Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 2)

Many people assume that freedom and equality are intertwined concepts. The assumption is that as one expands so does the other. This seems like a natural conclusion but may not be true. In his book The Executive’s Compass James O’Toole makes the opposite argument. He tries to prove that as either freedom or equality expands then the other tends to contract. Under this theory the more freedom I have the less equal others will be to me or me to them. On the other hand the more equal we all are the less freedom I’ll have as an individual. Tocqueville seems to agree with this idea when he says that “Men’s taste for freedom and equality are, in effect, two different things and I am not afraid to add that in democratic nations they are also unequal.” He also believes that given a choice Americans prefer equality more than freedom: “I think that democratic nations have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they seek it out, become attached to it, and view any departure from it with distress. But they have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality.” This may be unfortunate for us. Why? Because equality is a subjective concept that no nation can ever accomplish completely. As Tocqueville puts it “One can imagine men enjoying a certain degree of freedom which wholly satisfies them…But men will never establish an entirely satisfying equality.”

This doesn’t mean that we can’t keep trying though. One way to achieve social satisfaction is to gather with like-minded people and share the burdens as well as the benefits of private associations. These associations could be as elaborate and exclusive as a country club with a private golf course or it could be as simple and straightforward as a local chamber of commerce. But one of the questions Tocqueville addresses is whether these private gatherings help the common good. The answer is yes they do. Or at least Americans think they do. Why? By seeking out what’s best in your own self-interest you help make the whole community a better place to live. But there’s a twist. Your self-interest must be defined in a way that adds a product or service to the community. Tocqueville says that “in the end the belief is born that man helps himself by serving others and that doing good serves his own interest…In the United States, the beauty of virtue is almost never promoted. It is considered useful and this is proved daily.” You can get rich helping others.

This is convenient for Americans. In fact, it’s almost a religion. Tocqueville saw it this way: “It is often hard to know from listening to American preachers whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this.” Salvation may be the goal for the next world but for this world the goal is comfort and security. America’s passion is to become prosperous. America has a vast middle class and “The passion for material prosperity is fundamentally a middle-class affair.” This constant striving to get ahead is what drives America’s economy and its people. Maybe it drives us too hard. Tocqueville tells the reader that “Sometimes you still come across, in certain remote districts of the Old World, small populations which have been almost forgotten in the general commotion and which have stayed stationary while everything moved around them.” Maybe that’s why so many Americans work so hard for so long – so they can retire in peace and comfort.


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