Searching for Tocqueville

February 20th, 2009

Updated 2020.

And now for something completely different, a little consideration of history and our changing life in America.  A bit of a long read, so take your time.

Do you ever wonder the Why of things?  I do that a lot…


For example…

Why does our government subsidize and reward poor financial behavior by giving millions of taxpayer dollars to some who can’t afford mortgages, student loans,  or other loans? Or to the banks and companies getting bailouts who propped up those loans?  Okay, we’re all in this together.  My neighbor’s foreclosure affects my financial life too. But if somone takes out a huge student loan, and then is unable or unwilling to pay it back- do they just get a clean slate?    Do we just offer everyone “free stuff” and think we can go on forever?  That “free stuff” comes from somebody else!

Imagine how those people feel who worked tirelessly to pay their mortgages, student loans and other bills- they worked hard, saved, scrimped and struggled to pay what they owed… and yet the the other guy gets a bailout?   Why don’t we offer financial incentives to those who are financially responsible?

Why must some local governments allow unlawful disorder to continue day after day in their communities while vilifying those who would stand up for the citizens who live and work in those communities?

Why do we as a nation allow the morally bankrupt and apparently mentally unhinged to lead the noise that the media constantly parrots as reality?

There’s a lot more out there….


So many questions.   I find myself recently thinking about what might be the evolutionary path for this Great Republic we call America over the next several decades.  Opposing views and ideologies will always be present in in our political discourse, and yet I wonder if there really isn’t a quiet revolution of some nature taking place?

In considering my many questions, I happened upon an older but inciteful essay by Christopher Oleson, titled Tocqueville’s Democratic America and Ours, who begins by examining that very question:

“Aristotle, in the fifth book of his Politics, noted that political revolutions sometimes take place unobserved due to the fact that they occur over a long period of time through slow incremental changes in the constitution of a political community. This happens, he noted, through gradual relaxation of the principles ordering a community such that œeven a small change can be a cause of revolution. For when they give up one of the details of the constitution, afterwards they also make another slightly bigger change more readily, until they alter the whole system. Thus, in the end, there comes into being a noticeably different political order without any outward subversion of the official system of government.”

He continues to describe and contrast viewpoints written by Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America.

“Rereading Tocqueville’s magisterial account of the American democratic experiment recalled this [Aristotle’s] passage to me, for after having put down Democracy in America, I could not quite shake the feeling that something like what Aristotle was describing must have taken place with respect to our own political institutions.

Maybe this does not seem very engaging, or too irrelevant to consider in some way.  But I would submit that indeed this is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves right now, especially considering our individual political views and ideologies.   The heart of my own yearning for understanding involves precisely what Mr. Oleson has centered upon: The consquence and long-term ramifications of the evolution away from local, or small government, and the migration to a larger national or central government.  Oleson continues by describing what Tocqueville cited as crucial:

“Tocqueville’s America looked somewhat different, and this difference, he argued, was a crucial bulwark of American liberty. I am referring to the importance of the reality of local government if the people are to be authentically free and self-governing. Tocqueville referred to local government as œthat fertile germ of free institutions. The strength of free peoples, he wrote, œresides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people™s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.

As Oleson further describes the local experience of freedom, I find myself very much wondering how America today has moved so far, so fast, from the roots of our liberty:

“In other words, the experience of local and participatory self-government, of citizens of a local community governing and ordering their own affairs in matters truly significant to their common good, is the seedbed of a free society. It is the primary place where a free people exercise their liberty, form socially significant associations, and deliberate together so as to rule themselves in accord with what they think it means to live well.”

It is frustrating, nay, disillusioning to me to see the centralization of democratic power in the national government, and the centralization of media control happening with the major media organizations and communications structures.  The internet has certainly helped foster individual retention of expression, and yet I think we have lost something along the way of the nation’s ideals and founding principles.  I fear a loss of real and ideological liberty, and our understanding of what freedom is, to the continuing detriment of what this nation will become many years from now.   Oleson continues by describing Tocqueville’s understanding of democratic politics of that era:

“This is the meaning, for Tocqueville, of free and participatory democratic politics. And it was precisely because he saw Americans living this kind of local and substantive political life, first in their townships and then in their individual states, that Tocqueville came to regard the citizens of the United States as a genuinely free, self-governing people, and not the passive subjects of a distant, bureaucratic, and centralized power.”

Thinking of life in America today, we live in a rural area with a vibrant small town serving the needs of the community.  It’s fairly close to travel an hour and find more diverse metropolitan pursuits, but we enjoy living where we do, as well as the sense of community and local structures that exist to serve people’s needs.   And yet I find the above passage striking in that we have often assummed our heritage as Americans exists on a similar basis across the nation when in fact it is less and less so.  Oleson also describes a greater fractioning of liberty, where Tocqueville wrote from personal experience how freedoms may erode over time.

“Tocqueville saw this dynamic at work in the dangerous version of democracy that had taken shape in his own beloved France and warned that it was unfortunately the perennial temptation of every democratic nation.  If not vigilantly resisted, he foresaw the emergence of a novel form of benevolent, democratic despotism, œan immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing [its citizens] enjoyment and watching over their fate.  That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentleIt gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritancesThus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties

Such a vision may seem too surreal or practically extreme on the basis of our individual lifetimes and day-to-day experience.  After all, we seek good!  We want a better country, cleaner air and water, safer streets, financial security, a more peaceful world… we only want what is best, right? To make the world a better place?

And yet how if not for the action of creeping, extreme and misguided despotism did the horrendous events leading to the Holocaust unfold?   And we don’t even see it!  How do millions perish in Darfur and millions more starve across Africa in recent years under the watchful eyes of the United Nations?   How is the world today being shaped by a desire for social equality?  How are countless millions infected and die of malaria in Africa each year when we have great means to combat it, yet do not for fear of the social environmental consequences of pesticide use?  How do the terms “social justice” or “economic justice” fit into the constructs of a free, democratic Republic based on the rule of law?

So many questions.  Through the last century- more recently the last decade, we find ourselves struggling through dueling paradigms, a move toward a more European model of social order, contrasted with a struggle for the very roots of the Great Republic itself.   Today we continue searching to define the kind of nation we will be generations hence.   Personally I find myself struggling to understand why people do not yearn more for independence and freedom, but rather seem to embrace government control and sponsorship of the ideas and actions we should be handling at a more personal or local level.  I do not believe that only government can support long term structural equality.   Big (centralized) government has failed and continues to fail, critically, at the individual level.  And it is the individual level at which all else begins.   Oleson describes what, for me, is the chief concern:

“Tocqueville himself was not unaware of the centralizing drift inherent in democratic peoples whose passion for equality outstrips their love of freedom and thus continually increases the centralization of state power. The problem with such centralization is that it robs people of their freedom, saps them of their capacity for self-rule, and reduces them to passive and needy subjects of a vast bureaucracy.” (Emphasis mine)

A centralizing drift… have we not seen that taking place these past years, especially the past few months, and in terms of the financial tumult taking place?  Is this a temporary occurence, or some quasi-permanent shift in the political and socio-economic landscape?  Is it inevitable?

Oleson concludes by considering the political changes we’ve seen and wonders what Tocqueville may have to offer in light of “…the commitments we have lost, and the threat we face now in a looming, omnicompetent nanny state.”

Perhaps we’re not quite there yet.  Oleson’s use of the word “looming” is a good word however, especially considering the political events of 2016-2020 in terms of agencies and inviduals conducting improper investigations into our own government.

Personally I don’t like the divide we see in America today, and yet there’s nowhere on earth I would rather live.  I’ve seen such a large part of this globe over five decades.  Freedom and the rule of law simply do not exist across the world as it does in America.  Although that “rule of law” is being challenged more and more each day.   For people in some countries, they like their restrictions and government regulation just fine, thank-you-very-much.   But we Americans are different in that way.  I do like the 2nd Amendment for example, but it scares the heck out of folks in some other countries.  I’ll admit America’s not perfect.  But find me a nation that is.  For myself, I believe the good ‘ole U.S. of A. is the best thing going in this big world of ours.  And if you don’t believe it… just investigate a little why it is that so many millions of people outside our borders are trying constantly to get inside our borders!  Some say they come for the “free stuff”… maybe so, but I think they really want to come for the Freedom.

I don’t expect that I may ever find satisfactory answers to my questions.  But I’ll keep asking them.   In addition to asking ‘why’, perhaps it’s time to consider Mr. Oleson’s thoughts toward reading Tocqueville once again.


And as for rewarding poor financial behavior?  Seems pretty simple to my son’s second grade teacher.  She’s got this neat little box in the front of the room.  It’s called the treasure box, and it’s filled with lots of neat little doo-dads that little kids like and, if they do well, they get to pick from each week.  It provides an external reward or stimulus to help motivate young kids to behave positively, and to accomplish tasks, especially for those who haven’t developed their intrinsic motivational skills as yet.  Ideally, we hope our kids will grow up and learn right from wrong, how to do things for themselves, to make healthy choices, and because they want to achieve, grow, etc.  Hopefully they grow up to become productive, contributing citizens of our society.  But should we reward their poor choices and behaviors?  No.

I’m not going to debate the merits of using a treasure box in a classroom to motivate kids, especially since I can hardly imagine what it’s like to be an elementary teacher these days.   But I do like the second grade teacher’s rules…  You don’t go to the treasure box unless you get your work done each week, and you behave properly within the classroom.   Seems to me America’s treasure box is being emptied for a lot of the wrong reasons.

8 Responses to “Searching for Tocqueville”

  1. pamela

    I’m confused as to why you feel local governments don’t function when you see your own government working well.
    How could it be a bad idea to have national standards for enviromental issues or educational opportunities or health care availability.

    Which evil people do you mean?

  2. I have Tocqueville’s book on my bookshelf in the needs-to-be-read section. Reading your excellent written post has awakened the need for me to bump it up a little in the pecking order.

  3. Hi Pamela- Not easy to share thoughts in this way… I asked for it, huh? :) I believe local government certainly can function / serve people better as contrasted with national/centralized government mandates (not that they always do…), but especially in fullfilling the needs of citizens at that level. E.g. what works for a small coastal community in CA may not necessarily serve people in my community best/vice versa- and yet local and state government can work together to fulfill responsibilities based on the desires of the people, balanced with laws and regulations at the national level.

    I believe state and local should come first- and our voice at the federal level should be heard. Obviously there are issues such as civil rights where we’ve come to understand that federal/constitutional must be guiding, in concert with sound legislative and judicial balance. I can’t help but wonder if how we perceive and define that balance over time is perhaps the greatest challenge we face?

    I do strongly support national standards – but I see standards as very different from too heavy of mandates/legislation/regulations/control- and that’s the point of my post, and where I see the nation heading. Especially with a near single party majority and executive branch control while the nation remains sharply divided politically.

    We may very well agree with overarching goals and viewpoints on the environment, education and healthcare- and yet we may disagree strongly with the design and implementation of such laws and regulations that affect real people in local communities.
    I appreciate your comments- apologies for the length of mine. Oh, evil people? Those who planned and conducted the Holocaust. Those who instigated and led the massacres in Darfur. Those who advocate and conduct terrorism and murder in the name of religion…

    Ed- Me too, but I don’t have nearly the list that you do yet.

  4. pamela

    I hope you didn’t take my comments as criticism; that wasn’t my intention. Your arguments are well presented; I simply don’t agree that national regulations threaten our freedom. My son, who is a conservative republican (totally a mystery how that happened), and I discuss the issue often. We have yet to agree.
    I would add to your list of evil people. I would add the people who knew about and ignored the horrors of the nazis and Darfur. Peope who know and stand silently by, for whatever reason contribute as greatly as the participants. I would also add people who practice religious terror in daily life.

  5. Not at all- and I so appreciate the dialogue. To turn Socrates around: The examined life is so worth living! I hope I’ll be able to have such conversations with my son when he is older. I agree that ignorance is no excuse, and that silence may be as evil and amounts to concurrence, and yet I can’t imagine being in a situation where fear oppresses so greatly… even to inaction. I have to believe that the actors/perpetrators bear greater culpability.

  6. R. Sherman

    You strike a lot of chords here.

    As depressing as it is to think about, it would appear that we are progressing along the lines of other strong democracies which have a appeared in the past. (Rome comes to mind.) That is, we have moved to a point where the vast majority of our citizens not only have not experienced a struggle to protect the institutions we hold dear but further have no knowledge of anyone who has.

    An example comes to mind of a person I met from NYC a few years ago who said she’d never known anyone who’d served in the military — no relative, even back two generations, no friend, classmate, no one. Thus, she couldn’t appreciate the actually mindset of our service people, today, preferring to accept without critical examination the caricatures drawn by the Code Pink, Oliver Stone types.

    More generally, it is easy for most Americans to revel in the freedoms we have, without ever facing the necessity of defending them or contemplating the possibility those freedoms might disappear.

    Further consider the younger generations today. Anyone younger than 30 most likely grew up with everything s/he needed or wanted provided to them by parents or teachers or whomever. This breeds a sense of entitlement, a belief that decisions have not consequences, an abrogation of the existence of personal responsibility. Why? Because there’s always someone else there to clean up the mess.

    Thus, we can over-borrow, screw-up and someone else will pay the bill.

    True story: When we bought our house in 1999, the real estate people informed me that I could “afford” a house with a price of X. I laughed and said, “I’m self-employed. There could be a downturn in business. I don’t want to spend more than .4X, thank you. Of course, today, I wonder whether that was a smart choice even though I have a low payment which I can make for a long time even if I suddenly am out of work. Had I been smart, I would have bought the big-ass house, defaulted on the mortgage and let the government pay. Now, I just get to be taxed more to buy somebody else’s house.

    I’m a real chump. Financially prudent, but too rich and greedy. In short, the sum of all social evil.

    Sorry for the long comment.


  7. pamela

    My judgement isn’t directed at individuals, but at governments that ignored each of the atrocities you mentioned and chose to delay assistance. As an individual, I don’t know what I would do in such a situation; who could know for certain. It’s easy to state from a comfortable distance that I would have take risks to offer assistance, but would I have taken the same risks and endangered my children? Not such an easy answer.

  8. R.- Interesting thoughts… I hope that gap has closed somewhat in recent years even though the volunteer military is a very small percentage of the nation’s population. I don’t know what to say about the entitlement mentality- will the future make it worse? And regardless of your tongue-in-cheek homeowner comments, it would seem the financially prudent will not only save the day, but also lead us out of this mess.
    Pamela- I see your point. I don’t know either, but I agree it is easy to look at with distance and/or uninvolvement. Yet too much of which I think serves R.’s point, and lessens the collective consciousness for freedom’s cost and value over time. No easy answers, only questions as the saying goes.
    Thanks everyone for commenting… quite a lot to think about.

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