Tocqueville’s Diagnosis

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


RINGOES, NJ As brilliant minds, armed with apparently endless supplies of money, thrash about Washington desperately attempting to fix what they have broken, it might be useful to step back for a minute. Our situation is, we are told, unprecedented. Our good sense should tell us not to be surprised. One can only run a bluff so long. Interestingly, the difficulties we are facing were anticipated almost two-hundred years ago by, of all people, a young French aristocrat.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months traveling throughout the United States. Andrew Jackson was president; democratic populism was flourishing; and Tocqueville was intrigued. As a result of his sojourn, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, a penetrating analysis of Jacksonian America but, more broadly, of democracy per se.

Tocqueville found himself standing on the cusp of a new world. Aristocratic structures were crumbling in Europe and had never gained purchase in America. The age of democracy was fast consuming the last vestiges of the ancient regime. The United States of America represented the leading edge of this new world. Concerned about the democratic convulsions in his own country, Tocqueville came to America to study democracy.

What he found gave him plenty of reasons for hope. In America, equality of conditions helped ensure that fewer people lived lives of misery and strife. The vast number of people could lead lives of dignity, happiness, and freedom. Yet, there was a dark side to the social and political shifts Tocqueville identified. While equality of conditions did serve to improve the lives of vast numbers, it also shaped the way citizens saw themselves and the world around them. As we find ourselves increasingly mired in this economic crisis, we might do well to consider Tocqueville, for his analysis of the American character is eerily contemporary and might, if we take heed, provide us with the guidance we so desperately need.

Tocqueville argues that in ages of democracy, people will, above all else, be drawn to commerce. He predicts that this commercial age will be characterized by many complicated influences, and that “it is impossible to foresee in advance the obstacles that can arise.” Yet, arise they will and because of the complexity of the relations and the sheer numbers of people involved, “at the least shock that [economic] affairs experience…all particular fortunes stumble at the same time and the state totters.” Such a crisis, he claims, is the “endemic malady” of any democratic nation. “One can render it less dangerous, but not cure it, because it is due not to an accident, but to the very temperament of these peoples.”

But what is it about democratic people that make them especially susceptible to economic turmoil, which, in turn, can reach so deep as to threaten the state itself? To answer this we must first grasp why it is that commerce is the primary avenue for creative energies in a democratic age. According to Tocqueville, “democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments.” How? In ages of democracy, all are relatively equal; the strict lines of demarcation between social classes have been removed. Social mobility is possible in a way that was simply unimaginable in aristocratic societies where social roles were largely fixed at birth. Mobility, or the possibility thereof, enlivens the imagination with the possibility of bettering oneself. Such an aspiration is not bad, but if the measure of betterment is reduced merely to material benefit (today we call it standard of living), then problems emerge.

The taste for material goods and the pleasures they can provide act as a corrosive agents to religious belief, which, of course, focuses upon non-material reality as the object of greatest concern. Hence, Tocqueville believes that democratic ages will, because of the love of material pleasures that attends those ages, tend toward religious skepticism. Religious belief, of course, serves to temper love of material things. It extends the individual’s temporal horizons beyond immediate gratification or even beyond delayed material gratification. Ultimately, religious belief extends the scope of one’s thoughts to the very fringes of eternity. Heaven is the blessed hope, and the future judgment of the soul is a sober regulator of behavior. “This explains why religious peoples have often accomplished such lasting things. In occupying themselves with the other world they encountered the great secret of succeeding in this one.” Tocqueville’s reasoning here is important: “Religions supply the general habit of behaving with a view to the future. In this they are no less useful to happiness in this life than to felicity in the other.” In short, religion is the best means of “teaching men the immortality of the soul” and for this reason religious belief, for Tocqueville, is indispensible to a democratic people.

When skepticism replaces religious belief, the temporal horizon of a people constricts dramatically. Heaven and the final judgment fade from view, and materialism becomes the dominant social value. The concern for happiness in eternity with God is replaced by a desire for material pleasures now. “As soon as they have lost the habit of placing their principle hopes in the long term, they are naturally brought to want to realize their least desires without delay, and it seems that from the moment they despair of living in eternity, they are disposed to act as if they will exist only a single day.” This passion for immediate gratification is, Tocqueville believes, the reason commerce rather than agriculture is attractive to the democratic citizen.

Agriculture, Tocqueville argues, is an art that requires years to perfect, and though eventually a profit can be turned, the process is slow and the gains modest. Commerce promises the possibility of quick returns. Such a promise complements the desire for material pleasure. Thus, in an age where social mobility is a possibility for all, “when wealth is accumulated and dissipated in a few instants amid the tumult of democracy, the idea of sudden and easy fortune, of great goods easily acquired and lost, the image of chance in all its forms presents itself to the human mind. The instability of the social state comes to favor the natural instability of desires. Amid these perpetual fluctuations of fate the present grows large; it hides the future that is being effaced, and men want to think only of the next day.”

As the idea of the future is lost, concerns constrict to the tiny venue of the present. Because fortunes are made (and lost) every day in the wild enthusiasm generated by material desire, each person can legitimately imagine himself striking it rich. “Those who live amid democratic instability constantly have the image of chance before their eyes, and in the end they love all the undertakings in which chance plays a role.” This, of course, accounts for the popularity of lotteries and other forms of gambling that, with the convenience of the internet, are expanding every day. Tocqueville, of course, did not foresee the easy credit made available immediately to any consumer with a credit card, but if he had, he would no doubt have warned that this device simply fed into the worst impulses of the democratic person, for it reduces, in a striking way, the gap between desire and consummation.

Such habits of mind have also contributed to the creation of a wide variety of “investment vehicles” that promise the possibility of quick money; so too, the wild speculation in houses that led to a market overburdened with homes without buyers. Significant portions of our economy are based in the very kinds of patterns Tocqueville argued would produce economic problems and might even destabilize the state. Today we are witnessing the kind of economic, social, and political turmoil Tocqueville anticipated.

Does Tocqueville offer a solution? He does but the cure might, to some minds, be as distasteful as the illness. In a society that thrives on chance and making a quick buck through investments that require more risk than effort, Tocqueville prescribes a renewal of the idea of hard work. The ideal of quick and easy success must be replaced with ideals that emphasize long-term effort, commitment, and stability.

Government, Tocqueville believes, can aid in this recovery, for leaders do, by word and action, influence the citizens they lead. “Governments must apply themselves to giving back to men this taste for the future which is no longer inspired by religion and the social state, and without saying so, they must teach citizens practically every day that wealth, renown, and power are the prizes of work; that great successes are found at the end of long-lasting desires, and that one gets nothing lasting except that which is acquired with difficulty.” The obvious problem with a government solution is this: why should we expect our leaders to be constituted in a way that is fundamentally different from the citizens from whom they have been chosen?

Government policies can, Tocqueville believes, serve to expand the temporal horizons of citizens. Long-term projects inspire people to look beyond the petty concerns entailed in acquiring material goods for immediate consumption. The construction of a medieval cathedral offers a fine example of such a project. Laborers and craftsmen worked for years and many knew they would never see the completion of that upon which they labored. Yet, they worked. The obvious difference between our age and theirs is that the cathedral was built in an age of religious devotion. Tocqueville is suggesting an analogous effort for a secular age. Perhaps the national mobilization of people and resources during WWII is a modern example; so to, JFK’s challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade. But when grand projects are initiated by the government, one must never lose sight of the dangers that attend such actions, namely the centralization of power. This is a cruel choice given that another of Tocqueville’s concerns is the loss of freedom that necessarily attends the centralization of state power.

Tocqueville admits that the surest means of expanding temporal horizons is religious belief. But in an age of skepticism, this is precisely what cannot be directly appealed to. There is, though, hope. “I therefore do not doubt that in habituating citizens to think of the future in this world, one would bring them little by little and without their knowing it to religious beliefs. Thus the means that permit men up to a certain point to do without religion is perhaps, after all, the only one remaining to us to lead the human race by a long detour back toward faith.” Needless to say, spending dizzying amounts of money to maintain our current habits is precisely the kind of thing Tocqueville would have warned against, for it is ultimately a materialist solution in service of our present comfort.

With a world economy teetering on the verge of collapse, with a national debt growing beyond what most can imagine, with an entitlement crunch coming within a few short years, and with environmental crises looming on the horizon, perhaps it is little wonder that we would be tempted to retreat further into our cocoon of the present. But a reckoning will come, and hiding now will only make the effects more acute when they arrive. As long as our national character is oriented toward the present rather than the future and toward material satisfactions rather than moral and religious verities, any fix will be superficial and temporary. Tocqueville suggests a path toward responsibility that is ultimately rooted in religious belief. But breaking our fixation on the present will not be easy, and retooling our economic, social, and political institutions to reflect a renewed concern for the future will take time. The choice is stark. We can continue our careless frolic in the present, noisily demanding our right to immediate pleasures, or we can seek to live responsible lives, mindful of our duties to future generations and to God. Tocqueville believed both options were possible in a democratic society. One would nourish freedom. The other would destroy it.

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