Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
TOCQUEVILLE'S APPROACH TO
ECONOMIC ANALYSIS

UP TILL THIS POINT an effort has primarily been made to see how Tocqueville's thinking about the economy was influenced by factors outside him; it is now time to turn the perspective around and look at what was happening inside Tocqueville, so to speak, and what impact this had. Another reason to switch the perspective from the outside in to the inside out is that Tocqueville's thinking was unique, and the only way of getting at what is unique is to look at Tocqueville as an individual and his view of things.

While I have been following Tocqueville's relationship to the economists from his first encounter with them up to his death, I shall proceed differently with the attempt to trace Tocqueville's own thinking from the inside out. I will only discuss what Tocqueville had to say about the economy in his work till 1840, when the second volume of Democracy in America was published (later chapters will focus on his work after 1840).

Tocqueville, first and foremost, wanted to be objective in his analysis. Before leaving for the United States with Beaumont, he wrote to a friend, “We set forth with the intention of examining as fully and as scientifically as possible, all the springs of that vast machine—American society; everywhere talked of, and nowhere understood.”1

But this does not mean that Tocqueville proceeded the way that a modern social scientist would have done when he approached his topic, including its economic dimension. For example, he was very reluctant to read literature on the subject he was working on. Some time after he had finished the first volume of Democracy in America Tocqueville wrote to Beaumont, apropos of his refusal to read any studies on the topic he was working on: “you know this is a principle with me.”2 He also asked his friend to read Michel Chevalier's book on the United States for him.3 Beaumont similarly skimmed Harriet Martineau's Society in America and reported his impressions to Tocqueville.4 Both of these works contain important sections on the U.S. economy that Tocqueville could have benefited from studying and reflecting on.

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