Alexis de Tocqueville was a French politician, historian, diplomat, and political thinker. He was also a survivor of the Reign of Terror, just avoiding his own execution when Robespierre lost his head. He and a companion were sent to America in 1831 by the French government on a diplomatic mission, ostensibly to study and observe the American prison system. While he and his colleague did visit many prisons, de Tocqueville took the opportunity to observe American democracy. He wrote two volumes about this called Democracy in America, the first of which was published in 1835 and the second in 1840. He was nearly clairvoyant in his observations, warning of the potential for a civil war over slavery. He made many terrific observations which are still valid. That a work of political science should still be relevant 177 years past the date of publication of the first volume is remarkable; but perhaps not, since men, what they desire, their political aspirations, and the nature of power have not changed all that much.
Here are several observations he made that we would do well to study with all earnestness.
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.
The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.
America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.
I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.
When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it.
Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.
There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.
Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.
It is indeed difficult to imagine how men who have entirely renounced the habit of managing their own affairs could be successful in choosing those who ought to lead them. It is impossible to believe that a liberal, energetic, and wise government can ever emerge from the ballots of a nation of servants.
It is above all in the present democratic age that the true friends of liberty and human grandeur must remain constantly vigilant and ready to prevent the social power from lightly sacrificing the particular rights of a few individuals to the general execution of its designs. In such times there is no citizen so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed, and there are no individual rights so unimportant that they can be sacrificed to arbitrariness with impunity.
There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult – to begin a war and to end it.
What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life; if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything around it must also languish; when it sleeps, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish?
There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.
When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.
Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
Every nation that has ended in tyranny has come to that end by way of good order. It certainly does not follow from this that peoples should scorn public peace, but neither should they be satisfied with that and nothing more. A nation that asks nothing of government but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the depths of its heart; it is a slave of its well-being, ready for the man who will put it in chains.
I have always thought it rather interesting to follow the involuntary movements of fear in clever people. Fools coarsely display their cowardice in all its nakedness, but the others are able to cover it with a veil so delicate, so daintily woven with small plausible lies, that there is some pleasure to be found in contemplating this ingenious work of the human intelligence.
Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy; those who had anything united in common terror.
I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.
It would seem as if the rulers of our time sought only to use men in order to make things great; I wish that they would try a little more to make great men; that they would set less value on the work and more upon the workman; that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.
When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind.
Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once. They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. This gives them some respite. They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors. Each individual allows himself to be clapped in chains because that the other end of the chain is held not by a man or a class but by the people themselves.
The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through.
The more alike men are, the weaker each feels in the face of all.
Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect and a sort of violent distortion of their true nature; they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments. Unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind.
From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the graces of the mind, the fire of imagination, depth of thought, and all the gifts which Heaven scatters at a venture turned to the advantage of democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries, they still served its cause by throwing into bold relief the natural greatness of man. Its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge; and literature became an arsenal open to all, where the poor and the weak daily resorted for arms.
Everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure.
Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.
It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in the great things than in the little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without the other.
We can state with conviction, therefore, that a man’s support for absolute government is in direct proportion to the contempt he feels for his country.
The most durable monument of human labor is that which recalls the wretchedness and nothingness of man.
Slavery…dishonors labor. It introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind and benumbs the activity of man.
The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.
You may be sure that if you succeed in bringing your audience into the presence of something that affects them, they will not care by what road you brought them there; and they will never reproach you for having excited their emotions in spite of dramatic rules.
Montaigne said long ago: “Were I not to follow the straight road for its straightness, I should follow it for having found by experience that in the end it is commonly the happiest and most useful track.” The doctrine of interest rightly understood is not then new, but among the Americans of our time it finds universal acceptance; it has become popular there; you may trace it at the bottom of all their actions, you will remark it in all they say.
A man’s admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him.
I am unacquainted with His designs, but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them, and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than His justice
The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.
They will not struggle energetically against him, sometimes they will even applaud him; but they do not follow him. To his vehemence they secretly oppose their inertia, to his revolutionary tendencies their conservative interests, their homely tastes to his adventurous passions, their good sense to the flights of his genius, to his poetry their prose. With immense exertion he raises them for an instant, but they speedily escape from him and fall back, as it were, by their own weight. He strains himself to rouse the indifferent and distracted multitude and finds at last that he is reduced to impotence, not because he is conquered, but because he is alone.
Men who so uneasily tolerate superiors patiently suffer a master, and show themselves proud and servile at the same time. From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.
It was not man who implanted in himself what is infinite and the love of what is immortal: those lofty instincts are not the offspring of his capricious will; their steadfast foundation is fixed in human nature, and they exist in spite of his efforts. He may cross and distort them – destroy them he cannot. The soul wants which must be satisfied; and whatever pains be taken to divert it from itself, it soon grows weary, restless, and disquieted amidst the enjoyments of sense.
If you find these many quotes thought provoking, you can download both volumes of Democracy in America for FREE at the Google Books links shown below. You will need the free Adobe Reader to view them.
Democracy in America, Vol. 1 Democracy in America, Vol. 2
I recognize that there are real and legitimate differences in how men perceive the world and their place in it. Most of these differences are honest differences based on culture, background, and training. Not all of them are that way, though; many are disingenuous attempts to use partial facts and half-truths to persuade men to do that which is against their own long-term interests. But, frequently, long-term interests are ignored and sacrificed for expediency. This is one of man’s greatest weaknesses.
America has reached a critical mass of demographic change and this has been welcomed by many. The results of the recent election have shown that blocks of minority voters and women (who are not in the minority by the way), when banded together, exceed the voting strength of the traditional white-male-anglo-saxon block. As the poet said, “The times they are a changing.” But, what goes around comes around in politics. Today’s liberals are likely tomorrow’s conservatives, or at least their children are, so any perceived mandate over the direction of the country is only temporary in the grand scheme of things. Temporary, that is, except for those things indicated by de Tocqueville, who was extremely prescient and insightful in his observations about America.
As a nation, we have perhaps reached the fatal malaise de Tocqueville warned us about. Those who receive from the government cannot be expected to vote against their own self-interests and our politicians have shown a lack of willpower to curb government spending. This can only lead to massive inflation and ultimately the collapse of our economy. There are dozens of historical examples to look at to make one’s own extrapolations. There is no need to mention them here since every one who would investigate has the same resources as me to research and make their own determinations. Those who would fail to come up with similar conclusions should ask themselves, “What makes us different?”
There is nothing that makes us different. No entity can continuously spend more than it takes in without eventually having to pony up. There is always a day of reckoning, just as there was in the home-building industry, just as there was in the credit card industry, and just as there WILL BE in the student loan industry. When the money borrowed exceeds the ability of the borrower to repay, the lender has lost control. That there is something free, or an action can occur without an equal and opposite reaction violates what we know to be common sense. Everything costs something. If we get it for free, it cost someone else.
People never migrated to America to be dependent. They migrated here to be self-reliant; to be free from oppression of one sort or the other, based on their perception of the liberty they thought they would find here. And many of them found just what they were looking for and have since prospered, become solidly entrenched in the middle class, and many of them have become job providers. They saw opportunity in places where our vision has been limited to government dependence.
It seems unlikely that anyone grows up with the goal of becoming a government dependent, though there are those who grow up with dreams of the transfer of wealth from one set of people to another; those who warn us of the greed of corporations and business people . . . those who would see themselves prosper from the success of others. Many of these people think that the successful have an obligation to repay to society what society has provided them. It has even been said that those who are successful dd not build their success themselves, that their duty is to repay their success because it was really built by a benevolent government.
But regulations upon regulations, and increased taxes on profits stifle growth and investment. If one sees the rewards of one’s labor being taken away and given to another, and the risks of investment are not offset by the potential to profit, then one soon finds that investment and growth has been stymied; then who will we all work for? The government? As a class, government employees of one sort or another have become the largest single block of workers . . . and they vote for bigger government. No one votes to kill their own job, even though they may plainly see that the job they are doing is redundant.
Who doesn’t want to make more money? I can’t think of anyone who would choose less money. I can, though, think of politicians who have traded more money, today, to blocs of voters whose increased pay and benefits will be financed on the backs of tomorrow’s voters, who will be unable to benefit in the same manner . . . and will most likely be angry.
I was never a Tea-Party member, though I frequently found myself in sympathy with one of the primary goals of the Tea-Party: to restore fiscal responsibility to the government. I have never seen a political group so maligned and reviled. Almost from the start they were met with vehement and vitriolic opposition, being called racist, bigots, anti-education, and haters. It seems that the Tea-Party opponents have worked to add another denotation to the definition of the word “hate”, which has also come to mean, “those who disagree with me.” Disagreements, even vocal and ardent disagreements, are not hate, nor are they hate-filled. This is an unfortunate development.
Though I said this earlier, it bears repeating. Pardon my redundancy. There is comfort in knowing that cycles bring everything back around, sooner or later. The children of today’s continually-spend-more-than-you-take-in fiscal opportunists will perhaps become tomorrow’s fiscal conservatives. I watched the swell of young people who supported Ron Paul in his clear message of personal liberty, personal responsibility, and fiscal responsibility, until Ron Paul was done-in by our firmly entrenched two-party system. Many have noted that our two-party system has outlived it usefulness for actually getting prudent things done. We no longer have the loyal opposition, we just have the opposition. Words, bluster, and posturing have been substituted for common sense. Where will it stop?
According to de Tocqueville, it will stop when our republic has ceased to exist as we know it. The citizens have learned that they can vote themselves wealthy, and the politicians have learned that they can bribe the electorate, and by extension, as previously indicated, people seldom vote against their own self-interests. Why should they? Why WOULD they? If there is a stopping place it will be stopped by those who find the present burdens resting on their shoulders when they have no chance of benefit themselves from the system they are supporting. It will be those for whom the trickle-down, government funded largesse no longer trickles-down; it will be when there is no largesse to re-distribute. When we are all equally wealthy, we will all share in the same poverty. Is this the equality anyone had in mind?
I wish there was less government, and less government intrusion. But there are many who are quick with rebuttal, decrying our need for regulation so we can have safe food, safe medicines, better education, infrastructure improvement, and law and order. Of course, government must play a role in the regulation of the dealings of men with each other. That is one of the primary functions of government. Yes, of course, there are businesses who would take advantage of the systems to defraud others, stifle competition, and furnish shoddy, unsafe, and unhealthy things to the public. Yes, we are all glad of the interstate highway system and all the culverts, box culverts, bridges, and beautifully crafted and expensive river and bay-spanning bridges that we all use every day. All these things are functions of government . . . but they are not all functions required by the federal government, since states seem to be able to make their own regulations and programs that protect their citizens and provide for the infrastructure within their borders. Many states take regulations they perceive to be in the best interest of their citizens farther than the Federal government does, and many of those same state have put in place regulations to prohibit spending for these regulations, shifting the burden to the private sector, and are simultaneously witnessing private sector investment and investors leave their state. Will the next round of regulations be those that prohibit free movement?
The government that removes the possibility of my failure also stifles the possibility of my success, homogenizing everything down to a level of mediocrity only desired by those who produce nothing. Is this what we want for ourselves? It this the equality we would claim for ourselves?
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 fate. 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 industry, 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? Thus 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 often to look on them as benefits. After having thus successively 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 nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
De Tocqueville was far ahead of his time in his observations. The government and the people he describes above seems to be the one we would have for ourselves. That there are two different parties, each one seemingly different in philosophy, has been no guarantee against this. Each party seeks its own elevation above all things. Each politician seeks his own re-election. In allowing this, we are steadily becoming reduced to being shepherded by what we now perceive as a benevolent government. But when we have allowed ourselves to be shepherded, we are admitting to being sheep. In our lust for equality, we are reducing the brightest and best among us to the wasteland of mediocrity; and I suspect we’d rather be labeled anything than mediocre. Mediocrity is the harbinger of decay. De Tocqueville said that this is where we would find ourselves one day. Perhaps the day is now.
In this post election period, the next immediate political battle is the one of facing the “Fiscal cliff.” Even now we are hearing this new buzzword, having it become ingrained like it is a new development. The Fiscal Cliff is reached when our government runs out of borrowed money. Even now, each party is using this as a cause for its own agendas. Agendas or not, borrowed money is borrowed money. The misleading cries over government shut-downs, the failure of the government to be able to meet its obligations for payment of wages, the suspension of social security checks, the suspension of medicare, the loss of public safety employees (remember, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away!), and other things is an illusion propagated by those who will raise the government borrowing limit without having a single one of the things mentioned above come to a halt if they don’t. Each party will point fingers at the other, with accusations of obstructionism, callousness, and economic collapse; yet each party will declare that they are doing the will of the people.
This republic of ours is a democratic republic. The majority rules but the minority has rights which cannot be suppressed by the majority, and the nation is divided nearly 50/50 on which way we should go. Had the electorate wanted to present a clear mandate to the executive branch, then perhaps the electorate would have seen fit to change party majority in the House of Representatives. The electorate did not see fit to do so, and all spending bills originate in the House, and each representative is answerable directly to the the people whom he represents every two years. This is a check and balance built into our system. If we are so foolish as to want to remove the checks and balances, then we will deserve the dictator we get as a result. Who would want that?
Well, it seems there are many who would like that, and they come from both sides of the aisle. I know some conservatives who say that we need a strong president who will straighten this country out, and that would be done with the suppression of the right of minorities. I know some liberals who say we need a strong executive branch to ensure that people are provided with what they need for a safe, comfortable life, but that would be done at the expense of everyone but those receiving the benefits. I don’t think either group really understands what it is asking for, or the troubles they will face should they get what they think this country needs. It is a dark place to which either group would lead us.
“Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity,” was the motto of the French Revolution, which not only freed a French public from the excesses of the Bourbon kings, but it consumed those who fought for it and served it to the best of their not-inconsiderable capabilities, ultimately resulting in an fiercely oppressive dictatorship. The sheep had found their shepherd, the man who would bring them peace, the man who exerted his will over Europe for a dozen years, killing off an entire generation of men who were fodder for his hobby. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte.
Do you need any more examples? He was not unique. There were plenty more before him, and plenty more after him. There will yet be another.
Economic freedom is inexorably linked to political freedom. The two cannot be separated. The only way our government can pay for today’s excesses is through growth and fiscal propriety, the debasement of our currency, or revolution. The people have shown that they don’t want the first one (de Tocqueville anticipated that). No one wants the second one since that will ultimately produce massive inflation which will in effect be the biggest tax of all on the middle class (We are in the process of this now . . . Remember we are in the middle of Quantitative Easing Round 3). And for certain, no one wants the last one; at least
I hope no one wants the last one.
We have the perfect framework for government in this wonderful experiment called The United States of America. Hopefully, we citizens understand that, and will not only allow, but demand, that those in positions of government authority be open, transparent, and adhere to the vow they took to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of The United States of America. This, and this alone, is the greatest hope man can have in mankind. We should never neglect it
©2013 Mississippi Chris Sharp