Tocqueville

The book Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, is widely recommended to those wishing to know about the US political system. Personally, I tried to read it at one point, but found it boring, and only got through fifty pages or so. Yet I devoured from cover to cover Tocqueville’s later book The Old Regime and the Revolution, about pre-revolutionary France. It’s a much better book, in a lot of ways.

Tocqueville was a young man when he wrote Democracy in America, after spending eighteen months traveling through America and talking to the best-informed people he could find. Though probably wiser at age 26 (when he started his journey) than 99.9% of people twice that age, he was still no match for his later self; in the later book, he alludes several times to errors of youthful enthusiasm that he committed in the earlier one. Also, in the earlier book, he was writing about a foreign country, not about his own. The language and mode of expression were not his native ones; fine nuances and things that were left unsaid must have escaped him in some cases. His later book, besides being about his own country, was researched in much greater detail; he delved deeply into formerly-private government records, much as modern historical researchers do. The book is heavily footnoted.

But it’s not just that it’s a better book in the abstract; it’s a lot more relevant than the earlier book to the US political system as it is today. In writing of the old regime of France, he was writing of a formerly decentralized system that had gradually, over the century or so prior to the Revolution, turned into a centralized one — one in which bureaucrats from Paris (or answering to Paris) poked into all manner of details of people’s lives. The change had been little remarked, since the old institutions of local control had been left intact, but had been bypassed. Before Tocqueville’s book appeared, Frenchmen had been of the habit of speaking of centralization as one of the benefits of the Revolution, but he showed that that particular change was more in appearance than in reality.

That is the resemblance in the large; in details, there are also a surprising number of resemblances. The courts of the old regime, for instance, he describes as increasingly interjecting themselves into politics, yet on the other hand increasingly abandoning their role as legal arbiters to special administrative courts. (That this is a resemblance may come as a surprise to readers who are unfamiliar with the number of special court systems established in the US government today, and the number of “administrative hearings” of various sorts that are conducted. Tax courts, which resolve matters relating to the IRS, are perhaps the most widely known; but even the National Transportation Safety Board has its own courts with its own judges.) Tocqueville also describes the middle classes, in pre-revolutionary society, as being divided into squabbling groups, each trying to chisel favors out of the government in its own way, but more similar to one another than they realized.

Of course there are unsurprising resemblances too, such as that the old regime was a system that, to support itself, levied an increasing number and variety of taxes, and nevertheless was going bankrupt. But those are not what make the book interesting.

The book is long out of copyright, and thus available for free. Those who know French will of course prefer the original rather than a translation.