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Individualism and Self-Interest According to Alexis de Tocqueville
Self-Interest According to Alexis de Tocqueville
The concept of
individualism and self-interest was discussed on the last sections of de
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Accordingly,
these concepts conjure the image of the 20th century United States,
where self-interest, isolation, and despair exist within the society, serving
as contributing factors to the development of despotism and tyranny. But how
did de Tocqueville actually came up with these ideas on his book? This is the
question that this paper seeks to answer by discussing the dynamics of
self-interest and individualism according to the interpretation of the author.
In order to further understand the author’s
explanations, it is important to define the central themes of self-interest and
individualism first. Individualism is the assertion of one’s own personality
and will, but for de Tocqueville, individualism has a deeper meaning; it is a
feeling of calmness which could dispose a citizen into isolating himself from
the majority of the community, including family and friends. We can see that
self-interest for de Tocqueville has a very different meaning, but what made
his definition interesting is that he linked it with how the aristocratic
responsibilities and dependencies affect the image of society in the 19th
century United States (507). De Tocqueville stated that aristocracy, just like
how tyranny and despotism works, could encourage other members of the society
to withdraw from the masses and to support themselves individually. This
concept undermines the goals of a participatory government, mainly because the
community is afraid that aristocracy could bring something more than just
ruling and creating laws for the people.
Self-interest, on the
other hand, is the outcome of individualism, according to de Tocqueville. But
self-interest has both negative and positive effects for the society. For one,
it could result to non-enlightenment and unawareness, which is very close to
being selfish in the long run (525). But when self-interest is properly
understood, it could bring about change in the society, by knowing the
difference between what is good for the general public and what is not.
Self-interest, therefore, is a learned behavior that could be constructive and
destructive at the same time – it can create virtue to foster self-advantage,
which is very important in a democratic country like the United States. Virtue
is what makes people outstand among the others when it comes to making
decisions for the benefit of everyone, and not just for the unenlightened
self-interest of some (526).
relationship of self-interest and individualism to the American democracy,
according to de Tocqueville, is that it allows various political powers to be
constructed. But these powers could either be positive or negative, depending
on the interpretation and conceptualization of self-interest and individualism.
For instance, there are individuals that, instead of spreading the power and
freedom of expression to the people, are centralizing the power to make up the
people, which could result to tyranny and despotism. De Tocqueville feared that
even in a democratic country like the United States, despotism could still
arise especially when power gets out of control and become centralized in one
hand. Therefore, in order to maintain balance and harmony in a participatory
government, the combination of powers should rest upon the individual rights of
the people through development of education and creation of virtue. We could
conclude this by backed up with de Tocqueville’s position that “…because union
with his fellows seems useful to him and he knows that that union is impossible
without a regulating authority, each individual is assumed to be as educated,
virtuous and powerful as any of his fellows” (66).
De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 1969.New York: Anchor. Print.