Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

TOCQUEVILLE: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

In this week’s reading Tocqueville begins by stating “I have shown how democracy favors the development of industry (by multiplying without limit the number of those engaged therein).”  Does this mean democracy (American style) is primarily an economic system or a political model?  President Calvin Coolidge once said the business of America is business.  Was he right?  Or is the “business” of America to build a democratic form of government?  Tocqueville was interested in what the industrial revolution was doing to society.  He wrote “the man is degraded as the workman improves.”  Factories were taking the place of farms and family-owned shops.  Factory work is repetitive. Tocqueville thought it stunted a worker’s human potential.  But farming and small retail shops take lots and lots of work hours.  What if factory jobs significantly reduced the number of hours needed to earn a living?  Couldn’t factory workers use those extra leisure hours to expand their human potential?  By reading Great Books for example?  That was the original vision of the Great Books program.  They envisioned factory workers and other ordinary people reading and discussing the classics in Great Books groups across the country in libraries and homes.  Tocqueville might respond, in a good way: only in America.

But he seemed less approving of America’s industrial policies.  He said, “An industrial theory stronger than morality or law ties a worker to a trade, and often to a place, which he cannot leave.”  Is that true today?  In a rapidly changing economy American workers may have the opposite problem.  They’re often forced to change jobs or careers and move to another city to find work.  Of course “morality” can also tie workers down.  A man may feel obligated to take over his father’s business.  Or he may choose to stay in his hometown at a lower paying job because that’s where his family has lived for generations.  These aren’t the kind of people Tocqueville has in mind.  Those poor Russian dock workers in our last reading (Chelkash) were stuck.  There was no other work they could do and they had nowhere else to go.  These were the workers he was talking about.  What should we do about people on the bottom rungs of society?

That problem is still with us today.  Tocqueville says “at the same time industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the masters.”  Today we call it income inequality.  Economists still ponder questions such as these.  In what way does “industrial science” lower the standing of the working class?  Does it seem reasonable that all classes would benefit from increased production and wealth?  Who’s going to buy all those extra goods and services our economy produces?  Tocqueville’s main point was this.  “It would thus appear, tracing things back to their source, that a natural impulse is throwing up an aristocracy out of the bosom of democracy.”  This is an interesting observation and leads to an interesting question.  Which is more “natural” to the human condition: aristocracy or democracy?  If the answer is aristocracy then the American experiment in government will naturally find its way back to the more normal human condition of an aristocratic society.  Or it may be that there is no “natural” form of government.  Democracy may work for some people in some times and places but not for other people in other times and places.  Tocqueville seems to take this view when he writes “the more I see this country (America) the more I admit myself penetrated with this truth: there is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of political institutions, their efficiency depends almost always on the original circumstances and the social condition of the people to whom they are applied.”  Political institutions that work in America may not work somewhere else.  And our original question remains.  Is the primary business of America business or is it government?  Two hundred years after Tocqueville we’re still working it out.


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