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Alexis de Tocqueville

  • tocqueville
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Tags U.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

03/09/2017Ralph Raico

From the Foreword by David Gordon ...

Much of Ralph Raico’s scholarly work centers on French classical liberalism. We are thus especially fortunate to be able to publish an essay by him on one of the greatest French classical liberals of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville. The essay appears to be an introduction to an edition, which never was published, of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Unfortunately, no further information about the essay has yet turned up.

Raico notes the fundamental theme in Tocqueville’s book on democracy. Tocqueville thought that democracy and equality were inevitable, but he feared their onset. The cure was to mold democracy through enlightened leadership: “The Christian nations of our day seem to me to present a most alarming spectacle; the movement [toward democracy] which impels them is already so strong that it cannot be stopped, but it is not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided. ... A new science of politics is needed for a new world.”

If democracy were left unchecked, people would come to lead banal lives, guided by the soft despotism of the state: “I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observer is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike. ... Each exists only 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 it upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.”

This dire trend could in part be countered if people were guided by enlightened self-interest, as they were in America: “In America, the individual understands that his own interest is bound up with that of his fellows and of society as a whole. He realizes that he will prosper if the laws are upheld and freedom respected — that he will suffer, in the most direct and personal way, from the breakdown of order or despotic government.”

Self-interest by itself, though, would not suffice to hold despotism at bay. It needed to be supplemented by religion. Tocqueville’s conclusion is all the remarkable because he himself had abandoned the Catholicism of his youth: “But self-interest, even when enlightened, and thus no threat to freedom, still has its drawbacks: Above all, Tocqueville’s old bete noir, the lowering of aspirations and a brutalization of the personality. The remedy for this is, again, religion. Should the state therefore establish a religion? By no means. The best support that politicians could give to religion, Tocqueville says, is to act as if they believed in it and act morally themselves.”

Raico shows in masterful fashion how Tocqueville’s insights stemmed from his historical context and his own distinctive personality. In his stress on social institutions and on the trend toward democracy, Tocqueville was influenced by François Guizot, who like him, was both a historian and political actor. His ambivalence toward the democratic trend manifested his own aristocratic personality, impatient of the mediocre: “Tocqueville scorned the small-minded preference for pleasure over greatness of character and achievement.” We can say exactly this about Ralph Raico himself.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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