Democracy in America

Throughout his nine-month visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville admired the speed of her citizens, when confronted with a community problem, to organize themselves into voluntary societies. In this way Americans exert every effort “to attain certain ends they propose for themselves.”[1] “Each new social problem “immediately awakens the idea of it. The art of association then becomes, as I have said, the mother science; all study it and apply it.”[2] Ironically, De Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America when, in 1834, the French government passed a law suppressing its citizens from forming voluntary associations. De Tocqueville reacted by highlighting the positive impact of associations on American society:

“There is only one nation on earth where the unlimited freedom to associate for political views is used daily. That same nation is the only one in the world whose citizens have imagined making a continuous use of the right of association in civil life and have come in this manner to procure for themselves all the goods that civilization can offer.”[3]

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds; religious, moral, grave, futile, very general, very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries. By forming associations they create hospitals, prisons, and schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France or a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.[4]

Down with Centralization! It Suppresses Initiative.

The republics of the New World will not perish for lack of decentralized government, though this is said in Europe. Indeed, even the American governments are too much so.[5] Centralization merely succeeds in subjecting the external actions of man to a certain uniformity. It succeeds without difficulty in impressing a regular style on current affairs; in skillfully regimenting the details of social orderliness; in repressing slight disorders and small offenses; in maintaining society in a status quo that is properly neither decadence nor progress; in keeping in the social body a sort of administrative somnolence that administrators are accustomed to calling good order and public tranquility. It excels, at a word, at preventing, not doing. When it is a question of moving society profoundly or pressing it to a rapid advance, its force abandons it. If its measures need the concurrence of individuals, one is then wholly surprised at the weakness of centralization’s immense machine. It finds itself suddenly reduced to impotence.[6]

Then sometimes it happens that centralization tries, in desperation, to call citizens to its aid; but it says to its citizens: “You shall act as I wish, as long as I wish, and precisely in the direction that I wish. You shall take charge of these details without aspiring to direct the sum.” It is not under such conditions that one obtains the concurrence of the human will. It must have freedom in its style, responsibility in its actions. Man is so made that he prefers standing still to marching without independence toward a goal of which he is ignorant.[7]

The same social state that renders associations so necessary to democratic peoples renders associations more difficult for them than for all others. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs. When several members of an aristocracy want to associate with each other they easily succeed in doing so. As each of them brings great force to society, the number of members can be very few, and, when the members are few in number, it is very easy for them to know each other, to understand each other, and to establish fixed rules.

In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.

The same facility is not found in democratic nations, where it is always necessary that those associating be very numerous in order that the association have some power.

Blincoe. It is easy for Americans to organize non-profit organizations. It is easy to obtain a tax-id number and open a bank account and accept tax-deductible gifts. More than any other country, American law is favorable to United States citizens who want to establish voluntary societies. England is the second most favorable country in the world for citizens who want to organize and register non-profit organizations. Canada is third. The rest of the Free World (western Europe and Israel) is fourth. It is almost impossible to form non-profit organizations in Islamic countries, because Muslim governments are suspicious of what  purpose its citizens want to collect money. Things are not always as they seem in many countries outside the Free World.

References Cited

———. Democracy in America / Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America / Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 1833), 496.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Democracy in America / Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). p. 496 (volume two, part two, chapter seven)

[4] Ibid. p. 489 (volume two, part two, chapter five)

[5] Ibid. 84-85

[6] Ibid. 86

[7] Ibid. 86-87