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Tocqueville was wrong on the public spirit

September 2, 2005

Alexis de Tocqueville, born 200 years ago in Paris, traveled in America and wrote about the country in his famous book, Democracy in America. He is widely recognized as a most astute observer of American democracy. It is worth considering one of his points at this particular time because it seems to have been overly pessimistic.He wrote that,

... As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them [in a free, democratic society], its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (Democracy in America, vol. 2 [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945], pages 98-99.)

Was de Tocqueville right? Do citizens of a democracy—by which he meant a free society in which individualism is much prized—fail to develop public spiritedness? Do they see themselves as lacking any responsibility toward others in their community? It seems this is not so and de Tocqueville was mistaken. His mistake can be seen in just how readily so many Americans rose to help out those who were the causalities, way on the other side of the globe, of last year's tsunami; he is once again proven wrong by how eagerly Americans seem to wish to help those left in ruin by Katrina. But why did de Tocqueville make his mistake?

Many like him, who came from an "aristocratic" background—actually, a background of en entrenched, not earned, aristocracy—held a pessimistic view of human nature, especially when it comes to those who aren't members of their class. This has to do with their widely held belief that at the core human beings are sinful and anti-social, so much so that they need to be nudged along by the wellborn to cultivate any public concerns.

If one identifies "public life" with government, then, yes, many people in a free and democratic country do not show public spiritedness. But is that identification correct? Can one express one's interest in one's fellows in a society only via politics? Americans have proven over and over again that they are generous, sometimes to a fault, especially in times of crises when most of those who suffer evidently do not deserve it.

In the main, Americans do not take kindly to indiscriminate welfare-statism but there is evidence from way back in the country's history that natural disasters are met with alertness and kindness, not xenophobia, as de Tocqueville had feared. This is probably because in a largely free society it is clear to many people that whether others will be helped in their need is not something to be left to their government—whose job, after all, is "to secure our rights"—but is, instead, a task to be taken up voluntarily, of one's own initiative. Such "public" spiritedness is, in fact, a more hopeful approach to coping in times of crisis then is marshaling the coercive forces of the state. It comes from the widespread realization among largely self-reliant people that human beings share many risks in life and in a civilized society they must abstain from resorting to the force of law to cope with such risks. Instead, they need to lend their hand at such times, from their knowledge that that is indeed the most promising way to recover from disasters.

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