wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Alan Macfarlane

The Riddle of the Modern World

He explained to his French contemporaries how it was in America. 'Among democratic peoples where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works for his living, or has worked, or comes from parents who have worked. Everything therefore prompts the assumption that to work is the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.' Thus, 'Not only is no dishonour associated with work, but among such peoples it is regarded as positively honourable; the prejudice is for, not against, it.' Honour, which lies in idleness in most societies, has been overturned. 'In a democratic society such as that of the United States, where fortunes are small and insecure, everybody works, and work opens all doors. That circumstance had made the point of honour do an about turn and set it facing against idleness.' Thus all occupations, as long as they make money, are honourable and the American is very versatile and flexible in his or her attitude. 'In the United States professions are more or less unpleasant, more or less lucrative, but they are never high or low. Every honest profession is honourable.' People will often do several types of job, successively or simultaneously. 'In America it sometimes happens that one and the same man will till his fields, build his house, make his tools, cobble his shoes, and with his own hands weave the coarse cloth that covers him. This is bad for improving craftsmanship but greatly serves to develop the worker's intelligence.'

Tocqueville at times implied that perhaps necessity was the mother of work, as it was of invention, that people worked so hard because of their small fortunes. Yet he realized that it was deeper than this. Even as they became wealthier, they were driven on. 'For them desire for well-being has become a restless, burning passion which increases with satisfaction.' They exhibited a restrained, puritan passion for wealth.

Such passionate materialism started with the commercial middle classes, and spread out as that bourgeois group took over the heart of America and set its standards. 'The passion for physical comfort is essentially a middle-class affair; it grows and spreads with that class and becomes preponderant with it.' It also spread out from the sphere of the economy into all of life. 'The passions that stir the Americans most deeply are commercial and not political ones, or rather they carry a trader's habits over into the business of politics.' As Smith had earlier observed of England, it was a country 'ruled by shopkeepers.'

Those who have commented on Tocqueville have noted that he saw that America had somehow solved Adam Smith's contradiction between private desire and public benefit by harmonizing self-interest with public interest, creating a kind of calculative virtue. As Lerner puts it, 'Time after time he confronts the paradox of a society which is fragmentised by self-interest and self-seeking but which seems nevertheless to have found a principle of inner order.' Sometimes Tocqueville just recognizes that somehow this has been achieved. 'What a happy land the New World is, where man's vices are almost as useful to society as his virtues!' At other times he points to the way astute politicians and lawyers frame their activities to bring public and private good together. Thus 'American legislation appeals mainly to private interest; that is the great principle which one finds again and again when one studies the laws of the United States.' He noted furthermore that 'American legislators show little confidence in human honesty, but they always assume that men are intelligent. So they generally rely on personal interest to see to the execution of the laws.'

In one of the few places where, in his travel journals, he tried to tackle the problem he wrote:
The two great social principles which seem to me to rule American society and to which one must always return to find the reason for all the laws and habits which govern it, are as follows: 1st. The majority may be mistaken on some points, but finally it is always right and there is no moral power above it. 2nd. Every individual, private person, society, community or nation, is the only lawful judge of its own interest, and provided it does not harm the interests of others, nobody has the right to interfere. I think that one must never lose sight of this point.
As for the consequences of the restless pursuit of profitable activity, Tocquevllle notes several unexpected results. We have seen that it was combined with surprising restraint, not just as a result of the Puritan heritage. Paraphrasing certain themes in Montesquieu and Smith on the pacifying effects of the pursuit of wealth, he noted: 'Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions. Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger.' With an obvious message for his own revolution-prone country, and making a helpful distinction between permanent surface change, and the absence of fundamental revolutions, he wrote: 'Daily they change, alter and renew things of secondary importance, but they are very careful not to touch fundamentals. They love change, but they are afraid of revolutions.'

The constant immersion in he pursuit of material goals also altered the whole attitude to time and the momentum of history. Time past was irrelevant. 'Aristocracy naturally leads the mind back to the past and fixes it in the contemplation thereof. But democracy engenders a sort of instinctive distaste for what is old.' Tocqueville saw that political, social and physical time are interrelated, a sort of Einsteinian view of the relativity of concepts of time and social relations.
Among democratic peoples new families continually rise from nothing while others fall, and nobody's position is quite stable. The woof of time is ever being broken and the track of past generations lost. Those who have gone before are easily forgotten, and no one gives a thought to those who will follow. All a man's interests are limited to those near himself.
He noted the optimism and future-orientation of the Americans.
Howsoever powerful and Impetuous the course of history is here, imagination always goes in advance of it, and the picture is never large enough. There is not a country in the world where man more confidently takes charge of the future, or where he feels himself.
These shocks and surprises at the turbulence and commercial spirit of America led Tocqueville to ponder on how the system could work like this. This presented him with further puzzles. He could see that the ever-striving, hard-working and calculating spirit was somehow linked to the political system. He made a strong connection between political freedom and the generation of 'wealth' or wellbeing. He first noticed that this was a characteristic of 'democratic' countries. 'There is therefore at the bottom of democratic institutions some hidden tendency which often makes men promote the general prosperity, in spite of their vices and their mistakes, whereas in aristocratic institutions there is sometimes a secret bias which, in spite of talents and virtues, leads men to contribute to the afflictions of their fellows.' On the basis of his later experience in England he widened this into a universal proposition. 'I doubt if one can cite a single example of any people engaged in both manufacture and trade, from the men of Tyre to the Florentines and the English, who were not a free people. There must therefore be a close link and necessary relationship between these two things, that is, freedom and industry.' But the actual causal links were very difficult to discern.

At times he seemed to suggest that the bourgeois mentality was the most important, affecting political institutions and thence wealth. 'Everyone living in democratic times contracts, more or less, the mental habits of the industrial and trading classes; their thoughts take a serious turn, calculating and realistic; they gladly turn away from the ideal to pursue some visible and approachable aim which seems the natural and necessary object of their desires.' At other times he emphasized freedom and education and almost exactly paraphrased Adam Smith's 'peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice.'
If you give democratic peoples education and freedom and leave them alone, they will easily extract from this world all the good things it has to offer. They will improve all useful techniques and make life daily more comfortable, smooth, and bland. Since their social condition by its nature urges them this way, there is no need to fear that they will stop.
Another link was between the degree of political absolutism and centralization on the one hand and wealth creation on the other. He believed that
It is certain that despotism brings men to ruin more by preventing them from producing than by taking away the faults of their labours; it dries up the fount of wealth while often respecting acquired riches. But liberty engenders a thousandfold more goods than it destroys, and in nations where it is understood, the people's resources always increase faster than the taxes.'
One way in which this insidiously happened was through the draining of the more innovative from the countryside as centralization proceeded.
Is it a centralized country? The rural districts are emptied of rich and enlightened inhabitants. I could go further—a centralized country is a country of imperfect and unprogressive cultivation; and I could comment on the profound saying of Montesquieu by explaining his meaning—'lands produce less by reason of their fertility than by reason of the liberty of their inhabitants.'
Perhaps the nearest he came to resolving the difficulty of reciprocal causation was when he wrote
I have no doubt that democratic institutions, combined with the physical nature of the land, are the indirect reason, and not, as is often claimed, the direct one, for the prodigious industrial expansion seen in the United States. It is not the laws' creation, but the people have learned to achieve it by making the laws.'
Here he recognized that there was something behind the laws—returning again to the primacy of culture.

Even if he had been content to explain the situation fully in terms of the legal and political 'freedom', he would have faced a serious problem. This was because, from a French standpoint 'America' seemed to run itself without any obvious political system at all. Again it seemed to have achieved the impossible, to be very well organized and orderly, with few signs of government.

When Tocqueville first arrived he expressed his astonishment at the bizarre situation.
What is most striking to everyone who travels in this country, whether or not one bothers to reflect, is the spectacle of a society marching along all alone, without guide or support, by the sole fact of the cooperation of Individual wills. In spite of anxiously searching for the government, one can find it nowhere, and the truth is that it does not, so to speak, exist at all.
How then was it held together?

One part of the solution lay in decentralized power, which, like Montesquieu, he admired. Yet he was fully aware that too much decentralization could be disastrous. Thus, looking back at the early mediaeval period in Europe he described it thus: 'the cause of all the miseries of feudal society was that power, not just of administration, but of government, was divided among a thousand people and broken up in a thousand ways; the absence of all governmental centralisation then prevented the nations of Europe from advancing energetically toward any goal.'

Tocqueville explained that the Americans had created an 'imagined community' to hold together, through ideology, an equal peoples who thus needed few police, no central bureaucracy, no standing army. He noted that, in contrast to France, 'one is bound to notice that all classes show great confidence in their country's legislation, feeling a sort of paternal love for it.' Using 'ideal' in the sense of imagined, he wrote that 'The government of the Union rests almost entirely on legal fictions. The Union is an ideal nation which exists, so to say, only in men's minds and whose extent and limits can only be discerned by the understanding.'