Quote of the Day: Tocqueville on Self-interest

In the list of historical figures I’d have loved to meet, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) figures near the top.

Together with a close friend, he visited the United States at the age of 25 for only nine months. He went back to France and wrote a book. His book Democracy in America (in two volumes, De La Démocratie en Amérique, published 1835 and 1840) is a political science classic and essential reading for understanding America.

Here’s a bit from the wiki entry on Democracy in America:

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead. They arrived in New York City in May of that year and spent nine months traveling the United States, studying the prisons, and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character.

More from the wiki —

The primary focus of Democracy in America is an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in the United States to what he sees as the failings of democracy in his native France.

Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, discussing possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy. These include his belief that democracy has a tendency to degenerate into “soft despotism” as well as the risk of developing a tyranny of the majority. He observes that the strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government, a separation all parties found agreeable.

So here are today’s quotes.

A man’s admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him.

This applies so perfectly to the leftists and progressives we see all around us today. Their contempt for their fellow humans is astounding.

Adam Smith had noted that an individual’s self-interest can promote the public good without the individual intending to do any good at all. Tocqueville too made an acute observation about self-interest.

The doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not inspire great
sacrifices, but every day it prompts some small ones; by itself it cannot
make a man virtuous, but its discipline shapes a lot of orderly, temperate,
moderate, careful, and self controlled citizens. If it does not lead to virtue,
it establishes habits which unconsciously turn it that way.

Providence did not make mankind entirely free or completely enslaved.
Providence has, in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man
beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong
and free, and so are peoples.

Self-interest cannot make a person virtuous directly. But out of his self-interest an individual behaves nicely towards others, and that behavior becomes a habit. Society becomes better. Wouldn’t you agree?

Author: Atanu Dey


3 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Tocqueville on Self-interest”

  1. Under certain conditions (like competition) what you stated in the end holds true.
    Dr. Dey I was wondering if you will be kind enough to express your opinion on Syndicalism(Workers’ ownership of the means of production) as an alternative economic order.


    1. @keshavbedi:

      I don’t understand what you mean. The last lines of my post says, “Self-interest cannot make a person virtuous directly. But out of his self-interest an individual behaves nicely towards others, and that behavior becomes a habit. Society becomes better. Wouldn’t you agree?” Why would it matter if there is competition or not? Even if people were cooperating, people don’t lose their self-interest. And if you act like a jerk, in the end you will be shunned by others. Therefore it is in your self-interest to pretend to be nice, and in the end you could really become nice.

      About syndicalism. I am all for voluntary associations. If workers get together and form a company that they all jointly own and run, good for them. What I am against is any form of coercion. If say the workers take over a corporation without buying it from the owners of the corporation, that is theft and should be resisted.

      I would never oppose socialism or communism if it were voluntarily adopted by everyone within that system. You don’t like to work for a corporation that you don’t partly own? Fine, go ahead and work for a worker-owned and operated corporation, or work for yourself. If worker participation in decision making is important to you, then work for a firm that allows that. The point is that there could be an efficiency trade-off. It could be that worker participation reduces firm efficiency. If workers are willing to trade higher incomes for higher participation, they should do so by making an offer to the owners of a firm saying, “If you allow us to participate in management, we will take x percent reduction is salary”. There is some x at which the management will be happy to work out a deal.


  2. It would matter whether there is competition or other presumptions because otherwise, ‘out of his self interest’ an individual may not want to behave nicely to others.
    Keynes once said about capitalism that it “is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
    “The astounding belief” will be realized only if there are barriers like competition, which in a way helps in disciplining people into virtuous action indirectly.It was this that I meant in my comment.

    Reading your answer on Syndicalism, it seems to me sir that Bertrand Russell’s remark sums up pretty well your position, which is that the “Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.”
    However, my conjecture is that you will object to the use of the word ‘tyranny’ by him.
    So here are the arguments which make use of the word quite legitimate.

    It was argued quite vehemently until the propaganda machinery rendered it quite insane a view that there’s not much difference between selling oneself and renting oneself(the difference being that the latter is temporary) and therefore wage labor is not very different from chattel slavery.In fact, it was a common view in the mid 19th century in the U.S. and it was the view of the Republican party and of Abraham Lincoln.The idea of working for wages was thought to be degrading.It was considered as an attack on one’s personal liberty.People held that it destroys one’s individuality, makes people subordinate to masters, destroys one’s freedom.The people condemned what they called new spirit of the age which was:”Gain wealth forgetting all but self.”
    As a matter of fact, slave owners of the South made exactly the same arguments in the favor of slavery.
    Take George Fitzhugh.
    He said the reason why Northerners are against slavery is because they’re anti-negro racist.
    He said that Southerners are not racists.Slave owners think that one should take care of one’s subjects so they treat them nicely and they even do that on economic grounds because slaves are their capital.
    He says that Southerners own people so they take care of their slaves.Besides, they have human relations with their slaves.
    Northerners rent them.(And as the analogy goes; Nobody ever washed a rented car.)
    They treat them as mere tools and they’re much worse off.So Northerners are the ones who are immoral.Southerners are moral.

    If you analyze the working of corporations, or other privately owned entities, they’re essentially totalitarian institutions.They lead to relations of hierarchy, domination, centralized control over the means of life.There’s a group at the top.They make the decisions, give orders.People down the hierarchy get the orders, transmit them. At the very bottom you get the people who are permitted to rent themselves to survive, that’s called a job.The wage labor.They get the outside communities purchase what they produce which involves most of the time a very heavy propaganda to purchase that which they may not want to consume.
    I mean these characteristics are similar to any totalitarian system that you can imagine.
    Only the power structure differs.The fact that the system that you espouse or favor seems normal(the way slavery was seen normal for centuries) doesn’t change the characteristics of it as described above.

    You may say that they’re ‘free’ to choose not to join such totalitarian institutions and start one of their own.
    But the point is that they will starve if they do not choose to join such totalitarian institutions(Your application for Aadhar Card comes to mind).And the private concentration of capital and the huge explicit and implicit subsidy by the government to big corporations renders the task of setting up an organization(such as that which syndicalism espouses) not feasible.In other words, the freedom to refuse, which is an essential element of freedom to choose is not present.

    Advocates of Syndicalism ask for workers ownership of the means of production.The LEAST that they ask for is a demand for DEMOCRATIZATION OF INDUSTRY.
    Is that an illegitimate demand to you?
    Even if worker’s ownership of the means of production leads to some “inefficiency”(as is usually defined), will you not agree with Paul Samuelson who is of the opinion that “Every good cause is worth some inefficiency”?


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