Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 3, 18-26)

Recent news reports about crashes in the financial markets have emphasized the importance of money in maintaining our traditional American way of life. People who never paid attention to financial markets before are tuning in to the complexities of adjustable mortgage rates and derivatives. What does it all mean? What are we going to do? One thing’s for certain to Tocqueville: “usually love of wealth lies at the heart of Americans’ actions.” We’re not going to want to give up our comforts, or even down-size our cars, unless we absolutely have to. Why should we? Tocqueville points out that “the love of money has never been stigmatized in America and, provided it does not exceed the limits set by public order, is held in high esteem. The American calls noble and praiseworthy that ambition which our medieval ancestors used to describe as slavish greed…” We don’t like to think of ourselves as greedy. Maybe some of the filthy rich are greedy and maybe they should be soaked by taxes. But most of us are just hard-working Americans trying to provide a few comforts for ourselves and our families.

What we really want are the advantages and rewards of free market capitalism but without the risks and dangers that come along with a competitive economy. It’s because we’ve gotten so used to comfort that we don’t really want to make any major changes in our way of life or in our political institutions. Tocqueville believes that “Violent political passions have but little hold over men who have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of comfort…They like change, but fear revolutions.” Wrenching changes would destabilize the markets. A forcible overthrow of the government is unthinkable. That’s why Americans are one of the least revolutionary people in the world: “the majority of American citizens fail to see what they might gain from a revolution but are keenly aware…of what they might lose.” We might lose our homes, our jobs, our whole way of life. Better to keep what we have and be secure rather than risk everything and not be sure if we’ll have anything left at all. This attitude can be dangerous. Why? Tocqueville says “I can easily discern a political state which, when joined to a principle of equality, would create a society more stationary than we have ever known in the Western world.”

But if we’re comfortable in our own homes and are happy with our jobs and our families and our way of life then what’s wrong with being stationary? Why change? The reason why we have to change is because other nations don’t stay stationary. They’re changing all the time and some of them aren’t happy with what they have. And they’re not happy with what we have either. In fact, they’re just not happy period. And when whole nations get unhappy bad things happen. It’s not the happy nations we have to worry about. Tocqueville says that “When the principle of equality develops (all civilized countries)…equally dread war and long for peace…wars become less frequent….they all end up by regarding war as a disaster almost always as serious for the victor as for the vanquished…no single country could rest in peace while the others are so disturbed. Wars, therefore, become less frequent but spread over a larger area once they break out.” In the modern world it’s not the fat and happy nations that want to make war. It’s the lean and mean ones. The big question today is: can the fat and happy nations (who believe in democracy and equality) defend themselves against the lean and mean nations (who don’t)? We shall see.


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