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Tocqueville and the Tragedy of the Democratic Average

I agree that Tocqueville is not a prophet of American doom. But he does identify a tragic tradeoff: that there could be no first-best outcome in the wave of democratization he saw sweeping over the world. Or, at least not one that could simultaneously preserve the virtues of aristocratic society while providing the benefits of democratic society.

It is a recognition of this tragic tradeoff that I miss in the current debate among conservatives over liberalism and globalization more generally. The tragic sense in Tocqueville is not that he did not see great good in the coming democratic era. He did. But he also saw the world losing something irreplaceable with the eclipse of aristocratic society.

At the end of Democracy in America Tocqueville laments, “I scan my eyes over this numberless mass composed of similar beings, where nothing rises to a higher level or sinks to a lower one. The spectacle of this universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to long for the society that no longer exists.”

The society that no longer exists for which Tocqueville pines is, of course, aristocratic society. But he quickly adds that he makes “every effort” to resist this pining. In compensation for this loss, democracy brings “exceptional prosperity” to the world.

Yet the virtues and vices of each type of society, democratic versus aristocratic, are so different as to be almost incommensurable. Each is so different as almost to reflect “two distinct humanities, each of which has its particular advantages and disadvantages, its goods and its evils that are proper to it.”

Earlier, Tocqueville sketches the advantages and disadvantages of these two worlds. He first identifies what aristocratic society offers humanity that democratic society cannot:

Do you want to give the human spirit a certain nobility, a generous fashion of envisioning the things of this world? Do you want to inspire in men a sort of contempt for material goods? Do you desire to bring about or to maintain profound convictions and prepare great devotions?

Is it a matter for you of polishing mores, of elevating manners, of making the arts shine? Do you want poetry, éclat, glory?

Do you claim to organize a people in a way to act strongly on all others? Do you intend it to attempt great undertakings, and, whatever the result of its efforts, to leave an immense trace in history?

If such, in your view, is the principal object that men must propose for themselves in society, do not opt for the government of democracy; it would not lead you with certainty to the goal.

Democratic society, on the other hand, is not silent in the face of this charge. Tocqueville continues:

But if it seems useful to you to divert the intellectual and moral activity of man toward the necessities of material life, and to use it to produce well-being; if reason appears to you more profitable to men than genius; if your object is not to create heroic virtues, but peaceful habits; if you like to see vices more than crimes, and prefer to find fewer great actions, on the condition of encountering fewer cases of heinous crimes; if, instead of acting within the bosom of a brilliant society, it is enough for you to live in the midst of a prosperous society; if, finally, in your view, the principal object of a government is not to give the entire body of the nation the most strength or the most glory possible, but to provide for each of the individuals that make up the society the most well-being and to avoid the most misery; then equalize conditions and constitute democratic government.

This is a tragic choice. On the one hand, Tocqueville sees God on the side of universal prosperity. He states that explicitly. But, ah, he will miss the poetry, the brilliance, and the glory of aristocratic society, even as it came at the cost of greater ignorance, poverty, and cruelty.

For Tocqueville, aristocratic society offers humanity greater variance, but a lower mean. Democratic society offers humanity a higher mean, but lower variance. And that’s the rub of the incommensurability of the two worlds.

Democracy’s lower variance relative to aristocracy means less poverty, and that’s good. But it also means less poetry, éclat, and glory. While aristocratic society offers these benefits, they come at a heavy human cost. Yet despite the cost, they also represent humanity at its best. Trading these aspirations for a full belly, for Tocqueville, represents a loss, a tragic loss, of an important bit of what makes us truly human.

It is Tocqueville’s recognition of the tragic that I wish conservatism today would pick up more generally as we attempt to negotiate a way between market and political liberalism versus solidarity, today’s global iteration of the tension between gemeinschaft versus gesellschaft.

As for Tocqueville, however, I don’t disagree with his resolution of the choice in his mind, if not in his heart. It is a good thing to feed the body. At the same time, when reading these passages, I can’t help but sense that Tocqueville believes humanity is losing a real part of its soul in the transition he outlines. But is it the sort of profit where we gain the whole world but lose our souls?

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