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Does Tampa Mark the End of the Exceptional America of Alexis de Tocqueville?

We are live at Project Syndicate:[1]

When French politician and moral philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his Democracy in America in 1835, he did so because he thought his France was in big trouble--and had lots to learn from America.

The grab for centralized power by the absolutist Bourbon monarchs followed by the great French Revolution and Napoleon's Empire had destroyed the good parts of the French neofeudal order as well as the bad. In Tocqueville's imagination, at least, the subjects of the neofeudal order had been eager to protect their particular liberties and jealous of their spheres of independence. They had understood that they were embedded in a nationwide web of obligations, powers, responsibilities, and privileges.

But for the Frenchman of 1835, Tocqueville thought, adopting:

the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions… [has produced] egotism… no less blind…. [W]e have destroyed an aristocracy, and we seem inclined to survey its ruins with complacency…"

To sick France in 1835 de Tocqueville counterposed healthy America, in which attachment to the idea that people should pursue their self-interest was no less strong, but was different. It was, he thought, because Americans understood that they could not flourish unless their neighbors prospered as well: they thus pursued their self-interest, but their interest "rightly understood".

"Every American", Tocqueville writes, understands that to get prosperous neighbors he needs to "sacrifice a portion of his private interests to preserve the rest. "Americans", he wrote:

are fond of explaining… [how it is] regard for themselves [which] constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the general welfare.

In France, by contrast, Tocqueville fears a future in which:

it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their egotism may lead them… into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves, lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow-creatures.

De Tocqueville saw the roots of France's sickness and America's health in 1835 in France's inheritance from the Bourbon kings of a top-down administrative command-and-control government, and in America's possession of a bottom-up grassroots-democratic spontaneous-order government. Give the local community enough control over its own affairs, Tocqueville wore, and:

he will see at a glance that there is a connection between… small public affair[s] and his greatest private affairs… the close tie which unites private to general interest…. Local freedom… which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.

Two centuries pass.

The connection between the general interest of the country and their private interest of individual Americans becomes much stronger even if their wealth is in a post office box in the Cayman Islands: there are no private equity fortunes made over the past generation that do not rest on investing in or trading with the prosperous North Atlantic industrial core of the world economy. But the levers individuals can use to join with their immediate neighbors in political action that makes a difference for their lives are much weaker. Get 25% of the 1000 households in the 30-block Brookside "fiberhood" in Kansas City to pre-signup and Google will provide all 1000 with the opportunity to get really-cheap really-fast internet really soon. But that is the exception.

And so in the last week of August, 2012, America's Republican Party gathers in Tampa, Florida.

They gather to say, among other things, that the America de Tocqueville saw no longer exists: that Americans no longer believe that the wealth of the rich rests on the prosperity of the rest, that the wealth of the rich is due to their luck and effort and their luck and effort alone--that the rich and the rich alone "built that" that they have, and that the willingness on the part of rich to sacrifice some part of their private interest to support the public interest that de Tocqueville saw is good neither for the portfolios, the bodies, nor the souls of the 1%.

Perhaps the ebb of the moral and intellectual tide will be reversed, and America will remain exceptional for the reasons that de Tocqueville identified two centuries ago.

But if not, then if de Tocqueville were here today he would certainly be writing that it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their egotism will lead them, into what disgrace and wretchedness they will plunge themselves.

[1] I have been thinking about the bad examples of Niallism as exemplified by Niall Ferguson and Fareedism as exemplified by Fareed Zakaria. I have been contemplating the awful exercise of having to cut the reference list for "Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy' down by two-thirds so that it consisted only of things that we found we could directly cite to without interrupting the rhetorical flow rather than all the things that we read that we thought were smart, that influenced our thought, and that we wanted to point people who wanted to learn more to. And thus I have been musing a lot about citation and reference practices.

So when I finished writing the above and looked back upon it, three things came to mind:

  1. The only document that standard citation practices would say has to be cited in this is, indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

  2. There is a huge and unmasterable literature by now on what Hegel and company called die bürgerliche Gesellschaft--and some pointers to at least the highlights of this literature really ought to make it into the published Project Syndicate version, but there is as of yet no easy way to include them.

  3. More particularly, not a single useful idea in the above is mine. Every single insight and argument is the creation of the Jeff-Weintraub-thought-emulation-program running on my wetware.