Continuing from the reading group, here are some thoughts on Chapter 6, entitled “What are the Real Advantages that American Society Derives from the Government of Democracy”:
Chapter 6 further develops the themes I identified in Ch. 4. The “real advantages” that Tocqueville identifies may seem on the surface like backhanded compliments, but that is precisely because the virtues of democracy aren’t superficially obvious. Democracy, Tocqueville argues, bumbles and rambles along, unsure of where it is going and without a direct and clear path forward. Again, this differs from the traditional Platonic critique—Plato argued that democracy would be uniquely effective in pandering to the desires of the people. But Tocqueville writes that in contrast to democracy, “aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distraction; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presents itself” (p. 222). Democracies suffer from perpetual ADD, as it were.
The real advantages of democracy are its hidden strengths. In one of his most stunning passages, Tocqueville writes that “there is, therefore, at the base of democratic institutions, a hidden tendency that often makes men cooperate for the general prosperity despite their vices and errors…. In democratic societies [men] produce good without having any thought of doing so” (p. 224). There is a striking parallel here between Tocqueville and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—just as the idea of the market is a system in which the public interest emerges from the decidedly mixed motives of individual actions, so does democracy serve the public interest despite the messy and rowdy character of quotidian democratic life.
Tocqueville defines the “public interest” in a negative way: a democracy prevents systematic oppression of the majority, its workings prevent an “exclusive and dangerous style” of government. Democracies bear the “transient operation” of bad laws in order to benefit from the “general tendency” of laws to converge on the public interest (p. 222). One strategy that American democracy has employed is the idea of political rights—or what Tocqueville calls “the idea of virtue introduced into the political world”—which by extending to each and every citizen, give each the opportunity to develop virtue as a participant in the political process. Again, note the irony—the extension of rights to all connects rights to self-interest in the minds of democratic citizens, which serves to mitigate the dangers of popular rule. When rights are co-extensive with interests, rights acquire solidity and sanctity that they would lose were political rights reserved to an aristocratic elite.
However, Tocqueville is again careful not to overstate his case: “There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom” (p. 229). A democracy is only possible once people have reached a sufficient level of enlightenment and understand the risks of abuse and importance of trust to a society that protects individual rights.
The advantages of democracy, Tocqueville concludes, are modest and humble but far from insubstantial. It serves the necessities of material life, it produces peaceful habits, reduces crime at the cost of vice, and mitigates enormities—both great accomplishments and great evils. In a phrase, democratic life will be unremarkable, but enjoy firmer and steadier foundations than monarchy, tyranny, and aristocracy.