Saturday 1 May 2010

Alexis de Tocqueville

I discuss Wilkinson and Pickett's misrepresentation of Alexis de Tocqueville in chapter 9 of The Spirit Level Delusion. To imply, as they do, that Tocqueville was an early socialist is laughable (you can read what he thought of socialism here). 

There is one thing to add regarding Tocqueville's admiration of the 'equality of conditions' enjoyed in 1830s America. Anyone who has read Tocqueville's work (or, indeed, understands 1830s America) will be aware that he was referring to what we would today call equality of opportunity or equality of status. He certainly was not talking about equality as defined by Wilkinson and Pickett, ie. equality of outcome.

'Equality of conditions' is a somewhat ambiguous phrase which, as Hugh Brogan explains in his biography of Tocqueville, relies on a mistranslation:

Equality of status, or in AT's French, egalite des conditions. This is usually translated as 'equality of conditions', but this is misleading since nowadays it seems to imply economic equality, which AT knew perfectly well did not exist any longer in America, if it ever had... 

In context it is perfectly clear what AT was concerned with, but not everyone has always remembered the context. 

'Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of democracy in the age of revolution', Hugh Brogan; p. 275

[A new version of Tocqueville's Democracy in America is available here. The entire English translation can be downloaded for free here.]


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the scholarship and courage to tackle the widespread and damaging misrepresentations wielded by the so-called "chattering classes".

If libelling the dead were a permissable offence, Wilkinson and Pickett would surely be found guilty as charged. How anyone who has read or even heard of de Tocqueville, regardless of political ideology, could site the great defender of individual liberty and private property as a prototype socialist beggars belief. Laughable indeed if it weren't for the ideological motives of such an instance of unabashed propaganda.

It is so refreshing to come across a writer fearlessly pursuing the facts in the face of the cacophany of misrepresentations and emotive ramblings that characterise the nature of our public "debate".

Thank you again and keep up the good fight!

A reader in Dublin

Devan Evans said...

I do find it very interesting that you insist that the Spirit Level is trying to make Tocqueville into a socialist which was not really the case. In fact the only time Socialism comes up is after they make the statement that Tocqueville ended up making assessments of the importance of equality and this is what they state:

"Early socialists and others believed that material inequality was an obstacle to a wider human harmony, to a universal human brotherhood, sisterhood or comradeship."

They make the distinction of "early socialists" completely distinguishing Tocqueville to not be a socialist, otherwise they would have used the words "other early socialists" as a method of inclusion in the group. Does the author of this blog not know how to differentiate basic inclusion to exclusion in grammar? It's very basic. Either the author of the blog is being dishonest or is incompetent, either one doesn't really bode well.

Christopher Snowdon said...


'Other early socialists' would have been explicit. The way W & P use Tocqueville in The Spirit Level is implicit, hence imply.

Devan Evans said...

And yet how is it that you come to a conclusion that they refer to Tocqueville as a socialist when there is really no such implicit statement. Did you even ask them if that was the message they were conveying with Tocqueville before making this accusation?

Christopher Snowdon said...

Have you read my book?