“Democracy in America” by Tocqueville (Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 6) (1835)

Chapter 6: The Real Advantages Derived by American Society From Democratic Government

  • I – The General Tendency of Laws Under the Sway of American Democracy and the Instincts of Those Who Apply Them
    • defects of Democracy are obvious but the benefits are only seen in the long run
      • laws can be defective & incomplete
      • most of them violate rights or sanction dangerous ones
    • If a legislator wants to favor one at the expense of many he has to propose it quickly & without much attention to it
      • efficiency of passage makes it dangerous
    • Aristocracy is more skillful in legislating then Democracy, not subject to transitory impulses, & moves with intelligence & efficiency
    • Democracy’s laws are defective or untimely but often unintentionally works against itself
      • If a society organized by nature or Constitution, can tolerate passing effect of bad laws & the general tendency of laws without disaster
        • In America, great privilege is to be able to make retrievable mistakes
    • American democracy often makes mistakes in choice of men it entrusts power
    • Democracy’s rulers are less honest & capable but the governed are more enlightened & more alert
      • People more occupied with own affairs, jealous of their rights & prevent representatives from deviating from public’s interests
      • Democratic magistrates may abuse power but only have it for a short time
    • Rulers should have virtues & talents but shouldn’t have interests contrary to the governed
    • Political structure equally favors growth & prosperity for all classes
      • Classes like distinct nations within a nation
      • It’s dangerous to entrust the fate of all to one class just as it is to entrust one nation’s fate to another
    • When rich alone rule, poor’s interests are in danger
      • When poor alone rule, rich’s interests are in danger
    • Advantage to Democracy to serve the well-being for the greatest number
      • Those entrusted are often inferior in capacity & morality
      • interest is mingled & identified with the majority
      • Power is untrustworthy & mistake-prone but will never systematically follow a tendency hostile to the majority
    • Bad administration’s effect small due to terms of office being short
      • corruption & incapacity not in common interests of men
      • Won’t work in concert – vices of magistrates are personal & hardly shared
    • Aristocracy is distinct from majority’s interest
      • Aristocratic magistrates think in the long term, sees class spirit & unconsciously shapes society to convenience of their descendants
    • Only England has a liberal aristocracy with Enlightenment but the welfare of the poor has been sacrificed for that of the rich
    • US officials have no class interest to promote
      • government is beneficial even if rulers are inept & contemptible
      • tends to promote general prosperity in spite of vices & mistakes
      • aristocratic institutions have secret bias to contribute to afflictions of the country
        • Good men do evil without intending it
      • US – brings good results without thinking
  • II – Public Spirit in the United States
    • Older form of Patriotism from feeling tying a man to where he was born
      • habits, ancestors, memories, tradition
      • similar to religious zeal – doesn’t reason – feels & acts
      • Can be personified in a monarch & people are proud of his power
      • decays in peace & grows in a crisis
      • When mores are simple, society rests & legitimacy is not contested
    • New for of Patriotism – more rational, less generous, more creative, less ardent, longer lasting, enlightened, grows with help from laws, rights are mingled with personal interest
    • Man understands the country’s well-being influences his own & laws allow him to contribute to it.
      • Gives him an interest in its prosperity
      • At first, it just seems useful, then he thinks he’s created it
    • Maybe the best way to interest people in the fate of their country is to give them a stake in it
    • The newly arrived take such an interest in new country because they are actively taking part in it
    • Common man understands influence of general prosperity because it’s his responsibility
    • Americans feel duty to defend what’s criticized
      • But sometimes Patriotism turns into national pride, childishness & vanity
  • III – The Idea of Rights in the United States
    • Virtues & rights are mingled
      • Rights have defined the nature of license & tyranny
      • with them we can be independent without arrogance & obedient without servility
    • Submission to force debases a man because he knows a fellow mortal has the right to give him orders
    • No man can be great without virtue & no nation can be great without respect for rights
    • Children grab what they can & must be taught to respect property & that it can be taken from them too
      • Eventually learns to respect others’ property
    • America has no proletarians – everybody’s got some possession to defend
      • High idea of political rights because they all have some & don’t want to be violated themselves
    • Democracy – political rights to benefit the least of the citizens & property is within the reach of all
    • New form of Patriotism
      • beliefs giving way to arguments & feelings giving way to calculations
    • Links idea of rights to personal interest
    • Despotism presents itself as repairer of all ills, support of just rights, defender of oppressed & founder of order
      • People are lulled to sleep by its temporary prosperity & when they wake up, they are wretched
      • Liberty is born in stormy weather, growing with difficulty in civil discord & only when it’s old do we see its blessings
  • IV – Respect for Laws in the United States
    • Parties are aware expression of the will of the whole can’t easily be smothered
      • Often cast doubts on majority’s validity
      • Without majority, they claim it from those who abstained from voting or that the majority have no right to vote.
      • Those who want to attack laws must either
        • 1 – Change the nation’s opinion, or
        • 2 – Trample its wishes underfoot
    • Americans feel a person interest in obeying laws – majority may one day become minority, minority may one day become majority & will demand laws of its own
      • Americans will submit as the work of the majority is of his own choosing
    • No numerous or perpetually turbulent crowd regarding the law as a natural enemy to fear or suspect
  • V – Activity Prevailing in All Parts of the Political Body in the United States; the Influence Thereby Exerted on Society
    • In free countries, lots of activity
      • In unfree countries, not much activity
    • Democracies are in a rush to attain happiness
      • the state of society is the concern of the whole nation – including all classes
    • As soon as you show up in America, things are happening
      • noises, voices, movement, plans being made & carried out
      • choosing representatives & talking about morals, values & laws
    • With legislatures, agitation comes from all classes
      • to take hand in the government & talk about it is important
      • even women get involved
    • In some countries, political rights are seen as burdensome – worrying about communal interest is annoying
      • If an American did this, he’d lose all reason for living
    • Renews agitation goes into civil society
      • People manage public affairs badly but concern keeps the government going
      • A man of the people gets his self-esteem from listening to proposals & acting on them
    • Enemies of Democracy claim that a single man can do a better job than a government for all.
      • Correct, BUT
      • It provides a social & civic energy never seen before
    • WHAT DEMOCRACY WON’T DO
      • raise mankind
      • cause scorn for material goods
      • engender devotion & conviction
      • refine manners
    • WHAT DEMOCRACY WILL DO
      • turn man’s intellect & moral activity toward the necessities of physical life & use the to produce well-being for all
      • create tranquil habits
      • fewer crimes, vices & greater deeds
      • prosperous society
      • not build glory for the nation but the well-being of individuals

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