Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
THE OTHER DEMOCRATIC ECONOMY

THE MAIN EMPHASIS in Tocqueville's attempt to analyze the economy in the United States can, as I showed in the preceding chapter, be found in his analysis of what may be called the democratic economy. His basic strategy in trying to make sense of the United States, including its economy, was to analyze it with the help of his idea that society was evolving from aristocracy to democracy, with two possible outcomes for democratic society: wealth and individualism or prosperity and freedom. In both cases, it should also be noted, the structure of the economy was to Tocqueville's mind closely interwoven with the rest of society.

By proceeding in this way, Tocqueville was in a position to capture the dynamic core of the U.S. economy. Democracy in America contains what deserves to be known as a classical account of the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States in the early 1800s, its emerging mass consumption, and its wealth of organizations, economic and otherwise. Together these features add up to an important picture of a truly entrepreneurial economy.

With his theory that society was moving in the direction of a democratic society, Tocqueville had clearly hit on a forceful and original idea that in many respects is still very useful. Equality in Tocqueville's sense—the movement toward shared resources—is on the agenda in many countries today; one can even speak of a global trend toward equality. There exists a very strong attachment to the ideal of equality all over the world; Tocqueville may even be right that the less inequality there is, the stronger the demand for equality will be. This is also true for economic equality.

But there were also many economic phenomena in the United States that were hard for Tocqueville to analyze and make sense of with the help of his aristocracy-to-democracy scheme. The economic reality he encountered in the United States was much more varied than what his construct of a democratic economy allowed for; it is to those parts of the U.S. economy that do not fit his general scheme that this chapter is devoted.

Tocqueville was well aware of the limitations in his scheme and tried to counter them in various ways. One was to include even the facts that did not fit; the reader of a general book on the United States might, for example, expect to find certain facts there, regardless of whether the author could theorize them. Another way in which Tocqueville handled inconve

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