Tocqueville's Political Economy

Tocqueville's Political Economy

Tocqueville's Political Economy

Tocqueville's Political Economy


Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) has long been recognized as a major political and social thinker as well as historian, but his writings also contain a wealth of little-known insights into economic life and its connection to the rest of society. In Tocqueville's Political Economy, Richard Swedberg shows that Tocqueville had a highly original and suggestive approach to economics--one that still has much to teach us today.

Through careful readings of Tocqueville's two major books and many of his other writings, Swedberg lays bare Tocqueville's ingenious way of thinking about major economic phenomena. At the center of Democracy in America, Tocqueville produced a magnificent analysis of the emerging entrepreneurial economy that he found during his 1831-32 visit to the United States. More than two decades later, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville made the complementary argument that it was France's blocked economy and society that led to the Revolution of 1789. In between the publication of these great works, Tocqueville also produced many lesser-known writings on such topics as property, consumption, and moral factors in economic life. When examined together, Swedberg argues, these books and other writings constitute an interesting alternative model of economic thinking, as well as a major contribution to political economy that deserves a place in contemporary discussions about the social effects of economics.


The first time Tocqueville met with the English economist Nassau Senior has been recorded by Senior's daughter:

One day in the year 1833 a knock was heard at the door of the Chambers in
which Mr. Senior was sitting at work, and a young man entered who an
nounced himself in these terms: “I am Alexis de Tocqueville, and I have come
to make your acquaintance
.” He had no other introduction.

Tocqueville and Senior quickly became friends, and their friendship lasted till Tocqueville's death some twenty-five years later. the two especially liked to talk about politics, but they also touched on economic topics to which Tocqueville always attached a special importance.

Many readers of the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) have felt as fortunate as Nassau Senior in being introduced to Tocqueville; they have similarly come to regard him as a friend with whom to argue, agree, and disagree. Tocqueville's readers have especially come to appreciate his analyses of politics and society; today he is regarded as a major figure in political theory as well as a classic in sociology.

One area that has not found many commentators is Tocqueville's views on economics. This is a pity because Tocqueville, as I will try to show in this book, developed an analysis of economic phenomena that in some ways is as interesting and evocative as his analysis of politics. There is, first and foremost, his magnificent portrait and analysis in Democracy in America of the entrepreneurial economy in early nineteenth-century America. When Tocqueville traveled in the United States during 1831– 32 the country had just begun its economic takeoff that would eventually transform the nation into the world's most powerful capitalist economy. There is also the outstanding picture of a traditional and blocked economy in The Old Regime and the Revolution. What drives much of the economic analysis in the latter work is how the French state for centuries had undermined the economic confidence and capacities of the French people. There are also some striking ideas on economic phenomena in Tocqueville's less-known writings, such as Memoir on Pauperism and his travel notes from his journeys to England and Ireland.

Besides entrepreneurship and how the state can discourage economic initiative, Tocqueville also discusses many other economic topics. There is, first of all, his general thesis that the mores (moeurs) of a country primarily explain economic behavior. This is a strikingly modern idea that many . . .

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