THE STATE UNDER THE RULE OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY:
Let us now suppose that the legislative authority is vested in the lowest order: there are two striking reasons which show that the tendency of the expenditures will be to increase, not to diminish.
As the great majority of those who create the laws have no taxable property, all the money that is spent for the community appears to be spent to their advantage, at no cost of their own, and those who have some little property readily find means of so regulating the taxes that they weigh upon the wealthy and profit the poor, although the rich cannot take the same advantage when they are in possession of the government.
In countries in which the poor have the exclusive power of making the laws, no great economy of public expenditure ought to be expected; that expenditure will always be considerable either because the taxes cannot weigh upon those who levy them or because they are levied in such a manner as not to reach these poorer classes. In other words, the government of the democracy is the only one under which the power that votes the taxes escapes the payment of them.
In vain will it be objected that the true interest of the people is to spare the fortunes of the rich, since they must suffer in the long run from the general impoverishment which will ensue. . .
Here we should observe that Tocqueville inclines toward supply-side economics. To continue:
Again, it may be objected that the poor never have the sole power of making the laws; but I reply that wherever universal suffrage has been established, the majority unquestionably exercises the legislative authority; and if it be proved that the poor always constitute the majority, may it not be added with perfect truth that in the countries in which they possess the elective franchise they possess the sole power of making the laws? It is certain that in all the nations of the world the greater number has always consisted of those persons who hold no property, or of those whose property is insufficient to exempt them from the necessity of working in order to procure a comfortable subsistence. Universal suffrage, therefore, in point of fact does invest the poor with the government of society.
The disastrous influence that popular authority may sometimes exercise upon the finances of a state was clearly seen in some of the democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasure was exhausted in order to relieve indigent citizens or to supply games and theatrical amusements for the populace. It is true that the representative system was then almost unknown, and that at the present time the influence of popular passions is less felt in the conduct of public affairs; but it may well be believed that in the end the delegate will conform to the principles of his constituents and favor their propensities as much as their interests.
But then Tocqueville provides the remedy that is missing from Romney’s rhetoric—how opportunity and social mobility, rather than redistribution, is the better road to advancement:
The extravagance of democracy is less to be dreaded, however, in proportion as the people acquire a share of property, because, on the one hand, the contributions of the rich are then less needed, and, on the other, it is more difficult to impose taxes that will not reach the imposers.