June 27, 2007

"Democracy in America"

I recently came across an abridged translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" Although I am only part way through book one I have come away with a better understanding of how our system evolved and why, imperfect as it is, it has survived wars, corruption, and insurrection.
Published in 1835 by an aristocratic Frenchman, Tocqueville who was sent to America to study the prison system was intrigued by the workings of democracy and came to understand that the democratic political philosophy could be a savior not only his native France but all of mankind. He writes;

It may readily be understood with what intention I undertook the foregoing inquiries. The question here discussed is interesting not only to the United States but to the whole world; it concerns not a nation but all mankind.

On Mexico: The Constitution of the United States
resembles those fine creations of human industry which ensure wealth and renown to their inventors, but which are profitless in other hands. This truth is exemplified by the condition of Mexico at the present time. The Mexicans were desirous of establishing a federal system, and they took the Federal Constitution of their neighbors, the Anglo-Americans, as their model and copied it almost entirely. But although they had borrowed the letter of the law, they could not carry over the spirit that gives it life. They were involved in ceaseless embarrassments by the mechanism of their dual government; the sovereignty of the states and that of the Union perpetually exceeded their respective privileges and came into collision; and to the present day Mexico is alternately the victim of anarchy and the slave of military despotism. (Ch 7)

Not much has changed in Mexico since this piece was written and it also could be applied to the attempts to bring democracy to the middle east.

A Warning On Earmarks: The disastrous influence that popular authority may sometimes exercise upon the finances of a state was clearly seen in some of the democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasure was exhausted in order to relieve indigent citizens or to supply games and theatrical amusements for the populace. (Ch13)

On Politicians: On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government. It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has exceeded all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years. (Ch 13)

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