Alexis De Tocqueville

Article excerpt

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout 1830s America to research his gigantic study of democracy. His two great books, Democracy in America and The Old Regime, show how both centralized government and egalitarianism grew over centuries to change American and French societies, respectively. To him, equality was an inevitable or providential force in history.

Tocqueville believed democratic society was the world's future because Equal justice is an undeniable moral demand. But, he noted, democracies are vulnerable to a new kind of "soft" despotism. He did not oppose democracy but offered remedies to strengthen liberty and human greatness.

Tocqueville held that democratic men suffer from excessive "individualism." They work to gratify petty material pleasures but withdraw from public life because it demands sacrifice. Family ties are strong, but civic spirit is feeble. Civil society replaces citizenship.

Insecure democrats expect government to supply their wants and protect their security. In response, government becomes centralized and imposes a web of detailed regulations around every activity of society. Human imagination shrinks and enterprise is discouraged when regulations preempt individual decisions.

Prudence--the power to make practical decisions for our future--is what makes us human. Prudence encourages risk taking and moral responsibility for the outcome. But that power must be exercised or it withers. According to Tocqueville, centralized administration tries to protect men from failure by providing what we now call a welfare "safety net." The purpose is compassionate, but when risk has no consequences and failure no blame, men take no responsibility for their own lives. …