Americans had not formed communities, or a constitution, in search of righteousness but in search of self-interest and profits. Karl Marx would later write about society and economics as a war between classes, in which profits were the chief cause of personal alienation and conflict the ceaseless order of the day.
Pursuit of Self-interest and Profits
Alexis de Tocqueville from France wanted his country to emulate America and become a republic. He traveled all over the United States in pursuit of the set of fundamental principles which allowed the American republic to survive.
The only conflict Tocqueville saw in America was between profit-seeking individuals who were, ironically, entirely in agreement with each other about the pursuit of self-interest. And, even more ironically, it was the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of self-interest, that really did produce virtue, rather than as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had thought the other way around.
“The doctrine of self-interest well understood does not produce great devotion,” Tocqueville acknowledged, “by itself, it cannot make a man virtuous; but it forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves.”
The great exception to this self-mastery was, of course, American slavery. But even among the enslaved, as Frederick Douglass would later say, what the slave wanted most in freedom was the free pursuit of self-interest, “the undisturbed possession of the natural fruits of his own exertions”.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Two Unique American Institutions
But what would happen if self-interest became the only guide to politics? What would prevent self-interest from appealing to the lowest forms of depravity? The answers, as Tocqueville noted, lay in two uniquely American institutions, newspapers and voluntary associations.
Newspapers, Tocqueville said, make “political life circulate in all sections of this vast territory” and open public affairs to the inspection of every reader.
Voluntary associations are what took Tocqueville’s notice as organizations of citizens, collected at their own prompting “for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, or morality and religion”. These voluntary organizations performed in America much of the social work that governments in Europe took unto themselves, and so they formed a layer of resistance to political overreach by American governments.
Threat Posed to Democracy by Self-interest
Self-interest posed one other threat to democracy, although it was a much more subtle one. In a society where self-interest trumps virtue, the demand for equality would eventually supplant the passion for liberty. Tocqueville’s Americans believed that liberty and equality were perfectly compatible because all that equality meant to Americans was the equal standing of citizens before the laws.
However, Tocqueville had learned through his family’s experience of the French Revolution that equality might have more ominous overtones: of envy, resentment, and leveling.
Pursuit of Equality and Its Fatal Directions
Tocqueville was worried that the pursuit of equality might lead in two fatal directions. First, toward a demand for conformity, and usually conformity to the lowest cultural standard.
“The human spirit,” Tocqueville wrote, “having broken all the shackles that classes or men formerly imposed on it, would be tightly chained to the general will of the greatest number.”
The second possible outcome that he feared was a temptation to resort to power to enforce this equality, power in which “every nation becomes reduced to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which,” Tocqueville said, “the government is the shepherd”.
As with every resort to power, it will come with the best of intentions and will be administered with seeming gentleness by a diligent, and even benevolent, bureaucracy—so gentle, that the people, who were otherwise so vigilant against the demands of power, would scarcely notice the evaporation of liberty.
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Newspapers and Associations: The Buffers
For the moment, in America, the newspapers and the voluntary associations, especially the religious ones, had staved off this fate. They were a buffer between the government and the people, between power and liberty. Remove that buffer, and either the government would swell up to fill the vacuum, or liberty would run amok and bring down despotism—either in the form of cheap cultural conformity or outright political leveling— on American heads.
When the day arrived that the newspapers and the associations ceased to function, then this new form of despotism—a soft despotism—would have arrived, in which people thoughtlessly chained their own shackles to themselves, equal in the worst sense of the word, but no longer at liberty.
Tocqueville and Madison
In an odd way, Tocqueville and James Madison complement each other. Both of them understood that all government is an awkward and constantly adjusting dance between liberty and power; both understood that the threat of power can come from below as well as from above.
Both of them hoped that by dividing and separating the power, and distributing it broadly, whether between the branches of government or in the form of voluntary associations or between the states and the national government, power could be made to serve liberty’s purposes. But they knew that liberty’s life was always precarious.
Emerging from the locked doors of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, a voice called out to Benjamin Franklin, “What is it? Republic or monarchy?” Franklin stopped to reply, hopefully with a twinkle in his still-mischievous eye, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The question and its answer are still with us.
Common Questions about America: Self-Interest and Profits
The only conflict Alexis de Tocqueville saw in America was between profit-seeking individuals who were, ironically, entirely in agreement with each other about the pursuit of self-interest.
Tocqueville was worried that the pursuit of equality might lead in two fatal directions. First, toward a demand for conformity, and usually conformity to the lowest cultural standard. The second possible outcome that he feared was a temptation to resort to power to enforce this equality.
The newspapers and the voluntary associations, especially the religious ones, acted as buffer between the government and the people, between power and liberty.