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Monday, October 06, 2008

The Unlimited Power of the Majority

Tocqueville believes that government is weakened by giving authority to the majority of the people. He prefers government by an aristocracy because he feels that is a more rational and natural way for society to be organized. His argument derives from the notion that the few (aristoi) should rule over the many (demos), but he does not provide much insight as to how the "aristoi" are to be found amongst the multitude. The assumption seems to be that wealth or property is one indication of superiority. But no evidence is offered to demonstrate why wealth and virtue are connected. Given the fact that wealth can be inherited, rather than earned, it seems odd that Tocqueville should assume any moral advantages in having it. He seems to think that the wealthy are in a better position to rule over others because they no longer have to concern themselves with acquiring a fortune. By this logic, the poor would necessarily be consumed with monetary pursuits while neglecting the affairs of state. Also, the poor would be more corruptible since they have yet to possess their own estates. Therefore, society is better left in the hands of those who are no longer tempted by the attractions of wealth.

This argument makes a couple of assumptions. First, that all men are primarily concerned with wealth; and second, that virtue is more often found in men of property than in men who are impoverished.

Is it, in fact, true that men place wealth above all other considerations? If so, doesn't this mean that no men are truly civilized? That, when push comes to shove, all men will choose wealth over other considerations, such as family, honor, friendship, love and truth. This suggests that man is really just another species of animal, with no higher aspirations than the search for his next meal or the endless quest for procreation. Of course, Tocqueville wants to say that an aristocracy is the one exception to this base description of man's nature. Hence, we find that the benefits of civilized life confer certain advantages to those who are morally inspired to live better lives. Thus, over time, wealth becomes concentrated into the hands of a few people who are brave and hard working, etc. etc. In this way, a true aristocracy of men emerges out of the mob's struggle for limited resources.

But the struggle to survive is not one that proceeds from a position of absolute equality. A small part of humanity is blessed with natural advantages of intelligence, strength, speed, agility, beauty, or ambition. These qualities make success more likely for some rather than for others. And, the argument follows, these natural advantages will progress from one generation to the next through the mechanism of heredity, just as the physical attributes of blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes are passed along from one slice of DNA to the next. This natural aristocracy of biology is replicated in the economic sphere by a similar aptitude for creating and expanding one's own fortune in the marketplace. Thus, history becomes the natural unfolding of this gradual separation of humanity into the few, the proud and the brave, who are the true "aristoi" of mankind, as compared to everyone else.

This scenario is accepted among political conservatives like Tocqueville as a plausible model for social evolution. But, in fact, like the discovery of fire or the founding of Rome, it has more to do with mythology than evolution. Any natural advantages conveyed by DNA could hardly account for the present day concentration of wealth in society. Rather than an argument for virtue, the pre-political state of man, as Hobbes rightly said, was an arena of endless conflict, of the strong lording it over the weak, and the ruthless enslaving the serene. In today's world, the free market expresses the moral equivalent of this aboriginal conflict. It is an accepted fact that the self-interest guiding economic success will always reward the clever over the virtuous. No one expects mercy in a corporate struggle for dominance in the marketplace.

At best, it seems that economic success is related to a certain low aptitude for making money. But it is a poor argument to suggest that wealth implies moral superiority. And if moral superiority is lacking, upon what basis are we to conclude that government is best left to the wealthy? Does an aptitude for making money necessarily translate to an aptitude for governing other people? Only if we assume that government is a form of commerce. But governing requires more than mere management skills. Unless you plan to rule as a dictator using fear and intimidation as the tools of statecraft (i.e., totalitarianism), you will need the peaceful cooperation of other people. In other words, you need public approval.

Tocqueville apparently feels that public approval is a non-essential ingredient to governing. If the best people rule, everyone else will just fall into line. But this will only happen if the best people rule in the best possible way. In other words, if government benefits the greater population of men who are excluded from government. This can only happen if the best people are guided by some other principle than self interest. Yet, the best people have become successful through their acquisition of wealth and power, and in doing so they surely must have been guided by their own interest. Thus, something else, other than self interest, is required in order to govern effectively. The other quality needed for good government is public virtue. However, public virtue is the willingness to put the public's welfare above your own. So that in order for an aristocracy to govern well, it must deny the very principle which enabled it to prosper in the first place, i.e., the self interest of the rich. Tocqueville assumes that an aristocracy is incorruptible. But this doesn't mean that the aristocracy is blind to its own interest. It just means that an aristocracy believes that the public interest is best served by having political power in the hands of the aristocracy.

So we are left with the idea that an aristocracy is guided by a sense of its own superiority, but that in order to rule over a majority of the population, it must deny this philosophical claim, and substitute a contrary belief in the Christian idea of service to others; in other words, good government, in a free society, requires a generous measure of self denial (humility) which does not come easily to the best people. In point of fact, the best people can only be identified by their complete lack of ambition to rule, and having identified them, the public would have to compel them to accept the office. This is the original meaning of public service which must, of necessity, be the kind of service that no one seeks on his own, but having been summoned by the oracle, will put his own interests to the side and fulfill his duty to the people, as did the consuls of ancient Rome when they were once called to serve.


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