Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
TOCQUEVILLE'S BACKGROUND
IN ECONOMICS

NOW THAT WE have established that Democracy in America contains an important and original analysis of the U.S. economy, a number of questions emerge. One has to do with the origin of Tocqueville's way of thinking on economic matters. How had Tocqueville come to think in this way about the economy? What had inspired his way of thought? Where did it come from? Another question has to do with the structure or the gestalt of Tocqueville's economic thought: what are its basic features and how are they interrelated? Finally, where does his way of thinking lead? What kind of economics does it imply: is it an approach of its own or part of a broader but already known family of thought?

These three fundamental questions about Tocqueville's way of thinking about the economy in Democracy in America—Where does it come from? What is its identity? Where is it going?—have all been touched on in the literature on Tocqueville, and several answers have been suggested for each of them. Can one also argue that they are all connected, and that this constitutes their strength and what makes Tocqueville's approach to the economy so special? Or should they be analyzed separately?

As to the issue of what shaped Tocqueville's way of looking at the economy, it is often argued that this is best understood by looking at his social origin, that is, at his aristocratic background. Another way of approaching this question, which can also be found in the secondary literature on Tocqueville, is to look at his knowledge of economics. We know, for example, that Tocqueville studied the work of Jean-Baptiste Say on the ship that took him to the United States, and that he became friends in the 1830s with two of England's foremost economists, Nassau Senior and John Stuart Mill.

The structure of Tocqueville's way of thinking—its particular identity, its gestalt—is usually discussed by paying special attention to his methodology. A number of commentators view this as the most valuable part of Tocqueville's work. One of these was John Stuart Mill, whose statement about Tocqueville's method was cited in the introduction (“The value of his work is less in the conclusions, than in the mode of arriving at them”).1 Mill was referring to Tocqueville's work as a whole—but is there also

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