The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Live: Tocqueville on Democracy

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Live: Tocqueville on Democracy


All right, so we’re
going to get started. Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming. Welcome to this
afternoon’s discussion and live recording of a podcast
by The Partially Examined Life. My name’s Allen
Hance, and this event is co-sponsored by Brown
University’s Swearer Center for Public
Service, where I work, and the Creative Scholars
Project, which is headed up by my colleague, Ian Gonsher. For those who don’t know about
The Partially Examined Life, let me read a short
description from PEL’s website. Quote, “The Partially
Examined Life is a philosophy podcast by some
guys who were, at one point, set on doing philosophy
for a living, but then thought better of it. For each episode, we pick
a text and chat about it with some balance between
insight and flippancy. You don’t have to
know any philosophy or even to have read the
text we’re talking about to mostly follow and hopefully
enjoy the discussion.” End quote. As someone who did philosophy
for a living for some time and then thought better of
it, I’m a great fan of PEL and especially appreciate
the combination of seriousness and levity that
Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan bring to the philosophical text
they discuss and blog about. In an era where the reading
and discussion of such texts has become a highly
professionalized, academic activity confined
largely to university seminars, The Partially Examined
Life does a great service by bringing philosophical
conversation back into a broader agora of
intellectual and public life. With the presidential
election only 12 days away and our national
politics offering up a particularly remarkable
and toxic brew of populism, bigotry, intolerance,
and authoritarian ideas, today’s session entitled
“The Problem with Democracy, Can Freedom and
Equality Co-exist?” which will focus on
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
could not be more timely. So I give you then, Wes Alwan,
Seth Paskin, Mark Linsenmayer, Dylan Casey, a.k.a. The Partially Examined Life. Thank you. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thanks, Alan. And thanks to you,
and Ian Gonsher, and Kate Trimble for
helping make this happen. And to Brown University, and
the Creative Scholar Project, and the Swearer Center
for Public Service for sponsoring this. Just again, for those
of you who are not familiar with this format and
are used to more of a lecture, this is a recording
of a podcast. So instead of delivering it to
you, the audience, in a way, we’re going to ignore you
and talk to each other. And probably sometimes
ignore each other, so we can look at the text. So after that,
after maybe an hour, or a little more
than an hour, we will open this up to questions– Discussion. –and comments. Yeah, to discussions– so
you can say things as well. So I’m going to hand it
over now to Mark Linsenmayer to do our usual introduction. You are witnessing The Partially
Examined Life philosophy podcast live. Our question for
episode 152 is something like, what are the dangers
inherent in democracy, and what qualities of American
culture and institutions mitigate or exacerbate
these dangers? And we read sections of Alexis
de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America published in two
volumes in 1835 and 1840. My name is Mark
Linsenmayer, broadcasting to the omnipotent majority from
Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This is Seth Paskin,
freely associating around a common interest with
other self-interested people in Providence, Rhode Island. This is Wes Alwan,
and I forgot to do one of those clever intros. This is Dylan Casey, minimally
despotic in Rhode Island. Mildly. Mildly. Mildly despotic. Mildly despotic. All right, there was a request
that we read the ground rules. So first, how many
people have heard the podcast that are hear? OK, almost everybody, but
we’ll have some rules here to bring in those
that are not familiar. The ground rules for our
discussion include, number one, try not to assume
that our audience has read what we’re talking about
or has any other background in philosophy. Number two, don’t make arguments
that hinge on something other than what
we’ve agreed to read. Don’t say, you’d know
what I was talking about if you heard my extensive,
very private discussions about this book
with Sean Hannity. And number three, we will
be rigorous and exact in all that we say unless
doing otherwise would be potentially
more entertaining. Folks can listen
to more episodes, and get the book,
and all that stuff at partiallyexaminedlife.com. All right, so Wes
wanted to make sure that we didn’t go too
off track this time, so he wanted to give an
uninterrupted– we’ve never done this before– an
uninterrupted short description of the plot, the
goings on, the scene. Set the scene for us, Wes. OK I’ll try to do that, Mark. Paint your verbal magic– Well I assumed that we– –no one will interrupt
you while you do it. [LAUGHTER] It’d be a miracle if that
happened on this podcast. So we are all going to do
something a little different. We’ll give some opening
statements about the reading, and I’ll just begin by
giving a little background. So we’re talking about this
book, this massive two volume book, or books, published by
Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and 1840. So those volumes of
Democracy in America were published separately. And they’re based
on his observations of American society and
its political and civil institutions after spending
about nine months traveling around America with his friend,
Gustave de Beaumont, who ended up writing this book about
the same trip called, Marie or, Slavery in
the United States, which is also
really fascinating. And for listeners,
we’re going to be using the University
of Chicago Press version referring to
those page numbers. OK, de Tocqueville
was a Frenchman. What’s his interest in America? Well, in Europe at the
time, aristocracy was dying, and they were making a
transition towards democracy and democratic institutions. This actually scared
de Tocqueville. In fact, in his
introduction, he says he’s terrified of democracy. And so the question is, why? Why is he so terrified
of democracy? Well, he thought that the
monarchies and aristocracies actually had some good
things about them. And he didn’t think of them
as inherently tyrannical, or despotic. Although I think we might be,
as good denizens of a democracy, inclined to think that way. He actually thought
that the fact that there was a nobility
and an aristocracy to serve as a sort of
counterweight to the monarch meant there was a kind
of check on tyranny. And there were other
social aspects there as aristocracy that helped
provide that check as well. So with the advent of
democracy, and especially what he calls the equality
of conditions– the increasing equality of
socioeconomic conditions, wealth, class, social
rank, and education– the effects of those
things are not always good. And in France it had been
creating a lot of conflict. And what de Tocqueville
wanted to know is whether or not America
had some lessons learned about democracy. And also, I think
in going to America and seeing democracy
in a pure form and in a sort of forum where
there were habits, and customs, and mores in the society
tied to the institutions, he thought that France and
Europe could learn something from that. So the things that terrify de
Tocqueville more specifically, which we’ll talk
about in more detail– because you might
think, well if there’s no monarch, if there’s
no king, what’s so potentially terrifying? Well there’s the possibility
of something called the tyranny of the majority. In a way, that could be
more powerful than a king because potentially, it doesn’t
have the same counterweight. And then there’s groupthink. And there’s the
materialism caused by equality of conditions,
which can lead to individualism, which sort of weakens the
populace and makes them, again, less able
to resist tyranny. So those are some of the
things he’s worried about. And the broad sketch of what
he thinks is a solution– or what he thinks exists
in America’s institutions that actually help democracy
thrive despite some of these drawbacks– have
to do with people undoing some of the effects of
equality of conditions, including undoing the
way of individualism and the way that
separates people. So civil associations as well
as political associations will loom large
for de Tocqueville. In a way, it’s just about
people getting together to work on common goals
together that in a way can temper any tendency in democracy
towards despotism or tyranny. So that is my opening statement. I will hand it over to Seth. Seth’s turn. You want me to go next? You’re the one with something
written on a piece of paper, so please. There was a debate
about whether we should write opening statements. I did not get the memo that
we were not supposed to. All right, so I’m going
to begin with the end. This is the last
paragraph of the book. “Nations of our day cannot have
it that conditions within them are not equal, but it depends
on them whether equality leads to servitude or freedom, to
enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.” To me, this is the
problem statement of what we’re going to be doing
for the next hour and a half, or so. In America, in 2016, are we in
social bondage, or are we free? Do we treat ourselves
and our peers in a way that promotes
justice– the justice that equality promises? Do we rise up out of the
isolation of our private lives to address public concerns and
participate in public affairs enough– which was a critical
thing for de Tocqueville. As Wes said, I’m sure
we’ll touch on this. I just want to
tell you personally a little bit about my
experience reading this. It’s a tremendously
engaging and readable book. It is deep without
being pedantic. It is broad but very
well structured. He manages to generalize
from first person experience without sounding parochial. This has been
called the greatest book on both
democracy and America, and I don’t think it’s worth
arguing that point right now. It is saturated with keen
observations and insights that are as relevant today
as they were in 1835. So while we consider
his thoughts with respect to
America– the America that we now inhabit–
I ask you to consider that several days ago, 181 years
after de Tocqueville laid out his concerns about the
democratic age coming to Europe, resistance to it,
and the threat posed by it, the leader of the
Armenian opposition party announced his optimism
that democratic change may come to Armenia next year. To which I say, Yerevan forever. And that’s all I have to say. For those listening, Seth Paskin
just removed some clothing. Dylan. OK. So I’ve taken off
on Seth’s theme of what he thought of how
it personally affected him. I wanted to read a quote
from the chapter called, “On the Philosophic
Method of the Americans.” “To escape from the
spirit of system, from the yoke of habits, from
family maxims, from class opinions, and, up
to a certain point, from national
prejudices; to take tradition only as
information, and current facts only as a useful study for
doing otherwise and better; to seek the reason for things
by themselves and in themselves alone, to strive for a result
without letting themselves be chained to the means,
and to see through the form to the foundation. These are the
principal features that characterize what I shall
call the philosophic method of the Americans.” He also calls us
surprisingly Cartesian. He says, “America is,
therefore, the one country in the world where the precepts
of Descartes are the least studied, and the best followed.” So for me, when I
read Tocqueville, and it was the same
this time, is I just feel really, really American. He talks about our
do-it-yourself nature, our Cartesian pragmatism, our
institutions of government, and press, and education,
our materialism, and the dangers
of our capitalism. And in every one
of those, I feel like I’m looking in the
mirror, in my personal life, and then in what
I see around me. And so that’s, for me,
the most valuable reason to read de Tocqueville– is
because he doesn’t provide exact answers for those things,
but his diagnosis is so acute. And he thinks through
what the challenges are. At one point he says that he’s
not a friend of democracy, but he’s also not an
enemy of democracy. So it’s a little bit
like sitting down with someone who is
basically on your side, but isn’t afraid to point
out some real challenges. And he does so in a way
that really resonates. So that’s my opening statement. All right, So to– I feel really American. Where’s your American
flag T-shirt? It’s in my soul. So interestingly, though he saw
the passage from aristocracy to democracy as
irreversible– something that he had to warn the
world about– it’s something that earlier thinkers had
written about as maybe this ideal to shoot for. And he thought this was
actually already in place. His goal here was–
he was talking really, not to Americans certainly,
he was talking to other– he was an ancestral aristocrat. And he was talking
to other aristocrats and sort of warning
them saying, well, this is the way things are
going all over Europe. And we can learn a
little bit from the way America’s doing it. He does stress how a lot of
what’s going on in America is a result of the
particularities of the people that came over here,
that they were Puritans, that they didn’t come
over here as aristocrats and have a revolution. That’s not what the
Revolutionary War was about. How much the land and the fact
that you could just move out to another area, played
into the creation of the American spirit. So not all of these
lessons he thinks can be applied
directly to Europe. And in fact some of the
more interesting parts of the book– in volume
two, especially– he’s more talking
about– that’s sort of the more philosophical
half of the book– it’s less observation
of, here are how things are going in
America, and more of, here are how things inevitably
go with democracy because of human nature. He’s a little more generalizing. Of course the line
that we’ve heard here is that these observations
of the American spirit are so accurate. It would be very
surprising if observations made of people in the
1830s would really apply exactly now, and certainly
a lot of the specifics. He seems to think that
the fact that Christianity was an unargued
backbone of society, that people just didn’t
even reflect on it, they didn’t discuss
it, there was no hunger for publishing atheist
tracts or anything like that, that that was one
of the things that was a necessary counterpoint to
how democracy could go haywire. Well, you still can’t become
president and be an atheist. But maybe within a decade. We’re not that far off of that. And certainly we don’t have
the consistency of culture that he thinks is actually
necessary for the society to be healthy. So some of the observations
he makes about us do feel like, yes, they
could still apply in 2016. Some of them are
interestingly off. Apart from the fact
that he predicted that if the south seceded
that the central government is too small and could never
do anything about it. So for sure they would win. For sure we’d have
two countries. He predicted a race war. He had a lot of things to
say about Andrew Jackson and how he was
doing at the time. So this is entertaining just to
read as old-fashioned punditry, as a parallel people we see on
CNN, Fox News, whatever, now. I want to make– Next on Fox News,
de Tocqueville. I want to make sure
that we hit sort of as an agenda for
the evening– Wes ran down some of
the problems we had. I made a little list of six. So he mentioned the
tyranny of the majority, that’s the big one. What he has to say about
that, mostly in book one, is actually not even that new. He sort of takes a
lot of it from Locke. And yes, of course
it’s mitigated by the separation of
powers, decentralization, other things like that. We can talk about the
differences between– he thinks it’s more of an issue. It is not really
addressed by separation of powers in the
Constitution the way the Federalist Papers
would have you believe. Second is the dangers of
individualism, Wes mentioned. Dangers of materialism,
too much pursuit of material things, which
then could lead to materialism as anti-religion. The danger of
conformity of thought. The danger of a leveling
schoolmaster state. And then I just discovered
today, he actually did predict the danger of
emergence of a new aristocracy from industry. That just the fact that you
have bosses and workers, that everybody starts equal. The whole premise
is egalitarianism, like democracy, is unavoidable. It is the geist of the
world, and you’re not going be able to go back
to any sort of aristocracy. But fact that he
left a hole in there and very accurately predicted
this 99% phenomena that we’re seeing now, which was not
really in his observations of the present day that he was
making here was interesting. So do we want to start with the
tyranny of the majority stuff, and make sure we’ve got
all the arguments for and the things that he thinks
will exacerbate things, or that will address
that in the system? Well, you know me. I’d rather start
from the beginning. That’s what I was
going to suggest. We work our way through. I concur. It’s– I think we should talk
about what he means– It’s the tyranny
of the majority. –when he says– we
are tyrannizing Mark. So we are satisfying
your question, Mark. We’re going to– Well just to clarify, we
read way too much of the book to cover, certainly in an hour. Yeah, I know. I’m not going to walk
you through that. I think we want to talk
about equality of conditions and freedom, and what
those two things mean, and whether
[INAUDIBLE] tensions. I agree. Go ahead. Go ahead. Well the important
thing is we have to start by understanding
the premise that he’s defining equality of
conditions and equality against aristocracy. So his notion of what
equality is in a democracy is– we would call it today
maybe equality of opportunity, or at least some
rough concept of that, where the idea is that
anybody in America can enter into a concern
of their choosing. They can bond with any other
people to start a business, to start a religious
organization, to do something like that. And this is not
something that people in France under an aristocratic
regime were capable of doing. Obviously people who
were in the peasant class just didn’t have
the opportunity. They couldn’t go
build businesses. They couldn’t take over the
reins of control of the state. They couldn’t run for office. And so equality for him
is really a social level of social equality. It means equality of conditions
from the premise of starting. It doesn’t mean everybody
has the same intellect. It doesn’t mean you have the
same capabilities or anything like that. But it means you have
the same, in a sense, ability to go and make
something of your life from where you stand. That’s– I really thought he was talking
about socioeconomic conditions. And what’s interesting about it
is that he never really defines equality of conditions. It only comes out in context. I think it comes out in
the introduction where he talks of the 700 year
history of increasing inequality in Europe. And the kinds of
things he talks about are, for instance, the
rise of the clergy, the rise of lawyers,
trade and finance, science and the arts, education. There are these things that
have these leveling effects. And I think ultimately
it’s about power. But I think when
we break it down, it has something to do with
wealth and education and things like that. So even though
you’re right, I think it’s not that
equality of conditions means that people
are perfectly equal, they’re still rich and
poor in American society. It’s just that the
gulfs between people are not so vast as they
are in an aristocracy. In an aristocracy
you have nobles who are so wealthy
and powerful they are like states unto themselves,
and they can act that way. They can do massive
things by themselves. There’s none of that, and
everything’s been leveled down, essentially, in America. Yeah, but the way
that the nobles get to be wealthy like
that is hereditary. And the reason the clergy
is important in France back in that time
is that anybody from any class, any state,
can enter the clergy and get that kind of power. So that’s what he’s basically
looking at America and saying, there are no more
hereditary ties, anybody can
essentially do anything because there’s no structure
in place that gives wealth automatically to one small
set of people versus others. But the big bracket of course
are the race relations, right? Well there are some– I did
read the chapters on slavery– I mean he has a whole
section on slavery– –and Native Americans,
which are fascinating. But yeah, we didn’t– But when he talks about
those equality of conditions, one thing that I found
when I read it is– well, it’s a little bit like talking
about democracy in Greece, right? That it’s democracy for
whoever’s on the in-group. One thing to keep
in mind, though, is that he makes a
claim that equality of conditions and freedom
are two different things. You could be under
complete despotism and have equality of conditions. In fact, monarchs tended
to try and level out power, and wealth, and
things among their subjects because that gave
them more power. So you can have people
who are essentially not free, as long as they are
sort of socioeconomically equal, which obviously,
slaves aren’t, they can enjoy equality of conditions. But some of it has to do with
simply the quality of life, things like that. Yeah, one of the things he
says right off the bat, which will be familiar– folks that
will have heard the podcast. We did Edmund Burke
in the episode before this, who
is another guy that stresses that under a monarchy,
we don’t really think of rights existing under a monarchy. But that’s the
way it was set up, certainly, in England as
a constitutional monarchy, that people were
given certain rights. So that’s where de Tocqueville
is coming from with this, that he sees rights
and democracy as coming from different places. It’s not that we all voted
and we decided that we should have these rights. It’s a matter of democracy
by its very nature. If the majority says, eh,
that’s not really right. The majority can
change its mind. And so having actual
inalienable rights is something that is
foreign to democracy as far as he’s concerned. But in fact, it’s one of
the antidotes to it, right? That’s one of the
big things that allows for you to avoid
tyranny of majority. And to make a very
strong case for rights, which is another reason why
the institutional structures of the judiciary ends
up being really– I think we see that
ourselves, where the institution of
the Constitution and the Bill of Rights there,
end up being structures that temper majority tyranny. At least that’s the way de
Tocqueville would view it. Yeah that’s a good
point, just drawing a distinction between
thinking of democracy as a social movement
or historical movement versus a political. I think we just
immediately, nowadays, when we say democracy, we
think of a political system. But for him, it’s a
historical movement that’s been happening for 700 years. It just means, less of
this, and more of this. And then political structure
is independent of that. And sometimes it’s
almost like he’s using democracy and equality
of conditions interchangeably. Yeah, and he uses the
phrase democratic people and democratic society. The equality of conditions,
those are conditions. And then democracy we think
of as evolving institutions. But for him there,
they’re strongly related. Yeah, and in fact,
it points to how much context and conditions matter
in the American case for him. Because he spends a lot
of time– some of it, it seems purposeful. He attributes a kind of
purpose to the structure. He attributes through
the context of, democratic society
allows for the structure of the democratic republic of
the United States to happen. There’s a little bit of a
chicken and egg problem there. I think he would agree
that you can’t just take those institutions and
put them anywhere and have a democratic republic
work the way America does. And you can’t have
the democratic society be successful without
having those institutions. Yeah, this is what he says in
his introduction, basically. That in Europe, the way
democracy is advancing is it’s left to its
undirected savage instincts, and it needs to be directed. And how do you do that? Well, you need changes
in laws, but you also need changes in ideas,
and even customs, and also personal habits. People, actually,
individually have to be habituated
in a certain way, have to be certain types
of people, for democracy to actually work. So in a way, what he’s
looking to America for is the ways in which
democracy isn’t simply an institution, but it’s sort
of embedded in habit and custom so that it can actually work. So for instance, you’d
be more likely to have a tyranny of the
majority, you’d be more likely to have the
majority abusing its power, if they had just been
freed from oppression. If you have the
situation in Iraq where the one party is ousted,
and the other comes to power. And they’ve got a grudge. And he is glad that
that is not something that happened in the US. Did that happen in France? [LAUGHTER] [INAUDIBLE] I’m just giving it a
more contemporary– Yes, so de Tocqueville
is aware of the fact that the fading
aristocracy in this country and the other classes–
there’s a lot of mutual enmity. There’s a lot of
envy and resentment. And that just doesn’t
happen in America, because the democracy
didn’t arise in America out of this sort
of internal revolution, even though we got
rid of England. It wasn’t a
democratic revolution. It’s not like there’s this
huge aristocracy that’s left over in America. But you’re saying “doesn’t.” You’re saying present tense. “Doesn’t” as of 1835– what
are we looking at right now? If we’re going to
talk about 2016, this is what the
whole outsider thing is, that there is
fundamental and a de facto industrial business aristocracy. There’s the system,
and there’s all of us downtrodden people,
whether you’re on the left or the right, that
want to upend that system. So even though that wasn’t
left over from an official– there was no law that said
it’s a de facto aristocracy. We’ve got a lot of
the same hostility. Well, so that issue
that Wes brought up, the fact that in an
aristocracy you just have an impediment to moving
around within that society, and that in de Tocqueville’s
diagnosis of America, that one of the great
advantages is that you had a kind of mobility. And so what you’re
pointing to is that the complaint right now
between the 99% and the 1% is that lack of mobility. But I think the
difference is– he has a chapter on the way
Americans are materialists. They like comfort. Their stuff. They like material things. And they like those
sorts of pleasures. They have an insatiable taste– And it’s insatiable– –for material goods. So basically, you
get a little bit, and then no matter how much
you get, it’s never enough. So you’re always pursuing. You could always
have a nicer car. You could always have a
nicer house, and so on. You’re always pursuing
that American dream, and it’s never enough. And in an aristocratic
society, the lower classes have no– first of all, they
don’t have any experience of such comforts. And so it’s not like
they get addicted, and they have to keep
upgrading their drug. And there’s no
hope of moving up. And so they don’t have
to worry about that. The aristocrats,
on the other hand, they’re so used to wealth
and a certain lifestyle, that it’s not an
aspiration for them. It is expected. It’s just a way of life. And in fact, it’s easier
for them to give it up, than it is for the middle
class to give it up. It’s easier for an aristocrat
to be a self-denying ascetic and to give up the
finer things in life, than it is for anyone in
the middle– not anyone– but that it is for
the middle class, which I thought was
an interesting– Although he couples that
with an observation that even at that time–
you’re talking about the great leveling
forces of public opinion. And one of the main
topics here is that even the rich did not flaunt
it in the way that was very common in the old world. The habit of the people
is to keep it relatable and he just, oh yeah,
the rich and the poor will join each other and
talk in the street like– No one builds a Versailles. Exactly. Exactly. All throughout the book
when I was taking my notes, it’s like– this by the
way, is a quote factory. Literally every
paragraph is quotable. If Twitter was just slightly
more than 140 characters, man, my feed would
have been burning up the last couple of weeks. But every time he’s got one
of those bold statements, I put in here, and then it’s
kind of off to the side, say, still true? Still true? That one is definitely not true. Wait, what’s not true? He says– That the rich don’t flaunt it. –in America the rich
constantly interact with the poor every day. They don’t flaunt their
wealth, because they understand that they have this
common concern of some sense. We have gated communities now. The first thing that
popped in my head was the sound of Lifestyles
of the Rich and Famous. What’s that guy’s name? Robin something or other? Do you remember that
television show? Robin Leach. Robin Leach. And I thought, gross
excess consumption has become a virtue. And those people– You don’t think
that’s just so 80s? I was thinking of
the Silicon Valley, liberal rich kind of
thing, that they actually do that dress-down. [INAUDIBLE] You’re right. You’re right. The gold statues are definitely
an 80s Trump-esque kind of thing. Now we have Google buses
that just drive autonomously through the middle
of neighborhoods and keep the new elites
away from the hoi polloi. Well but some of it is the– You’re allowed to react, by the
way, negatively or positively. Well, thinking about the
things that seem different now than they were
for de Tocqueville– as much as I recognize myself
as an American when I read it, one thing that seems
really different is the universality of
community interaction, and the level of local
activity, and that rootedness. And for me, I find myself,
even in my own community, I have lots of links that
are significantly outside. I’m sort of web connected
to many, many places in the country, and many–
my family members are around, and my friends are around. And so my local ties
are just much less. And that is very different
than what the way he describes America. And maybe that’s
my own experience– Well yeah it’s a good– –the kind of education and
kind of life path that I have. And maybe that’s
one of the things that separates America now in
a way that it didn’t before. So one of the interesting
things about this book is that the answer to
the question of how you prevent tyranny in democracy
is very, kind of ordinary, in a way. Because a lot of it has
to do with association. The effect of democracy is
actually to separate people. And the solution is to
bring them together, because it’s only
when they’re together that they have the
power to resist tyranny, including the
tyranny of majority. The ways they’re
brought together are through being
involved politically, but he doesn’t even think
that’s the main part. It’s really just through any
types of civil institutions, associations basically. So I was thinking, it could
be any trade association, or anything that you belong to. That is your participation
in the rebellion against the potential
tyranny in the society. And it’s also an
act of freedom, that was the other big part
of an association. And that’s what freedom is. Yeah, it’s that act of
freedom of association, and that was where it was the
ennobling part of your soul. Because one of the things that
he’s really concerned with is that, along with the
tyranny of the majority, is this mild despotism is
really just losing your soul. He just feels like
there’s something about the democratic soul that
is just really unadmirable, and far from being the best
kind of person a human can be. And there isn’t the
ambition, the desire, to improve oneself that he
associates with aristocracy. But he sees freedom of
association, or association, as the activity of our own
freedom to assert ourselves, to be willful creatures,
rather than merely just one of the herd. Just about the social
improvement thing. He does talk about Americans
having a definite sense of progress, that there
is improvability really toward perfection in a
way that he didn’t think was present in an aristocracy. On the other hand, we
share that sentiment so we’re being
conformists in our thought that there is progress. He reminded me of
Nietzsche a lot here. And made me think that
even though Nietzsche was a little more historically
removed from this time– He even uses the phrase
“herd animal” at one point. Yes, yes. Had some sort of sentimentality
about feudal times left over. That at least in an
aristocracy, there were some really great people. And de Tocqueville at
least says, well, OK, I know that most of the
people were oppressed, and that was bad. And so from God’s point of
view, raising a few down and lifting many, many
up, that’s better overall. And I’ll try to look at things
from God’s point of view. That is one of the greatest
parts of this book, I have to say. That was fantastic So let me ask
a question of everybody here. How many people voted in
their last local election? OK, so I’m preaching to
the choir as they say here. So this other
threat of democracy is that it creates
individuals out of people. It isolates them. So he talks about
in an aristocracy when you have a
hereditary system, if you’re in that
hereditary system you have concern and
care for your ancestors, and you have to be concerned
about your offspring. And there’s a certain class that
you have a connection to too, because you jointly have a
responsibility in the structure to resist the power
of the monarchy and to provide for
those below you. Those that are below you have
to look up to you for something. In other words, we’re
all connected somehow, even if those bonds
are not what we– They’re hierarchical bonds. But they’re very
tight, communal– –very tight– –bonds. And they do create a sense of
community, some sort of sense of community. He says, when there’s
equality of conditions, and anybody can marry
anybody, and heredity doesn’t matter
anymore, and if you want to join with Jane
to start a business, and Bob to start a
trade association, and Fred to play cards, you
just go ahead and do that. Cats and dogs living together. Cats and dogs living together. The main thing is you don’t have
any obligations to each other, right? In a hierarchy there’s lots
and lots of obligatory ties. Those are the links that
keep people together. But the point being,
what this does is this complete disconnection. Democracy disconnects
you from any formal ties to other people. And the threat is, you can just
go off and do your own thing. If you don’t want to get
together with people, you’re by yourself. And if we have a whole society
of people who just hanging out by themselves, or maybe
with their families, and they’re not interacting
with other people. That’s when the danger
comes that somebody might step in and say, I
can make everything better for everybody, because
I can do everything. I am great. My stuff is the best. It’s going to be huge. Right? And so– Check on my Twitter feed. –what he thinks is, this
voluntary participation in associations that
we’ve been talking about is the way Americans have
an antidote to that threat. And it starts with
participation locally, and which is why I
asked about those– because he thinks the politics
is the association par excellence. You’d learn from politics how
to have civil associations and social associations. And at this time, the United
States was very distributed. We didn’t have a strong
central government. So it’s very
important for people to get together locally
to solve problems. And that’s how we fight the
tyranny of the majority. And that’s how we learn how
to associate with each other. And I think that,
if you ask me what’s different between
his day and our day, is a lot of those problems
don’t exist anymore. We have a much stronger
central government. There’s no more land,
no place to escape to. I live in Austin, which
has a lot of local issues that are hot burning issues. And we have development
versus the Save the Salamander Coalitions, and
traffic problems. So our local elections
have a lot at stake, and the participation is
pathetic given what’s at stake and how many people want to sit
around and complain about it. So this has given me a new way
to put people in their place when they talk shit to me. What’s interesting
is, I think he would be OK with
political apathy if it didn’t lead
to civil apathy. So he talks a lot about how
political associations are sort of this training ground
for civil associations. But in a way, the
civil associations are more important because
they’re more self-sufficient and because they are
outside of government. If you want to know what
replaces the aristocratic noble in a democratic society,
a good democratic society, it is the civil association. Those are the nobles now. Those are the things which
could give you enough money, and power, and labor to
actually do big things and to resist the
powers that be. Being involved in
government is one thing, but being involved in these
other associations I think is really important as well. Yeah, it’s part of what you call
self-interest well understood– is the antidote to
the individualism that Seth was talking about. Well, say something about that. I have got his definition here. Yeah, we have to
use those terms. That’s like the most famous
thing he– habits of the heart, self-interest well
understood, there we’re done. Well, in any state
he doesn’t say– This is before the self-interest
well understood part stuff. The problem with
individualism– he contrasts this with selfishness. They’re not quite the same term. “Selfishness is a passionate
and exaggerated love of self that brings man to relate
everything to himself alone and to prefer himself
to everything.” That’s a universal human trait. Individualism he thinks
was sort of a new thing of his age, “a reflective
and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate
himself from the mass of those like him and withdraw to
one side with his family and friends, so that
after having thus created a little
society for his own use, he willingly abandons
society at large to itself.” So self-centeredness
is about not being involved in public affairs. Yes and he thinks that–
well, self-centeredness this is neither of those terms. Individualism– No he uses the phrase
self-centeredness. So individualism–
there’s two components. There’s self-centered,
and then there’s intellectual self-sufficiency. So the intellectual
self-sufficiency is, I’m not looking to
authorities for my ideas. I can generate my own. And then the self-centeredness
is this withdrawal, this tendency towards withdraw
from public life, which is not, like you said, the
same as selfishness, which is just withdrawing
from everyone, caring only about yourself. What Seth was saying
about people ignoring the local issues, that I think
is– the more immediate threat from tyranny is not the fascist
father figure coming in, and I will solve
all your problems. That is something
he talks about. But it’s just more, I’ve
retreated into myself. And so that just
leaves the government to do whatever it wants. That people will just ignore
it, and so, yes, despotism comes about that way
because nobody is actively joining together to fight it. And that’s exacerbated
by materialism because people will
tend to concentrate on getting rich and doing well
or their careers and things like that. And so that increases
this tendency to withdraw, and it allows some
despot to come along. And especially if they promise
order and prosperity– so that’s one way that
despotism [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah, despotism is one
manifestation of the threat. It also opens the door
to rule by the minority. So the small group that makes
politics their profession can take over and do
things, like redistrict, stuff like that, that maybe
the majority would not– Well he calls this the factions,
the despotism of factions. Yeah. So if you’re spending all
your time locked into yourself or chasing material
goods, and you’re not involved in public life through
some sort of association, you are paving the path to
be tyrannized by a minority or by a despot. And then this is
the way in which he has a different take
on Madison’s concern and the Federalists. Madison is looking to disrupt
majority tyranny by saying, well look, there are so
many factions out there that we’ll set it up so that
the factions will fight it out with one another, but
nothing will rise to the top. And de Tocqueville is
diagnosing that, well, because of equality, then you’ll
have this burgeoning apathy that will then allow
certain factions to take over. I had a question for you guys. So he says about individualism
that individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment
rather than depraved sentiment. And it reminded me of when we
talked in Aristotle about vice versus incontinence,
so that individualism was a kind of incontinent soul. I think you got it
the other way around. So individualism
is the judgment, whereas incontinence is
not a failure of judgment. Incontinence is a
failure of action, right? You know you shouldn’t
eat the cake, but you eat the cake
anyway because you have weakness of the will. That’s more like selfishness. It’s just being depraved. I don’t know. It’s not a one-to-one question. As usually with Aristotle,
the answer is yes and no. It is a problem of
judgment, and it isn’t. Yeah maybe we shouldn’t– Maybe they [INAUDIBLE]
exactly right. –maybe we shouldn’t
bring Aristotle into the conversation,
because the next thing you know we’re going to
be talking about Greek. Although, we have to
point out that these concerns about tyranny
of the majority started with Aristotle. And a lot of what went through
Locke and got to de Tocqueville was this initial– what
Tocqueville’s adding is the actual observation
of democracy, paying much more attention to the
details of how things are structured, rather
than just worrying in the abstract
something could happen. Although, really, both of
them are in de Tocqueville. It’s a very big book. He even says, I’m not so
worried– he points out a couple of cases. In particular,
there’s a footnote, kind of a famous
footnote, that picks out a couple cases of
these journalists that were against the War of 1812. And they got dragged out
and lynched, basically. Because the majority
was in favor of it nothing was going to stop
that, even though lynching is illegal, even then. And then also the–
what state was it was? It was in one of the northern
states that blacks had the right to vote,
and yet they didn’t. And he asked, well why? Because they’ll be harassed
if they come out to vote, because even though it is
legal for them to vote, it’s the majority sentiment. So it’s not even just
the majority making laws, it’s about the
majority sentiment that is the real tyranny. Means that they’re
not going to be able to exert their rights
according to the law. That’s actually one
of the most poetic– I keep saying there’s all
these poetic and great parts in this book, because there are. This is one of the ways he says
a despot monarch is actually a little bit better for
people because he’s violent, but it’s limited. Because as long as you stay
out in the countryside, he’s not oppressing
you every given day. And you can talk smack. You can go to your friend’s
house, and you can be like, I hate this guy, or I hate
this woman, or whatever. But he says when you have a
democratic institution where there’s a majority
point of view, you’re afraid to talk because
you might be at dinner, and if you don’t hold
the majority view, you could get rousted, or
kicked out, or ostracized from your society. And it made me think of Foucault
in talking about how punishment was internalized in that–
listen to our episode on birth of the prisoner, or
discipline and punishment, whichever it was. And that’s just
fascinating, the idea that it’s hard as
a modern person, being very American myself,
having grown up here, inculcated in all the American
virtues, to have somebody argue that monarchies
have advantages. And more freedom of speech. Advantages for somebody who
would be like me, right? Because I’m Jewish. There’s no hereditary
monarchy anywhere that I would ever get to be a
part of the fun part, the fun group. Well, yeah, that’s one
of the surprising things. He thinks there’s more freedom
of speech and independence of thought in the aristocracy. It’s simply too dangerous to
speak out in the democracy. The right kind of
aristocracy, right? Yeah, the aristocracy
that isn’t tyrannical, which is usually the case,
because of the way the balance of power works. But it’s too dangerous to
speak out in the democracy. You can nominally speak out,
yes, there’s freedom of speech. And yes, there’s this sort
of illusion of a freewheeling public discourse. But in reality, what you do
when you speak in a democracy, is you define yourself as
part of certain factions. And some of those
factions are not going to be able to join certain
associations or institutions– that you are
effectively ostracized from certain parts of society
once you define yourself as belonging to
a certain faction by saying certain things. I was initially
going to say, this is one of the points that
doesn’t seem so accurate now. Because I was thinking
of the particular things that were forbidden at the time. That he says, we
don’t have to worry about atheists in America. It’s not that there
aren’t atheists, it’s just that they know there’s
no appetite for publishing stuff. Atheism is not going to
corrode the– not state, he believes in separation
of church and state– but the culturally pervasive
religion that he thinks helps support the
society because there’s this kind of taboo
against expressing anti-religious sentiment. So even though you’re
going to find individuals that hold these,
they’re not going to be able to create anything. And so, of course,
that particular issue, we have much more
plurality and freedom to talk about that
kind of thing. But we still, of course,
have the same thing, that if you, at
the dinner table, with the extended
family, start saying, well I think consenting sexual
relations between adult males and teenage boys like they
did in ancient Greece. I think that that’s OK. If you actually
took that, you would be ostracized in exactly the
same way these [INAUDIBLE]. And it’s not just
from your family. Although– I’ve wanted to ostracize– –often it is. –Mark many times. Yes, there are so many
different factions within American society. You can always find a niche. You can always find
a place, right? And if you’re writing op-eds on
one side of the partisan divide or another, you have limited
employment opportunities. You’ve limited the
kinds of associations you can join just by having
those sorts of opinions. There are actual social
consequences, not just your family avoiding you. But it limits your
path within society. So I thought that
was interesting. I was thinking the
same way with you, is this really an issue today? And the more thought
about it, I thought, yeah. That’s– But is that unique
to America at all? I would think
anywhere there’s going to be some taboo
beliefs like that, that if you express them
in the wrong circumstances, that you’re going
to be ostracized. This doesn’t seem
uniquely American at all. No, but the difference is,
in a democratic society, everything depends
on the association. Those are your nobles. And the strength of
those associations depends on what
happens in the press. So he talks a lot about
the press as the ways in which we can find
like-minded people and connect with each other. The ways in which
we are actually lim– and the other
part of this is, there’s a tendency in
aristocratic society to defer to expert opinion. Whereas in democracy, part
of the Cartesian thing is we just rely on
our own reflections, and that we are
suspicious of authority. But what ends up
happening by default, is that majority opinion
becomes the dominant opinion. It becomes the go-to. And so it leads to a
lack of free thinking, a lack of independence
of mind that is unique, I think, to a democracy. So that’s a lot of
related things, but that– Yeah well that chapter on
the philosophical approach of Americans and the fact that
we are the intellectual version of this individualism that
you are talking about, this I really recognized. Well, there’s two aspects of it. One is that he thought
Americans of his time were super non-philosophical,
that the average French citizen I guess might have at
least had some familiarity with the philosophers
that were big in France. This was a hit book. This is still true. Absolute bestseller. From what I can tell, this
is still true in Europe. The average educated
person in Europe knows much more about philosophy
than the average American. Right. He characterizes
Americans though, as following a
philosophy implicitly, that is the Enlightenment
philosophy of Descartes. That everything is a– I’m
trying to find that quote here. Anybody have that? I don’t. But the idea is that you
don’t need footnotes, you just need reason. You just need to be able
to think things through, and you don’t have to appeal
to precedent or authority to make your point. I think Dylan said it
in the introduction, nowhere is he less read,
but more put into practice. Something along those lines. “Each person withdraws
narrowly into himself, and claims to judge
the world from there.” So that follows the economic,
I’m going to ignore politics. I’m going to just stick to
enriching myself and my family. Yeah, I know just as
well as whatever experts. I can figure out what
the correct move on Mosul was just by hearing about it. It’s a matter of common sense. And he does explain that he
thinks that what comes out of this is the idea that
we think that everything is explicable, that nothing exceeds
the bounds of intelligence, and that Americans deny
what they cannot comprehend. It gives them an innate distaste
for the supernatural, which is only countered by the fact
that they all already have this religion built in,
at the time at least. It’s an interesting thing,
which I recognize both in myself and– I suppose that because
I’m American is this sense of I call it the do-it-yourself-ness. There’s all this kind of aspect
of– that he notes in Americans that they think they
can do everything alone or on their own. And that spirit is
very empowering, but it has these
challenges to it. It’s part of the
motor for innovation, and the expansion to the
West, and the development of capitalism. All kinds of things
are real strengths because of that spirit, but it
has these faults, which it just turns out that, you’re
not always the smartest person in the room. And it turns out that
thinking things through and getting the opinions
of other people matters. And the one thing that I found
that I had to juxtapose it with is that there is this
tendency in America that as you start on your own
and you gather your own opinion about it– but you might
get other people together– and then you say, well,
this is the right way. And you might gather a
kind of expertise in it and follow it that way. I didn’t say that very well. The thing that resonated
with me in this is just the– it’s
not necessarily everybody thinks they’re the
smartest person the world, but we feel like, I just got
to call it like I see it. That’s just where I am
right now, and so on. Whatever the issue
is, there’s always going to be somebody out there
that knows more than I do, but I have to be able to act. So it sort of goes
with the pragmatism, that you have to use your
own intellectual judgment. And that lets you
act more rapidly. What’s funny about that though,
I don’t feel like even then that Americans would– maybe
in the do-it-yourself sense of building their own
house, they would. But they wouldn’t
say that about, I’m going to just go do a
bowel resection on you, because I’m the guy who I’ve
never done a bowel resection, but I know how to do it. Even then I don’t think
they would say that was– I’ll at least look
it up on WebMD. The important thing
about this– there’s the intellectual
component, but there’s also the active component that
ties into this notion of associations. There’s a great quote in here
where he says something like, where in France everybody
would stand around looking to the government to put
the roof on the house, and in England they
would appeal to a Lord. In the United States they just
self-organize and go fix it. It’s the notion of not
appealing to an authority to solve a problem. It doesn’t mean that
we think we can solve all problems by
ourselves, but it does mean that we think
it’s incumbent on us to go solve those problems. It ties into that notion
of American ingenuity or stick-to-itiveness. But the challenge,
the downside of that is, when I see somebody else
doing really well, and I go, man, I could do that. And I don’t recognize my own
limitations and failures. He says there’s a
lot of people that we don’t look into
ourselves to figure out what we can and can’t do. So there’s a lot of people that
go try to make themselves rich. Or they go try to do this,
and they just fail constantly over and over again
because they don’t realize that they’re not that great. Part of it is that there is some
distributed sense of specialty, right? Kind of jack-of-all-trades
version of it. So it’s not that
there isn’t a sense of knowing how to do something. It’s that the self-organized
aspect that you get together, and say, well someone there
knows how to build a roof. And they don’t have to be
the best absolute person, but they basically
know how to do it. And then you can do it together. But there’s also the
fact that a lot of people know a little bit about
a lot of stuff, right? Just think about being out in
the West, or being a farmer, or whatever. You have to know a little
bit about a lot of stuff in order to get that to work. So your society
isn’t structured so that you are really
specialized in one thing that you do, and then
you rely on other people to do those things. Right? So I think it’s kind
of a paradoxical result here, which is that there’s
this can-do-itiveness, and there’s the
facility with reasoning, that Cartesian aspect
comes out of this. But I think the point
of this second chapter is that where most
societies defer to experts, or defer to people in certain
classes on certain opinions. In America, we think we’re
getting it from ourselves. We think we’re sort
of self-reliant. But really the default opinion
we’re actually expressing is simply the majority
opinion, where we’re actually engaging in groupthink. So the dividing line
between, yeah, I’m just being practical, and
reasoning about things, and getting it
done, between that, and I’m just not thinking. It’s hard to tell. So it’s an interesting
paradox in American society. And it’s a kind of paradox that
runs through the whole book because many of the things that
actually create problems for us and make democracy
sort of lend itself the possibility of tyranny,
also provide us with solutions. So for instance,
like self-interest is– on the one hand, the
materialism and self-interest are a problem. On the other hand, the
kind of self-interest, the kind of habit and custom
of self-interest in the United States– the self-interest
well understood, I think he calls it–
actually is helpful. I know you were going to talk
about that before, Dylan. Well I just brought
it up because I think it’s directly related
to the free association and the kind of
freedom that we get, the activation of our wills. So I think in an
aristocratic society there’s an idea of virtue and
selfless devotion to virtue. And that’s what makes people
do things, or do good things, great things. On the other hand, it’s
tremendously hypocritical. Everyone’s a hypocrite
in that society because no one’s being
as virtuous as they pretend that they
think they ought to be. What replaces that
in American society is pragmatism, an idea
of the intersection of personal interests
and public interests. So it’s not just about being
selfish or self-interested. It’s this idea that
there is what Smith called an “invisible hand.” It’s this idea that by
acting on our own interests, we are actually serving
the public good, that those two things actually
align with each other. And he thinks it’s
more practical. He thinks you actually
get more done that way. So you don’t have as many
highs or as many lows. You don’t have as much great
people doing great things, or depraved people. But you sort of have
this nice middle ground in a functioning democracy. The part of self-interest
well understood though, is not simply being
a good capitalist, and this will somehow
benefit everybody. But it’s also on a
moment to moment basis, making little
sacrifices, keeping yourself a good citizen,
helping out others. And it’s really the thing that
moralists since Plato have been trying to convince us. We just, again, talked
about Aristotle recently in terms of happiness,
that really to be happy, really to pursue
your own interests, does involve fellow
feeling for others. It does involve helping others. And he thinks this
is a useful thing. This is a pervasive
thing in America. It’s a useful thing, in fact,
for any democratic system to have because it’s better
than pure individualism that decays to actual selfishness
and shunning others. Even if you have
to fool them, even if you have to just tell people,
or have them believe on faith– he thinks this is true. He talked about Pascal
in this respect. That part of my self-interest
is going to heaven. So the self-interest not just
of, if I help my neighbors and restrain myself, then
I’m going to be happier here, but I’m also going to be
happier in the next life. That’s one of the bulwarks
that Christianity thinks– that’s really the key thing,
is to keep people focused on life after death,
and that that is part of pursuing your self-interest. It involves being virtuous in
a traditional sense because of the afterlife. Well yeah, he thinks
there’s only so much that self-interest
can do towards making people do good things. So like you said, he thinks,
in a way, Americans don’t. They think of themselves as
always acting on self-interest as lending itself
to the public good. But really, there’s
genuine altruism. People just generally
enjoy doing nice things for other people. And they also love the
good, to put it that way. But this mention
of needing– you need some sort of
non-materialistic doctrine, he says. It doesn’t have to be an
afterlife, necessarily. He talks about reincarnation. Or even just something
lofty and platonic. But you have to have
something to resist people being entirely materialistic,
otherwise he thinks, it breaks down. OK I got it. This is like the seventh
time I’ve said this, but this is like my
favorite part of the book. He says, this is a quote,
“in the United States, it is almost never said
that virtue is beautiful. They maintain that it is useful,
and they prove it every day.” It’s this idea that
the reason I’m honest is not because being
honest is a good thing, it’s because if I
wasn’t honest, then the next time I did
business with this guy, he wouldn’t trust me, and
then I’d get a bad reputation. Right? Virtue is utility. And what he says is in
an aristocratic society, is they see virtue as
beautiful, even though he says there’s that utility
aspect is kind of underlying it, in some respects. And self-sacrificing. Right. So when you hear this it’s
this follow your self-interest, and your self-interest
is to be virtuous, you immediately think of Adam
Smith, the invisible hand of the market. Right? The rational self-interested
economic agent goes out, and they try to
negotiate the best deal. But by working all on
my own self-interest, we all get together,
and suddenly we have this wealth that’s created. Hurray, hurrah. You can almost see this is
an analog, and you’re like, oh, well de Tocqueville’s giving
the social, or virtue, form of the invisible hand. But Adam Smith wrote a
whole big book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And his moral theory is not
based on rational self-interest at all. For those of you who are still
in school, who are interested, there’s a dissertation, or at
least a master’s, maybe even a seminar paper to be written
about the relationship between de Tocqueville
and Adam Smith on this. It was awesome. Now with respect to what
you were talking about, with– wait, I lost
the train of thought. So the doctrine of
self-interest well understood is good for getting us to
do the most good things. But there are things like,
how do you convince someone to go die in a war. Right? There are things
which transcend that. And in aristocratic
societies, it’s well, there’s an afterlife. You’ll be rewarded
in another world. Or patriotism. In this society,
he still thinks you need something,
this immaterialist– maybe religion, maybe
Plato, maybe something else. Right, now you’ve
got me back on track. OK. So this idea of this afterlife,
or some religious notion– you said even
reincarnation would be better– he says, given the
choice between materialism, which is the belief that
everything is material, when you die you’re worm’s food,
no afterlife, no soul, he says, I’ll take metempsychosis,
because I’d rather believe that the soul exists
and lives on in a pig, than it doesn’t live on it all. Because he thinks you’ve got
to have something to hold onto, because the danger of a
combination of individualism, equality, and chasing
after material, goods lead you ultimately to
circling back on yourself. And this notion that all you
want is goods, and services, and experiences, will
lead you to believe that there is nothing. It’s all in this world. So we need the idea of
an afterlife, or at least some religious notion, to
counterbalance the fact that the trend is going to
be towards us just believing that this is all there is. And you should go get as much
as you can, as fast as you can, for as long as you can, because
when it’s over, it’s over. And that’s why
religion is necessary. But aren’t there other public
sentiments like, patriotism, or devotion to your community? This goes back to
what Wes was pointing to, that these associations,
or maybe more strongly, these external
commitments that you have, that you invest your life into
something bigger than yourself. He liked patriotism. He thought it was a good thing. So we’re at– We need to move to the– –15 past, so should
we move towards– –Q&A. –closings and open
it up to the– OK. Well let’s do the Q&A first. Let’s get the audience,
and then we can– Discussion. It’s a discussion. Anybody want to go up to
the mic, add something. You’ve nothing to respond
to anything we’ve said here. You agree absolutely with
everything all of us have said. And we’re covered every question
that you could possibly have. It’s only a 700 and
some page book, so– Again, we can fill the time. All right. It takes someone
to break the ice. Introduce yourself. Thanks for being here. You were just talking about
Adam Smith a little bit, and I know you’ve covered
them in podcasts previously. You’ve also covered
Thoreau, Emerson. They’re related. They’re American philosophers. I know de Tocqueville
didn’t have a very high opinion of
American philosophy, at that point in time. And I was wondering
if you were reminded by anything in your
readings of anything that Emerson or Thoreau had
built upon, or maybe indicated in their own writings? Dylan? I was just trying to remember
what year is Emerson. Is it around the same time? Emerson’s later. OK, so there really wasn’t
much American philosophy yet. Really he talks about it
as if America was really part of England culturally. And so it was the
part that was assigned to go out and deforest. And then the intellectuals at
home could keep doing that. So that’s the way that America
did not become totally barbaric even though they didn’t have a
lot of homegrown philosophers. Its citizens were
too busy running around doing other things. As far as the comparison to what
Emerson and Thoreau eventually had to say, obviously,
the self-reliance. You can see the American
spirit, as he’s describing it through those folks. Well, and he does
talk about pantheism, and how pantheism is a danger. That’s something that–
the simple American minds that think they
understand everything. They like to
oversimplify everything. They like general notions. And so the idea that
there’s not even a difference between
us and God, that would be something
that would catch on. And so isn’t
Emerson’s spiritualism is some form of that. It seems like he would not– Here’s a quotation. “If America has not
yet had great writers, we ought not to seek the
reasons for this elsewhere. No literary genius exists
without freedom of mind, and there is no freedom
of mind in America.” And then he goes on to say you
could be more of a dissenter during the Inquisition,
than you can in America. I think that he would see
Thoreau and Emerson as signs of the kinds of problems that
you have with individualism, Emerson’s emphasis
on self-reliance, the pantheism that
you mentioned. And then also, even with
the civil disobedience that Thoreau embodies, going off
and living in a hut for a year. And I don’t think de
Tocqueville would diagnose it as having enough
interaction with civic life. It’s not civic oriented enough. So he would see it
as very American. I think there is also good–
you raise a really good point, though. I think we went into the
Brown bookstore today. I’m fairly certain
Brown was around when he was traveling around here. Was it around 17-something
that it was founded? [INAUDIBLE] The university was here, right? Maybe there’s other
parts of the books where he talks about all the great
institutions of learning that he visited, but it doesn’t
look like he bothered to go– Just stopped by Brown today. –he didn’t go to
Brown or Harvard. He does mention Rhode Island
actually, in our reading. Yeah so he didn’t make
a concerted effort to find out what the
intellectual life of America was. He was focused on the
commercial aspects more. And the president at the
time was Andrew Jackson, who might, pending the outcome
of the November 8 election, been the least
intellectual president. [LAUGHTER] Yeah he really saw Andrew
Jackson as very much like Napoleon. They had similar haircuts. Hi, I’m of Fred
from Pennsylvania. And I was wondering what you
guys think– to bring it back around to 2016– how much of
this book by de Tocqueville is his own myth? And what I mean by
that is, he came here for nine months with his friend. He was supposed to be studying
the penal system here. If you’re lucky, how far
could you travel in a day? Everything was by horse. I was looking at some
secondary sources, and people were kind of
trying to rain on the parade that he even had
much of anything to say about this
country because he didn’t see hardly any it. And I was just
wondering if you thought about that aspect of his
time here, and how much of it is made up in his own mind? When he was talking about
certain forces happening at that time, he
didn’t really foresee the power of the Industrial
Revolution happening. There’s just many
different aspects to that, I was wondering what
you thought about that. Well so unfortunately,
the stuff we read was more of his
generalizations about things, and non-specifics. So I dipped into
some of his chapters on slavery and Native Americans. And actually, it’s
really fascinating. There are just all kinds
of interesting anecdotes about people he’s run into,
and what they have to say, and scenes from American
life at that time. I don’t know how much
of that is in here. But it made me
think– somehow I got the sense, wow, de
Tocqueville, in a way, knows more about America even
now than I do, in some sense. A nine month road trip around
America, I haven’t done that. And I certainly haven’t
done that and even be trying to be a reporter,
or a social scientist, and trying to quiz
people and find out as much as I can about
American life as possible. Usually I’m just a
tourist in my travels. But yeah, it’s hard. I couldn’t say how much of
this is just his fantasy, and how much he really did see. Someone here may know more
about that and his biography. Well, besides traveling around,
he also did a lot of reading and got documents from
individual localities, and stuff like that. And especially in
the first volume, there’s basically a bunch
of statistics of stuff that he used to sort
of analyze stuff. Tedious, long– The first volume is not
as fun because there are too many facts. So that’s another– It’s more
evidence that he knew something about– About the geography,
and the amount of lumber that is shipped from here to– Right. But that said, I mean
there’s certainly things that he– well, Mark mentioned–
that he makes predictions based upon what he observes
that aren’t quite right. I think a little
bit like what Wes mentioned, the idea of being
an investigative reporter. There’s parts that you’re
going to get wrong, and parts that’s you’re
going to get right. And he’s trying to make some
generalizations, both about democracy, and about America. He’s doing both of those
things because he’s speaking, not exactly to
America, he’s speaking to mainly a European audience,
and thinking about aristocracy, and the motion of democracy
in countries in the world. And so he’s thinking
about both those things. So there’s times where
I’m reading along and I’m thinking, well
this sounds like America, but not exactly right. It turns out, actually, he’s
thinking about democracy and doing some political
theory kind of work. And then you say, well now
America in that particular form of democracy has these things
in common, but these balances. One thing it’d be
interesting to know is– because when
you read it, it’s like, well this
is just a laundry list of every
stereotype of Americans. And I assume that the
stereotypes come from this. It’s from his analysis that
we developed an idea of what it is to be an American. And it’s probably– How much of it is
popular opinion because– –fed back into the types
of lives Americans live. But anyway. So to what extent is
he sort of repeating stereotypes that already exist. That’s another question. Where did he define
the stereotype. He says they wear loud shirts,
and they take lots of pictures. Just one more thing on that. It’s interesting
that even if this was a myth, the fact
that it’s been canonized. That this is like
something that– I heard Reagan used to quote
from this a lot. There are lots of
elements in here that really feed into–
really from both the left and the right of the
political spectrum– that if you’re doing
an analysis of where our political talk comes from,
whatever he might have made up, it became part of the fabric
because of this popularity of this book. So that’s kind of crazy. One last point about that. This would be a
very different book if he’d spent all of his time
traveling around the South at that time. He did. There is plenty about the South. But he chose not to describe
the American character based on what he saw in the South. No, well he contrasted–
and he has interesting– That’s parts we didn’t read. Anyway. So bringing it back to 2016. I wonder if you can
comment a little bit about this phenomenon that
a relatively small group of people can create
a kind of momentum that someone like Trump
can get the nomination. The tyranny of the
minority, perhaps. And maybe speak a little bit
about how the spectacle that’s involved that
distorts this process, or doesn’t, and ultimately
paralyzes the political system. And are we solving problems
in the most efficient way? And maybe if this is some
kind of dialectical process, or something that is
progressing toward something, maybe speculating a
little bit about where we’re going with all this. Is this ultimately a
healthy part of the process? And the right people
will win in November, and we’ll be better
off for it, and we’ll have a richer, better country. Or are we just a country
going down the tubes? Is this the end of the world? Maybe speculate a
little bit about where we’re going from here. Or what would Tocqueville say? What would
Tocqueville say, yeah. Maybe just to focus it a little. Let me see– But don’t give it away
who it is you’re for. [LAUGHTER] Oh, my. Still in suspense about that. To begin with, I think
there’s something to be said– Tocqueville
has a very strong opinion about participation in
public and civic life that I think you can see. The rise of these
smaller factions that have taken over control
of political machinations, or whatever, is
indicative of the fact that the majority of people who
profess a certain point of view are not participating. I mentioned that earlier, but I
think that’s a big part of it. But I think that’s also
indicative of a change in the tone, or the way in
which political association was viewed back then, or the
way he saw it in America, and the way we see it now. So there’s a place where he
talks about– it might have been in early on– where he
says, elections in America, people say the most vile
things about each other. They’re terrible. But afterwards everybody
comes together, because we’re all still
part of this community, and we have to get work done. So it’s kind of like
at one step removed do you say that this
person is the devil and that they’re going
to do terrible things, because afterwards they’re
still part of your community. And that spirit of
what we used to call the spirit of compromise,
that even in the 80s when you had Reaganism and
all this, there was still that notion of conservatives
and progressives still work together,
regardless of who gets elected. That to me, seems to
be gone, or in peril. And I think part of that is
because the machinery of what politics has become–
politics as a way of governing the nation and solving
problems for a community. It’s become a tool to create
this enrichment of well-being and create this
divide via industry that Marc alluded to earlier. We don’t see government as a
communal or social association. We see it as a tool to achieve
a personal end, or an end, whether it’s direct or indirect. You’re either getting
money from somebody who’s trying to get
you to pass regulations to let them pollute, or
you’re just the polluter. One of those two things. That’s an extreme example. So in my mind this election will
not change any of those things. It may give some
more life to the idea that we are stronger together
and that there is some value in association and community. Because as opposed
to divisiveness, you can broaden that for
you locally or broaden out to the world stage. But it also may be a Brexit. I think you would
have a lot of things to say about how things
have broken down in ways, some of which he predicted. So one of the things
he really emphasizes as a remedy against the
problems with democracy is the amount of
voluntary associations that we enter into. And he seems to talk
about those– he says, we’re just constantly
out because we’re all– have basically
equality of conditions. We can’t just– we’re
aristocratic that can just order a lot of people around. We are all individually
weak, and so it’s very naturals for then to
latch on to other people and join to try to make a
difference in the community. Apparently, America has a pretty
high rates of volunteerism. However, I just
think that he doesn’t make a very sharp
distinction in talking about these forms
of associations between commercial associations
and purely volunteer associations. And like for us,
we are now an LLC. We give some money
to some of people that we pay to do things. That’s the kind
of mix that maybe was more common back then. The difference between let’s
go and have a bowling league, or let’s go and
clean up the village, or whatever, and a
commercial association, was not consistently as sharp. But now it seems that
more and more– and this was something he
was afraid of– that because we have a desire for
well being, because Americans are so hip to that, he
was afraid it was more the central government
was going to say, oh, I can provide
all those needs. Don’t even worry about that. This would become this
schoolmaster state. He might as well have
said nanny state. You can see why– Tutelary is the word he uses. Tutelary state. But it’s not the
government so much that’s doing so much of that. Although, lots of folks
on the conservative side can bring up their many
passages in Tocqueville that you could use
to say, oh, Obamacare is crushing our spirits. The fact that if I can’t make– There’s a whole chapter on
Obamacare in here, which is an amazingly prescient. That if I can’t make little
decisions, if government takes little decisions away
from me, then how can I be sure that it’s not
going to take big decisions? There really needs
to be, he thinks, this– government
needs to stay liber– and he’s concerned mostly, not
with the federal government, which he thinks is
by design, weak. It’s the state governments
that didn’t– this was before– what was the court
decision that said, no, actually the Bill of Rights
applies to the states? Marbury versus Madison. What year was that? I think it was before this. This is before this. OK. Well still he– you know– Yeah. Yeah. Marbury– yeah, that was– But that was a big thing. It was still kind
of a live option that the state governments,
the local governments, might be too intrusive. The local governments he wasn’t
that worried about because what are they going– you can’t
have that on your lawn. Like what kind of neighborhood
association– what’s the worst they can do to you, even if
they’re being tyrannical. It’s not been the government
so much that is coming in and, well, we’ll
provide all the needs. It’s big businesses,
which are very different than voluntary
associations, even the kind of businesses
that he was familiar with. So the fact that we have so many
things that we’re– the kind of criticisms that you more
often hear now of what’s wrong with the modern age,
of we’re so impatient. He had versions of all
those things in here, but it’s gotten– now
the mechanical apparatus of providing us with things
has gotten so advanced. He predicts that this
will lead to tyranny. Again, the power is
split up in a way that he would
actually kind of like. But I don’t think he
had very clearly in mind a handful of giant corporations
and also the government, that between them are–
according to his analysis, I think that they’ve
made us more apathetic. They’ve made us more helpless. That there’s such
a big difference between what Apple
can do, and what me and a couple of my friends
getting together and starting a business can do. That that is so
sharp that we end up shrinking our sense of
efficacy smaller and smaller. But here’s what hasn’t
changed, and here’s what’s still in effect in
2016 that’s exactly the same. We are all individually
weak, but if we join together we have power. And the issue is that we
look at Facebook and we go, I cannot believe that
they’re doing this. And we look at Facebook
and go, oh my god, did you see that baby giraffe? Instead, what we
should say is, I can’t believe they’re doing that, let
me find all these other people that are outraged, and let
us organize, and let us– I think that apparatus
that you can do that still exists in this country. But does that also lead
to the polarization? I mean, [INAUDIBLE] I’m
trying to get to the question, how do we most effectively
solve the problems that we face? And is there a kind of
paralysis with that? I mean, I agree with you. But I’m wondering if there’s
a diminishing return there at some point, where
we are not effectively addressing these problems,
big problems, environmental, all kinds of things,
in ways that really draw upon those resources
and those diverse opinions and perspectives and channel
it towards actual outcomes that end up [INAUDIBLE]. We need to briefly
summarize what he just said, because you were not on a mic. Oh, sorry. Just summarize it in a
sentence before you respond. So you agree with the idea that
organization is still power, but that you’re having a
broader question about how do we address these problems. Is it within the existing
political framework? How do we get these diverse
people to come together to solve problems of the
commons, for example, like the environment, and the
economy, and things like that? Again, it is
perhaps that we need some other system or other
organizational paradigm to do that effectively, and the
old political paradigm perhaps breaking down. I guess I wonder a little
bit if it just hasn’t always been hard to organize
and to get people to– the tragedy of the commons
isn’t a new idea, right? The tragedy of the commons comes
from the idea of everybody’s taking their sheep
to the commons and having them
eat all the grass. And it’s well
before the internet, it’s well before
political institutions. And I think that it may be
exacerbated now, that maybe we have more individualism. It’s easier to be
individualistic now, than it was for de
Tocqueville’s time. I’m not so sure. I’m not 100% sure about that. For big questions, like
what you’re talking about, I just feel like that they’ve
always been really hard. It’s very hard to get
people to get devoted to relatively abstract things. Some of that climate
change, even as much as you try to see
it every day, it’s so slow moving and
abstract, in a way, that’s hard to just get
people fired up about it. It’s just hard. So one other thing
to keep in mind is that when de Tocqueville
praises civil association, it’s not because, yeah,
it’s all these good causes, even though that’s
a nice thing to. And those things can get done. It’s because they serve
as a counterbalance to another sort of power. They are seats of power. So any sort of civil
association is a seat of power that provides a balance
to other seats of power and prevents evil
from being done. So on the one hand, there’s
an aspiration to the good, to the maximal good for society. On the other hand,
there’s this worry about preventing outright evil,
preventing tyranny, preventing the worst thing that
could possibly happen. And I think he’s
more concerned about, how do we set things
up to prevent the worst thing from happening,
then he’s thinking about, well how do we get the
best out of things. And some of those ways,
we’re used to hearing about in our social studies classes. So for instance, just the
administrative fragmentation of America is a
good thing for him. If you had a
centralized government, there’s more power to
actually do good things. There’s more power
to do bad things. But in America, the
fragmentation of administration between federal government
and states and localities, de Tocqueville likes that. Because that kind
of fragmentation spreads power out,
and prevents tyranny. It enhances freedom– And in a way– –prevents tyranny. –one of the costs is that
it’s harder to get good things that– And so you have
checks and balances, Congress and the judiciary,
and the executive. And looking at the
Federalist Papers, and de Tocqueville
realizes this too. In a way, gridlock is not
a bug, but it’s a feature. But then obviously,
there are huge costs to that, because we could get
a lot more done, and a lot more good things done, if
that weren’t the case. There’s a herding
cat mentality, right? Where in order to really get
things done and be efficient, you have to get
lots of individuals walking in the same direction. That’s sort of what
the problem is, right? But de Tocqueville doesn’t
see that the right solution is to have a centralized power,
because it leads to despotism, because you just drag people
along in the same direction. [INAUDIBLE] No, talk in the mic. Talk in the mic. [INAUDIBLE] You want
to finish your thought? No, no. Go ahead. I was just going to say,
I think we have to– and I think Tocqueville
would also possibly agree with this– is that democracy
is an ideal, or an idea. And then you have
your government, which is the application
of that idea. And then you have
the bureaucracy that arises from the
government existing. And each of those
things is in tension. Because I get caught in the
internet like everybody else does, I was just curious how
big the federal government is in the order of a
couple million people. And then if you add in all the
state and local governments, you’re talking another
15, 16 million people. And then if you
add the military, you’re talking like maybe one
in seven or eight Americans is part of the bureaucracy. And then, how does
that gum up the works. I don’t think he thinks it
gums up the works at all. I think– Well, it didn’t in 1835,
that’s what I mean. But now, is there any
point where it just starts to collapse
under its own weight? I suppose it depends on the
nature of the relations. That if it is really
top down, and everybody is just different cogs in this
big machine, that’s maybe not fulfilling what
he wants, which is people on a local level
engaged in civic activity. If everybody, oh, the
government has too many people. Well, those are
mostly people working in their own communities
on local issues, or something like that. He would love that. He would love if
100% of the people were a part of the government. You can never have
too much of that. Yeah, he would probably
end up framing the answer to both of those questions
in terms of freedom. Because freedom
is the equivalent in the political
sphere as equality is in social sphere for him. So it would be a
question of identifying whether the mechanisms
for freedom– what have we given up? And what are we
getting in return? And is that balanced? I think that’s how it
would end up getting cashed out for him somehow. So do we– closings? Yeah, I think we need to
move toward wrapping up here. I wanted to bring up
one issue since you’re talk about freedom
and equality here. We don’t really talk
about specifically what he thinks the
relationship between them is, which is sometimes
characterized as– this is what the whole book is
about, is that we think freedom and equality
are the same thing and they do come together
as a historical movement. But they’re quite
different, right? Equality of conditions
existed way before freedom, we were saying. Part of the historical story is
that it’s kings stamping down the aristocracy. So it’s just the monarchy
and then everybody else is approximately
on the same level. So you had equality
before you have freedom. He thinks actually people want
equality more than freedom. The quote, “they want
equality in freedom, and if they cannot get it, they
still want it–” equality– “in slavery. They will tolerate poverty,
enslavement, barbarism, but they will not
tolerate aristocracy.” So I was trying to
think about that. How that connects to
what’s going on now. I had a hard time
because what we consider freedom has gone
through so many permutations. And, oh, is Obamacare
restricting my freedom? I don’t know. And is corporate interference
restricting freedom? There’s a lot of things,
and certainly, he was aware that
freedom doesn’t just refer to freedom from
governmental power, since he was very much
concerned with– it seems like that this grip of common
opinion that he talked about was, despite what I
said that there’s still taboo subjects that
you can be ostracized about– but it seemed it
was much more uniform. That you can use the
internet, whatever. You can find a subculture
that’s into whatever deviant belief that you have. And we very much have a
different model, this John Rawls liberalism
model, where laws are supposed to be kind
of neutral with relation to the various beliefs
that we might have. And that extends much more
widely so that we don’t really agree anymore with Tocqueville. Some politicians
will argue this, that certainly we don’t need
a unified religion that’s pervasive everywhere. Tocqueville knew that there
are all different kinds of Christianity. But the fact they’re
all Christianity, that was enough to be
one of the bulwarks that we need to keep
society together. You could definitely
maybe point out different things–
when people are concerned about, is Trump going
to deny the election results. It’s because he’s
breaking a social more that– like Tocqueville
thought, there were certain social mores
that were necessary to keep democracy afloat. That’s, I think, where some
of the angst about that is coming from. That it’s not just that
we have certain laws. It doesn’t matter if Trump
admits that he lost or not. If he loses, he loses. But no, it’s not
just the law, it’s that there are certain mores
that we have to have in common still. So there are all
these things that he’s addressing about
freedom that don’t just have to do with governmental
power, which when we talk about freedom, I
think we more do think about governmental power. People talk about freedom
in terms of freedom from political correctness. There are places in our dialogue
where we acknowledge this, but we just have a
fundamentally different view of– different connotations
will come to us then what did to him when he
talked about freedom. And equality, we
barely talk about all. We talk about this
in terms of the 99% and the oligarchy of the rich. But what are we
really shooting for? This seems to be one of the
things that– it’s just again, I think, is harder
for us to see. Maybe because we’re closer
to it now or too much has happened historically. I think Tocqueville in
France since liberty, equality, fraternity– that
was one of the things right from the start in the
French Revolution– was one of the things
that they were really concerned about, having
fought with an aristocracy. We’re so used to
equality of conditions being the foundation
of our whole society, that we don’t explicitly think
that much about, oh, he’s getting ahead of me. That it’s more underlying. That you could
interpret the reaction that Trump is
tapping into as very explicitly against
elites of all sorts. So what is that but a
call for more equality, a call against aristocracy. That wasn’t really a sum up. But it’s throwing out
a bunch of more issues. I’m good. Closing statements? I’m not sure I have one. So you– OK. So first off let’s say
that in the spirit of what he was asking people to do, this
book represents a public good from de Tocqueville. He went outside of
himself and tried to share with his
fellow countrymen a view of what he saw in
America for their betterment, and probably contributed
to a national conversation that has gone on. We’re still reading him 200
years later, 180 years later. We didn’t read any
section about where he talks about what he thinks
specifically about the way that the government is
constructed in the United States, but this idea that
there’s a balance of powers, and the political institutions
of the United States are robust and were built for
resiliency over the long haul. I think what he offers in
this book is essentially a prescription for the same
thing in the social sphere. And the way I diagnose today
in Tocquevillian terms, is a look at a breakdown
of that balance of powers in the
social sphere, which can be articulated in the
phrase, the system is rigged. Now whether you
think it’s rigged because you have
skills that are suited for a factory in some
place, and you think it’s rigged because
capitalists have shipped your jobs overseas, or
whether you think it’s rigged because you’re 23 and you
have over six figures of debt from trying to get a
mandatory education, so that you can get
a career, because you can’t get a job if
you’re competing with all these other people. Either way it’s because
of the breakdown of these social conditions
and these social institutions that were meant to maintain the
balance of the civil society. And the fact that the founding
fathers were so prescient, and that our political
system is still very robust and working, is the fact
that people are still spending hundreds of
billions of dollars to get other people elected. If it wasn’t worth
anything, they wouldn’t be spending
the money to do it. Wes or Dylan, anything else? No, that’s good. I can’t say anything more
articulate than that. All right, thank each and every
one of you for being here– Thank you for being– –and putting up with this. Thank you. Good night. Good night, everybody.

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