Today’s Wonky Elite Is in Love With the Wrong French Intellectual
Thomas Piketty and his ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ are white hot, but he’s no ‘Tocqueville for Today’—and he and his fan club have Tocqueville all wrong.
In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new Frenchman in town. Armed with progressives’ two favorite things—statistics and a European accent—the celebrity economist Thomas Piketty has hit American shores in support of his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Sadly for Piketty, his explanatory socialism is a nonstarter for every American except a handful of media, academic, and policy elites. In an ominous example of just how out of touch those elites have become, two of them have produced a wildly mistaken assessment of Piketty’s work—and haven’t raised so much as a peep of objection.
The review in question is “A Tocqueville for Today,” written by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, two ivory tower heavyweights. Hacker directs the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, where he is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science. Pierson, the John Gross Professor of Political Science at the University of California-Berkeley, is Hacker’s co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.
Hacker and Pierson are respected scholars in their field. Their concern for the future of their country is admirable, and their interest in Tocqueville ought to be shared by all Americans. On the other hand, the Tocqueville they present in their glowing appreciation of Piketty is so dramatically bogus and false that they must either be lying to their readers or deluding themselves.
Tocqueville, not Piketty, is our best guide to the problem of inequality in America. Tocqueville, not Piketty, is a resource both our elites and our ordinary folk can understand.
Hacker and Pierson are correct that Tocqueville was blown away by the degree of equality on display in America. Indeed, the first words of Democracy in America are these: “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.” They are also correct that Tocqueville anticipated the inexorable spread of equality around the globe. “Variety is disappearing from the human race,” he wrote; “the same ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling are found in every corner of the world. This is not only because nations are more in touch with each other and able to copy each other more closely, but because the men of each country, more and more completely discarding the ideas and feelings peculiar to one caste, profession, or family, are all the same getting closer to what is essential in man, and that is everywhere the same.”
So far, so good. But then Hacker and Pierson go off the rails: “another Frenchman with a panoramic vista—and far more precise evidence—wants us to think anew about the progress of equality and democracy. Though an heir to Tocqueville’s tradition of analytic history, Thomas Piketty has a message that could not be more different: Unless we act, inequality will grow much worse, eventually making a mockery of our democratic institutions.”
The apparent ignorance behind this thesis is so extreme that it causes Hacker and Pierson to see Piketty as the real genius—while even an undergraduate level of engagement with Democracy in America would reveal, in virtually every chapter, that Piketty is not only wrong but glibly and perilously so.
Rather than leading into a navel-gazing mush world, Tocqueville’s logic-driven analysis leads him to conclude the exact opposite of what Hacker and Pierson say he does.
Sitting there for all to see, right in the middle of Democracy in America, is a whole chapter titled “How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry.”
In this chapter, Tocqueville reveals that “very rich and well-educated men” have now—now being the mid-19th century—“come forward to exploit industries” formerly filled with artisanal workers. “They are attracted by the scale of the efforts required” to master these industries, he explains, “and the importance of the results to be achieved. Thus, at the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the masters.”
Yes—while the workman “is in a state of constant, narrow, and necessary dependence on the other and seems to have been born to obey,” the industrial master seems born “to command. What is this,” Tocqueville implores, “if not an aristocracy?”
Tocqueville even closes the chapter by warning “the friends of democracy” to “keep their eyes anxiously fixed” on the consolidation of industrial commerce in the hands of a wealthy and powerful few. “For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.”
So much for the quaintly amateurish Tocqueville of Hacker and Pierson’s imagination.
But in the spirit of forbearance, perhaps Hacker and Pierson could fall back on this position: Piketty is simply building some empirical rigor into a conceptual framework that Tocqueville, in its vague philosophizing, could only dimly intuit. Isn’t Piketty, then, still truly a Tocqueville for today?
Democracy in America elaborates, patiently and deeply, the myriad ways in which the equality of conditions causes immense changes in social order. From religion to mores to opinions to sentiments, equality takes every facet of human life and affects it greatly, or even creates it anew. Yet this transformation does not take place with a flip of the switch—even if a bloody revolution marks the change from an “aristocratic” age to a “democratic” one. Instead, there is a transitional time, where quasi-aristocratic elements of social and political life sometimes flourish but usually attract our aggravated and anxious attention.
Foremost among these, Tocqueville tells us, is—yes—“aristocracy of wealth.” Although quite “like aristocracy of birth in conferring great privileges on a small number of citizens,” it is paradoxically also “like democracy in that these privileges can be acquired by all in turn.” Often, therefore, economic hierarchies take shape as society undergoes the “natural transition” from aristocracy to democracy. All told, “one cannot say whether it brings the reign of aristocratic institutions to an end or whether it is already ushering in the new era of democracy.”
Consider the gigantic implications of this precise logical observation. While “the elements forming the poor class are more or less fixed,” importantly, “a class of the rich does not exist at all, for these rich men have neither corporate spirit nor objects in common, neither common traditions nor hopes.” They might all want the same thing—wealth, access, pleasure, power. But our plutocrats, to use a word Tocqueville did not, share “no solidarity.”
Unlike true aristocracy, which persists through immobile multi-generational families, the ranks of the ultra-wealthy are constantly in turmoil, with new billionaires frequently entering—and old billionaires’ offspring departing, via prison, suicide, incompetence, or simply choice.
A tiny handful of families, it is true, have managed to keep colossal wealth in their own hands over a period of many centuries. How many of those are American?
“A business aristocracy,” Tocqueville says, “seldom lives among the manufacturing population which it directs; its object is not to rule the latter but to make use of it.” True aristocrats live on the same land as the peons because that is what you have to do to exercise true lordship. Fake aristocrats, by contrast, live either in exclusive resorts or in the halls of power.
For Tocqueville, only the ultra-rich could buy the tools and the power necessary to become true aristocrats. (In a democratic age, everything is for sale because equality makes everyone compete for the only distinction left open to them—a bigger bank account.) But every fiber of Democracy in America is devoted to showing why true aristocracy holds so little allure even for our wealthiest.
Much like Game of Thrones, Democracy in America incessantly attests that aristocracy is unglamorous, uncomfortable, and bound up in concepts today’s rich people have no time or respect for, like an honor of bloodlines that transcends the fleeting interests of the mortal self.
Instead, our fake aristocrats far prefer to live under the government’s rule than to rule over any peons. And since the government is the only earthly entity powerful enough to lord over us all, no matter how wealthy, the relationship works both ways. The frightening inequality that has Hacker and Pierson up in arms is but a side effect of, and prelude to, an ever more powerful and comprehensive equality—just as Tocqueville predicts.
And, just as Tocqueville predicted, the dominance of equality in our minds and hearts is so complete that the significant inequality in our lives—the presence of the super-rich—drives us absolutely insane.
Notably, Hacker and Pierson reserve a single complaint for Piketty. Unfortunately, he “has relatively little to say about how—with organized labor weakened, moneyed interests strengthened, and anti-government forces emboldened—the kind of political movement necessary for a fairer future will emerge.”
Tocqueville knows. Not that Hacker and Pierson would want to hear it. Since the power of the fleeting aristocracy of wealth depends on the much greater and more durable power of the state, the key to weakening the influence of the super-rich is not by handing the government their money but by denying them patronage appointments to government positions—and sharply limiting the scope of centralized government.
That, of course, really is the opposite of what Piketty’s fan club desires. And sure enough, it leaves in place the repugnant arrogance and ostentatiousness of the worst of America’s fake aristocracy. Tocqueville knew that would rankle us, too. “What is wanted is not the sacrifice of their money,” he sighed, “but of their pride.”
Here Piketty and company fall silent, for they want least of all to contemplate—as Tocqueville does from the first page of Democracy to the last—the most powerful force for ameliorating the vanity of the super-rich and our deeply wounded pride: belief in God, and belief in our souls.