An Angel and A Brute:
Self-Interest and Individualism in Tocqueville's America

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
An Essay Written for the Preceptorial on Democracy in America
St. John's College, Santa Fe, NM
Summer 1985

Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Trans. George Lawrence. New York: Anchor, 1969.

...I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland. (692)

This passage may have been taken from Tacitus' consideration of first century Rome, or it might more precisely conjure the spiritual malaise of a twentieth century American city; but it comes near the end of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. If from Tacitus, we could understand the tone of utter isolation and despair. We would recognize the symptoms of a putrefying republic under a thoroughly decadent despotism. If from our own time, it evokes the nightmare of our own social alienation. No society, we would moralize, could withstand such an absolute collapse into self. Why does Tocqueville pause at this late moment in his study to paint a portrait of civil hell? It seems to contain his own worst fears for democracy and proposes one hypothetical outcome for a society founded on the principle of equality of conditions.

This paper will investigate the forces of self-interest and individualism within Tocqueville's America. After a clarification of those terms and others, I will consider how the nation's governmental machinery has been shaped by and responds to the problem of individualism. Then I will discuss those dynamics which restrain this national impulse toward self. The paper will conclude with a brief look at the role of virtue in a democratic society.

The central terms of "individualism" and "self-interest" should be defined at the start because they seem open to some variety of meanings. For example, a dictionary may define "individualism" as "The assertion of one's own will and personality; personal independence," but this is not precisely Tocqueville's usage. His sense of individualism is best illustrated by the opening quotation, and he defines it elsewhere as

a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends. (506)

This is quite different from the self-assertions we might ordinarily expect from an "individualist". Tocqueville's individualism is a regrettable yet unavoidable by-product of equality in society. As we will see, it may be tempered but not altogether eliminated. It rises from the obliteration of an aristocratic chain of dependencies and responsibilities which continually reinforced an individual's awareness of others and forgetfulness of self. (507) A society of equals, in which individuals are expected to (and largely do) support themselves, turns every man's thoughts to himself. This encourages a withdrawal from society at large. (508) In this manner, individualism becomes a more threatening force than simply "doing your own thing". It undermines the very nature of participatory government.

The term "self-interest" apparently is so open to misuse that Tocqueville carefully distinguishes between "self-interest properly understood" and "unenlightened self-interest". To begin with the negative, unenlightened self-interest comes closest to our common definition of selfishness. It is that which seeks advantage for the self at the expense of others. It is directed by brute instinct alone. (546) On the other hand, self-interest properly understood poses the rhetorical question of "whether it is not to the individual advantage of each to work for the good of all." (525) This is not an instinctive attitude but a learned behavior, running (at least initially) counter to the instinct towards seeking self-advantage. Through exercise of this virtue, the individual agrees to connect his quest for self-advantage with the same instinct in others. Thus it is learned that "virtue is useful". (525) Education becomes a most necessary tool for the restraint of unenlightened self-interest.

A final term requiring some clarification is "materialism". Tocqueville acknowledges the inevitable pursuit of wealth within a democratic society. He recognizes the positive energies that such a pursuit generates in society, but also sees very real dangers. He uses "materialism" precisely to denote those theories "which tend to suggest that everything perishes with the body." (544) Tocqueville infers that "the taste for physical pleasures" is especially strong in democracies; but, while this may make democratic peoples most susceptible to materialist attitudes, the pursuit of wealth should not itself be identified with materialism
as such. (544)

One paradox of American democracy is that all political power originates in "the people", yet these individuals who make up "the people" are pitifully impotent as individuals. Only in combining can these individuals generate enough power to effectively create and maintain a government which supports their own best interests. Yet even these powers of combination rest upon a presumption of the individual's right to participate in his or her own governance.

"Each individual is assumed to be as educated, virtuous, and powerful as any of his fellows," yet he joins with others out of his own self-interest "because union with his fellows seems useful to him and he knows that that union is impossible without a regulating authority." (66)

Tocqueville focuses on the township as the smallest and most accessible form of regulating authority. On the township level citizens could most easily attempt to serve their self-interest. Their individual voices and communal will could be heard through regular township meetings and the annual election of selectmen. (65) Brief terms and narrowly prescribed scopes of power kept these officials closely bound to the people's will.

Such self-government effectively eliminates the traditional social relationship of a "governor" at "the top" and "the governed" at "the bottom". This pyramid is replaced by a field in which the governed are their own governors, and as such they regularly choose from among their own sovereign ranks temporary employees to administer their common needs.

Originally, says Tocqueville, each township "was a little independent nation". Elements of this traditional sovereignty remain, even though townships are now subordinate to certain county, state and federal powers. Tocqueville emphasizes the radically different power flow in this society. Townships "have not received their powers; on the contrary, it would seem that they have surrendered a portion of their powers for the benefit of the state." (67) And, of course, the reason for this limited surrender is that the people of the township believed at some point that it was in their own best interest to do so. From this point on, the unit of "the individual" becomes a metaphor for each of the subsequent extensions of government. The township is considered an individual among other townships, independent "in all that concerns themselves alone." States are considered as individuals among other states. In every case smaller units are free to pursue their own interests insofar as they don't conflict with the interests of larger units. Tocqueville points out that this division of sovereignty is directly related to the belief that "each man is the best judge of his own interest and the best able to satisfy his private needs." (82)

Because the township is the governmental unit most immediately involved in the daily lives of the people, Tocqueville sees there the locus of most personal ambition. Here "the desire for esteem, the pursuit of substantial interests, and the taste for power and self-advertisement are concentrated." (69) This ambition stimulates a widespread involvement in local affairs, yet no one man may acquire a dangerous amount of power because each official's role is so specifically limited. Thus individuals' needs are met while the township as a whole benefits from "a continual gentle political activity." (69)

Along these lines, Tocqueville suggests that an individual is devoted to his locality not so much from a sentimental attachment to the land of his birth as from his pride in and attraction to "a free, strong corporation of which he is a part". Tocqueville's gaze is quite steady in recognizing man's self-serving nature: "... in general, men's affections are drawn only in directions where power exists." (68)

Tocqueville considers the county as an administrative necessity. It meets certain specific needs that may extend beyond the individual township's jurisdiction, but it "has no real political existence." It appears as a handy piece of political machinery, a tool serving some needs of townships and the state, but its officials are appointed and "there are no necessary links between its different parts; and neither affection, nor memories, nor communal life holds it together." (70) Tocqueville never lets us forget that a nation is far more than its easily seen governmental exoskeleton.

These "necessary links", however, do figure in the organization of the state, whose officials are directly accountable to the citizens. In his discussion of this entity, Tocqueville considers the ways by which administrative organization can either stimulate or stifle the advance of individualism.

As a general rule, he believes that the greater the centralization, the more active or "enlightened" the government will become and the more lethargic and unenlightened the people will become. (90) A completely centralized government produces a great degree of order and security, but it also creates citizens incapable of fulfilling their own most basic needs. Tocqueville describes one such fellow:

His detachment from his own fate goes so far that if his own safety or that of his children is in danger, instead of trying to ward the peril off, he crosses his arms and waits for the whole nation to come to his aid. (93-94)

Needless to say, Tocqueville does not find such grim apathy in America. For this he credits mostly the American decentralization of administrative functions. Those branches of government which are most distant from the people they serve (i.e. federal and, to some degree, state governments) concern themselves with "general laws" and matters that "are common to all parts of the nation" (or state). These distant branches do not directly involve themselves in "interests of special concern to certain parts of the nation, such, for instance, as local enterprise." (87) This reflects the division of sovereignty mentioned above, and it maintains a citizenry eager and able to regulate its own affairs.

Tocqueville's insight here is that modes of government determine individual attitudes as well as behaviors; a centralized government may appear quite powerful, but if it also has tangled itself in the administration of local affairs its power becomes an empty shell. "Once its measures require any aid from individuals this vast machine turns out to be astonishingly feeble; suddenly it is reduced to impotence." (91) Democracy requires the widespread involvement of many individuals, a condition impossible to establish under administrative centralization.

The pursuit of self-interest is so widely recognized as the foundation of government that it is built into the legislative and judicial processes at the lowest level. Tocqueville notes that there is no established supervisory body to oversee the elected officials of a township, that the simple principle of self-interest makes such a body unnecessary. "When an individual is actually positively harmed by an administrative offense, it is assumed that personal interest will be sure to make him lodge a complaint." (79-80) Thus litigation by individuals, far from being a mere nuisance or necessary evil, becomes intrinsic to the maintenance of proper social order and administrative accountability.

How has the pursuit of self-interest shaped government at the federal level? Tocqueville states that the federal constitution is itself the end result of such a pursuit. The Articles of Confederation had proved grossly inadequate to the Union's needs, and the nation resolved this problem "without its costing humanity a single tear or drop of blood." (113)

The Constitution directly faced the conflicting needs of the states to unite and yet remain individuals by applying to the Union the same principle of the division of sovereignty already operating within each state. In this light "everything not contained within that definition (of federal powers) returned to the jurisdiction of state governments." (114) A sound balance is thus struck once more in which the individual surrenders just so much of his power as is necessary for the orderly operation of the larger body. As it is with individuals in a township and townships within states, so it is for states within the Union. Individual states are sovereign within their own sphere, but may not "compromise the security of the whole Union." (116) The Constitution's object is therefore not to eliminate state powers but to restrain them where necessary for the Union's sake. (120)

On the legislative level a bicameral congress preserves the self-interest of the smaller states (through the Senate) while granting equal representation to all citizens (in the House).

The Constitution met two needs on the executive level. The executive officer should have enough power to act within his sphere, yet he should remain dependent on the will of the majority. (121) A crucial concern relating to the balance of these needs is the relation of executive and legislative powers. The separation of these powers (combined with the mutual restraints of executive veto and congressional override) and their careful restriction to specific spheres of influence further reflects the principle of divided sovereignty.

A most basic limit to the authority of either branch is the electoral origin of that power. The people, though somewhat distant from the federal level, hold the reins; and, in principle, even the highest official of the land has no more exalted position than the elected selectmen of townships. Tocqueville describes the presidential power as "temporary, restricted, and dependent," (128), a judgment still valid in our time despite the wide expansion of presidential influence.

Concerns of self-interest are most prominent on the judicial level where actual conflicts must be resolved. Tocqueville claims that "the intention of creating a federal tribunal was to deprive the state courts of the right to decide, each in its own way, questions of national interest." (142) This step eliminates the otherwise inevitable conflict of states not only with each other but also with the Union itself. It may appear to undercut the sovereignty of the states, but it actually defines more precisely the limits of each state's proper sphere of influence. It is this establishment and recognition of boundaries, whether at the level of nations or individuals, which forms the core of Tocqueville's "self-interest properly understood". He speaks with a kind of wonder of the gentle and circumspect manner by which the federal system confronts the state; there is no direct confrontation because the courts only deal with individuals. This is a fascinating alliance of the individual's and the nation's interests in order to restrain the state's legislative will.

The Americans reflected that it was almost impossible that the execution of a new law should not injure some private interest. The makers of the federal Constitution relied on that private interest to attack the legislative measure of which the Union might have complained. (148)

(This is the same principle of individual involvement in the legislative and judicial process that we saw operating on the township level concerning the supervision of elected officials.) Thus, even though the Union and state sovereignties seem opposed, the Union does not deny state sovereignty in principle (i.e. that it has a right to legislate for itself), but only limits it in particular cases. "In this way it strikes at the consequences of the law, not at its principle..." (149)