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  • The Perils of Prosperity
  • João Carlos Espada (bio)

Alexis de Tocqueville found that the “predominant taste” in America was “the love of well-being” or “the passion for physical well-being.” Although “all do not feel it in the same manner . . . it is felt by all. The effort to satisfy even the least wants of the body and to provide the little conveniences of life is uppermost in every mind” (II, 128). One of the dangers that Tocqueville saw in the predominance of this passion is conveyed by the title of Chapter 16 of the second book of Volume II of Democracy in America: “How Excessive Care for Worldly Welfare May Impair That Welfare.” In other words, Tocqueville thought that “if men were ever to content themselves with material objects, it is probable that they would lose by degrees the art of producing them” (II, 148).

The reasoning underlying this statement is relatively simple; some observers would say it fits the present condition of our Western liberal democracies like a glove. Material prosperity is the product, and sometimes the unintended consequence, of a work ethic, freely adopted by individuals, families, and other civil institutions, that leads people to seek deferred (as opposed to instant) gratification. As prosperity increases, however, people tend to lose sight of the spiritual, mainly religious, dimension that has given meaning to deferred gratification. They then tend to adopt a logic of instant gratification. In doing this they will gradually kill “the goose that lays the golden [End Page 135] eggs”—that is, the work ethic that produced their prosperity in the first place.

Is it possible for democratic nations to escape this “fatal circle”? Like Burke before him, and partly like Weber after him, Tocqueville thought that religion provided the ultimate support for an ethic of deferred gratification in a free society. Yet he was aware that religion faces erosion in an age of skepticism. And he strongly opposed any sort of state enforcement of religion: “As to state religions, I have always held that if they be sometimes of momentary service to the interests of political power, they always sooner or later become fatal to the church” (II, 147). Thus it seems that Tocqueville was facing the challenge of squaring the circle: How can one restore deferred gratification if it is mainly based on religion, which is in decline, and if governments are not supposed to try to enforce religion?

Tocqueville answers that “governments must apply themselves to restore to men that love of the future with which religion and the state of society no longer inspire them” by showing that “great success stands at the utmost range of long desires, and that there is nothing lasting but what is obtained by toil” (II, 151). This lesson, however, must be taught practically and unobtrusively. Above all, governments must avoid “sudden and undeserved promotion” based on favoritism, which would foster the very logic of instant gratification that they are supposed to discourage. Governments must make sure that “all promotion will be seen as the reward of effort” (II, 151) so that the ambitious will have to plan well ahead before they reach their goal.

If “philosophers and those in power” show that deferred gratification is still the key to long-term prosperity, they will encourage people to care about the future and that of their offspring, or, in other words, to raise their sights. In doing so, people would be “gradually and unconsciously brought nearer to religious convictions.” And this, Tocqueville suggests, seems to be “the only means we still possess for bringing mankind back, by a long and roundabout path, to a state of faith” (II, 151).

One could say that Tocqueville’s answer is a synthesis of the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. With the latter, Tocqueville emphasizes the role of religion in preserving human dignity, and he fears that a purely commercial society will lower men’s sights. But he simultaneously thinks that what Smith would call a system of natural liberty (or what Locke would call a system aimed at securing the natural rights to life, liberty, and property) encourages people to better their material condition through...