We could all benefit from re-reading Democracy in America as we debate economic opportunity, the just rewards of hard work, and the possibility of class warfare
As I hope was true for you, I had much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. I also had the time to read, and I used it to good effect. I (literally) dusted off Democracy in America. My copy has yellowed pages, no glue left in the binding, and occasionally legible notes in the margins from sometime in the 1980s.
But it was worth a few sneezes to be reminded of the strengths and weaknesses of our democracy and the lessons of history, many of which are particularly relevant today. For anyone who is concerned about economic opportunity and the possibility of class warfare in this country, de Tocqueville offers some reminders to the exceptionally rich so that they can avoid the fate of French aristocrats. But he also reminds the rest of us that equality is more about opportunity than outcome, and that there is a nexus between effort and wealth. For anyone who is concerned about the loss of free speech on college campuses and the kind of society that portends, de Tocqueville warns us that there are risks in “seek[ing] to lull the community by a state of too uniform and too peaceful happiness.”
As I examine tax policy and reform, I’ll have more to say on the topic of class warfare. And as a political blogger, I may need to weigh-in on the side of free speech. But for now, I would recommend that everyone read Chapter 46 of Democracy in America and think about how much better off we would be if our political leaders did the same.
For those who do not own a copy, I have excerpted what I believe to be the most instructive sections below. I hope you find it as insightful today as it was in the 1830s.
“As wealth is subdivided and knowledge diffused, no one is entirely destitute of education or of property; the privileges and disqualifications of caste being abolished, and men having shattered the bonds which once held them fixed, the notion of advancement suggests itself to every mind, the desire to rise swells in every heart, and all men want to mount above their station; ambition is the universal feeling.
But if the equality of conditions gives some resources to all the members of the community, it also prevents any of them from having resources of great extent, which necessarily circumscribes their desires within somewhat narrow limits.
. . .
The small number of opulent citizens who are to be found amidst a democracy do not constitute an exception to this rule. A man who raises himself by degrees to wealth and power, contracts, in the course of this protracted labor, habits of prudence and restraint which he cannot afterwards shake off.
. . .
I think that, in our time, it is very necessary to purify, to regulate, and to proportion the feeling of ambition, but that it would be extremely dangerous to seek to impoverish and to repress it over much. We should attempt to lay down certain extreme limits, which it should never be allowed to outstep; but its range within those established limits should not be too much checked.
I confess that I apprehend much less for democratic society from the boldness than from the mediocrity of desires. What appears to me most to be dreaded is, that, in the midst of the small, incessant occupations of private life, ambition should lose its vigor and its greatness; that the passion of man should abate, but at the same time be lowered; so that the march of society should every day become more tranquil and less aspiring.
I think, then, that the leaders of modern society would be wrong to seek to lull the community by a state of too uniform and too peaceful happiness; and that it is well to expose it from time to time to matters of difficulty and danger, in order to raise ambition, and to give it a field of action.”