Alexis de Tocqueville

I am reading Hugh Brogan’s wonderful biography of Alexis Tocqueville.

Here’s two pieces of classic Tocqueville.

The first pertains to the shift from aristocratic glory to the bourgeois pursuit of material prosperity.

But if it seems useful to you to direct the intellectual and moral activity of men towards the material necessities of life, and to use them to produce well-being; if reason strikes you as more profitable to men than genius; if your object is not to generate heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vices rather than crimes, and fewer great deeds in return for fewer outrages; of, rather than moving in a brilliant society, you are content to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, the chief object of government is not, in your opinion, to raise a whole nation to its greatest strength and glory, but to procure for each of the individuals who make it up the greatest possible well-being and the least distress; then equalize status and build a democratic government. (263 in Brogan)

The second states his ideals.

I dream of a society where all, regarding the law as their own handiwork, love it and submit to it without difficulty; where, the authority of government being respected as necessary rather than divine, love is felt for the head of state not as a passion but as a calm and rational sentiment  Each citizen having his rights, and being sure of keeping them, a manly, mutual confidence would be established between the classes, and a sort of reciprocal condescension, as far from pride as from humiliation.  Educated in their real interests, the people would understand that to profit by the blessings of society it is necessary to pay for them.  Free associations among the citizens would replace the power of individual nobles, and the State would be sheltered alike from tyranny and license . . . . Changes in the body of society would be regulated and gradual; should there be less distinction than under an aristocracy, there would also be less poverty; enjoyments would be less spectacular, well-being more general; learning and science would diminish, but ignorance be rarer; passions would be less violent and manners gentler; there would be more vice and less crime. (276 in Brogan)

What went wrong?  Tocqueville seems to have underestimated the competitive nature of focusing one’s efforts on economic gain: both the economic need to beggar one’s neighbor and the psychic impulse to only savor one’s good fortune in relation to the other’s ill fortune.  Or, to be more direct, the Christian need to identify and punish the reprobate.  It is the glee with which punishment is meted out—augmented in America by racial animus—that is most depressing as we watch the spectacle of the Republicans taking health care away from millions.

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