Tocqueville's Vision

The June 19 issue of the WSJ contained an intriguing editorial by author Niall Ferguson. In his article Mr. Ferguson provides a number of quotes from French political scientist, historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville. The intrigue in Mr. Ferguson's quotes from Tocqueville is their currency, inasmuch as they are taken from his book, which was written a mere 180 years ago. This letter is an effort to summarize the content of the Ferguson editorial and expand awareness of the genius of Alexis de Tocqueville. In doing so, it offers a remarkable (political?) point of view from the past.

“In ‘Democracy in America’ . . . he wrote, ‘the inhabitant of the United States has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to it . . . only when he cannot do without it’” How did this stubborn streak in our early days survive and thrive? Unlike Frenchmen of the time, according to Tocqueville, the Americans relied on themselves. Ferguson tells us Tocqueville “marveled at the way Americans preferred voluntary association to government regulation.” He is talking here about clubs, spiritual & social groups (Ex., Rotary), and explains, ‘Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations ... but they also have a thousand other kinds; religious, moral, grave, futile, very general; and very particular immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes. to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries . . . ” But alas, such associational organizations, according to Ferguson are on their way to oblivion and offers several statistics to demonstrate their decline. “Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed . . . that [Tocqueville] would be forced to conclude that France must have conquered the United States . . . . Instead of joining together to get things done, Americans have increasingly become dependent on Washington . . . .” In this transition over the decades, and while appreciating the growth in our population and commerce, the regulatory powers of the government have spiraled upward.

Here is but one of the examples Ferguson offers to support his view, ”the 2012 Federal Register - - - the official directory of regulations - - - runs to 78,961 pages. Back in 1986 it was 44,812 pages. In 1936 it was just 2620.” And now Ferguson brings us the kicker, “Genius that he was, Tocqueville saw this transformation of America coming. Toward the end of [his book] he warned against the government becoming ‘an immense tutelary power . . . absolute, detailed, regular . . . cover[ing] [society’s] surface with a network of small, complicated painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear away.’” Ferguson goes on to show Tocqueville’s view of the demise of free enterprise by the regulatory state. “It rarely forces one to act but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Ferguson closes with “If that makes you bleat with frustration, there’s still hope.” Yes. Let’s hope we can now understand a change that was feared back in 1833, and are able to endure and overcome.


Keith McClain,

Luther, MT