By Karl Arnold Belser
3 September 2015

Alan Ryan gave me a copy of his book On Tocqueville: Democracy and America as, I think, a response to my summary of his book On Politics in my post Future Politics. His main comment was, as relayed to me by my stepson Mike, that "I (Alan) could not have summarized my book  On Politics in one page." He also said "Karl certainly thinks differently than most people in the humanities".

I am choosing to take Alan's comments positively, even though I probably appear to be a farm boy that has just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. Given my ignorance I read Tocqueville's Democracy in America before starting to read Alan's book on Tocqueville. I will summarize what I learned in this endeavor.

The main idea I saw was that Tocqueville, like a good systems architect, was concerned with the possible collateral damages and moral hazards in the United States government as of 1835. Specifically he discussed the tyranny of the majority and the conflict between liberty and equality. He praised the Constitution of the United States as being well thought out by exceptional men. I will give a few examples.

The US constitution gave the president limited powers so that it would be difficult for this person to become a tyrant or dictator. The main power of government lay in the Congress with it's two houses, the House of Representatives to reflect the people and the Senate to reflect the opinion of the States. Only the congress could cause problems by enacting bad laws. A partial check on the sins of congress was the judicial system (Supreme Court) by insuring that any law was consistent with the Constitution. The other check on the sins of congress would be the results of bad laws. In the end the citizens would be the sovereign body and force congress to correct their mistakes. Tocqueville thought that with this feedback mechanism the errors of government would be recognized and changed without having to revert to a dictatorship.

Tocqueville pointed out that for the sovereignty of the people to be effective, the behavior of the government and its consequences needed to be visible to everyone. This visibility might be achieved by the press. In 1835 there was no central means of distributing information. Hence, there was a wide variety of opinion in the townships of the nation. Tocqueville pointed out that the tyranny of the majority might be aided if the press was too centralized.

In addition Tocqueville praised the decentralization of administration of government. The township governed itself with local representatives. The county and states kept to the issues that involved only their people or territories. Similarly the judicial questions were resolved as locally as possible. Even the jury system allowed common people to participate in justice.

Tocqueville observed that the democratic government was strongest when the individuals in society participated in the government. They could be jurors or officials in the local townships.

Tocqueville pointed out that there is an inherent conflict between liberty and equality in any democracy. With equality the citizens might become selfish and strive to get everything they could from the government without producing much. This is the tyranny of the majority that has been the downfall of previous democracies. In this case freedom would be lost because the best and brightest could not actualize their potential. He result would be economic stagnation that might force a dictator into power.

This type of democratic despotism might be mitigated by giving the citizens constitutional rights, and the bill of rights in the US constitution was aimed at exactly this effect. It gave the citizens for example protection of private property and allowed associations of citizens in order to combine efforts to protect their interests.

On the other hand liberty might allow the best an brightest to dominate society. Tocqueville believed that the rich would temper their behavior based on Judeo-Christian ethics. At the time that Tocqueville wrote the book the United States was predominately Christian. Tocqueville  attributed the strong Judeo-Christian ethic to the women in US society. He believed that they would influence the morality of  their children, who would become the future citizens. He further believed that the stable family unit was critical to the development of a moral character that he felt is essential for the American government to operate.

All in all, Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a brilliant work. I have not summarized all of Tocqueville's points. A detailed summary of Democracy in America is given by the GradeSaver posting about the book. Project Gutenberg has the full texts for Democracy in America Volume 1 and Democracy in America Volume 2.

                                                     === COMMENTARY ===

Many of the observations and statements that Tocqueville made in his book have prove to be true, especially the robustness of the US Constitution. He predicted the slavery conflict and the fate of the American Indians.

However, Tocqueville's  idea that somehow religion and a solid family unit would be able to mitigate the excessive power of the rich seems to be incorrect.
Thomas Piketty's book Capital shows that this dominance by the rich is happening today to a dangerous degree as I describe in my post Politics and Capital. Piketty's answer is an improved world wide taxation system which would limit the exponential growth of capital for the rich.

Further there is a true religious threat that Islamic values my become dominant in places like Europe because of uncontrolled immigration. See my post Illegal Immigration.

In the United States much of the primary news sources are compromised by advertising dollars which does not bode well for  good visibility of what is happening and for getting a wide variety of opinions.. The fortunate mitigating factor is that news and opinion and even dialog can be had over the Internet today. Like any change there are moral hazards with the Internet in that groups like ISIS can communicate and recruit terrorists using social media.

It appears to me the the largest outstanding issues are illegal immigration as an undermining factor on the implementation of the social contract of the people with the governmentm and wealth inequality that might give too much power to the wealthy in influencing the press and the government. I see no evidence that either of these issues is being addressed by the governments of the world today.
Last updated September 5, 2015
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