What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!


“This reliance on the power of noble words and moral leadership, coupled with certain institutional solutions like statutes and regulatory boards, was how TR sought to establish a path between a self-interested individualism and a moral zeal for that abandoned individual freedom and rights for the sake of “the social good.” (Rego, 211)

In 2008, the country plunged into the Great Recession, policymakers sought remedies to address the impact and the root causes, risky activities in the financial sector arose as a source of the disruptions.  A few years later, Occupy Wall Street erupted with protests against a system and related policies that not only contributed to a concentration of income, but also the power that allowed the risky practices that led to the downturn.  Although analysis suggests a mixed legacy of this movement, its ideas have affected the public square in terms of its conversation threads and candidates.   Among more formal opinions, former secretary of labor Robert Reich recently penned The System, expressing concern that the level of influence exercised by corporate leadership in both the economic and political sphere has moved the country further from democratic ideals rather than towards them.  Although the temptation may exist to brand criticism of the economic system as anti-capitalist, a more nuanced consideration helps us to evaluate the way that this system, as with any human system, deviates from its intended role.

In American Ideal: Theodore Roosevelt’s Search for American Individualism, my colleague Dr. Paul Rego provides an intensive analysis of the experiences that shaped President Theodore Roosevelt’s life and his political beliefs.  From hunter to rancher to rough rider, Roosevelt’s writing shared insights that reflected his value of the person, as well as ways to cultivate it for social contributions.  However, Roosevelt also recognized the potential for individuals, particularly those with power, to bend the system in ways that made it work less effectively and justly for the larger society.  Rego’s book painstakingly captures a perspective that offers a third way, considering not simply how to limit the excesses of either extreme, but also how each of these ideals can complement each other, making for a stronger outcome.  In doing so, Rego – and Roosevelt – recapture the relevance of Tocqueville’s observations on the same subject: that neither a solely individualistic nor collective system will ultimately serve its people well.

The context in which Roosevelt came of age included a lingering emphasis on social Darwinism, as well as growing numbers of critiques of this perspective.  Social Darwinism – a cultural take on the “survival of the fittest” – accepted few limits on individual freedom, save for where it impacted others, and believed the social and economic landscape status was simply the outcome from a naturally operating system (7-11). Roosevelt, however, was also impacted by the tenets of the Social Gospel and Pragmatist movements that, above all else, considered the ability of humans to improve their condition (11-20).  Roosevelt’s father’s values of individual character and compassion for others, exhibited a strong influence, as is often the case for one’s family in early life.    As Roosevelt wrote about his naturalist and military experiences, he certainly recognized the importance of these experiences in shaping constructive characteristics of individuals – “honesty, courage, fairness, thrift, industry, common sense, sympathy and ‘fellow feeling’” (Chapters 3-4; 92). But he also recognized that with attention concerns other than pure survival, society could progress (32).  Moreover, the interdependence of people on one another created a need for some sort of protective – or at least regulative – function of government (33-4).  This perspective, informed by the value of individual effort, also recognized that state action was necessary – particularly because individuals fail, due to the potential to infringe on the rights of others and corrupt the system (93).  In turn, these views would shape his support for the prudent use of state action.

Among the most notable initiatives that Roosevelt brought to the public square, his Square Deal and New Nationalism embodied his nuanced ideals, policy proposals and actions.  Rego argues that, in the development of his thoughts and their policy implications, Roosevelt drew inspiration from Abraham Lincoln’s ability to identify a common ideal around which Americans could unite – equality of opportunity (43-44).  Carrying forward his emphasis on hard work, Roosevelt, saw limits to individual action and a role for the state in serving the public interest.  Individuals, for example, were unlikely to be able to promote effective conservation efforts (110-114).  Likewise, he also recognized the ways that imbalances of economic power could allow for exploitation, especially if profit subverts public good and growth. Associations, such as farmer collectives and business associations, could accomplish some of these ends (115-117). However, they still needed a mediator in the form of the state to engage in anti-trust, regulatory and compensation activities, all of which could limit the excesses that lessened the opportunity for all (Chapter 5). He also saw the role of moral codes in helping to support society, whether the importance of the rule of law, the need for character in carrying out responsibilities for others, as well as the essential relevance of inclusion for sincere social progress (Chapter 6). These concerns, along with an emphasis to increase mechanisms for more popular input into democracy and accountability of representatives.[1]

Rego establishes his connection with Tocqueville’s ideals at the outset of the book: that although decades had passed since the writing of Democracy in America, the need to balance individual interest and communal concerns continued to press society in Roosevelt’s time.  As discussed in the earlier Putnam post, Tocqueville, like Roosevelt saw the value of associations as a means to cultivate both ourselves and society. “An association unites into one channel the efforts of diverging minds, and urges them vigorously towards the one end which it clearly points out…” which extends through the regularized practice and political influence (Vol 1, Chapter XII, pars. 5-7). Likewise, he cautions that there is “nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty,”– one that requires effort, wisdom and insight (Vol 1, Chapter XIV, par. 33). However, individuals must temper these activities with a concern for the public welfare:

“The free institutions…every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty, as well as the interest, of men to make themselves useful to their fellow-creatures…men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice: what was intentional becomes an instinct; and by dint of working for he food of one’s fellow-citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them is at length acquired” (Vol 2, Section 2, Chapter IV, par. 10).

Moreover, as did classical thinkers, Tocqueville expressed concern about the tyranny of government, which he saw as potentially harnessed by the institutional design of the American constitution, but also the tyranny of the majority (Vol 1, Sections XV-XVI). [2] He recognized the danger that freedoms of citizens, especially when combined, could bring harm to others, absent the ability of the government to curb them.  Although there is not perhaps a single outcome, there is certainly a range of political and economic options that can avoid the excess of either extreme.

Returning to the present day, Roosevelt (via Rego) and Tocqueville offer some important insights that can provoke our thoughts, conversations and policy.  If we wish to ensure the equality of opportunity that has served as a hallmark ideal in the founding writings, we need to regularly examine the system in which we live, not simply accept the outcomes as a natural part of the structures that we adopted or accepted.  Blasting detractors without thinking critically about the flaws of our system raises a few concerns.  First, failing to recognize the need to evaluate any structure that exists eliminates the possibility for dialogue, as well as the potential for reform that can improve the system.  In addition, it discourages proponents of any system from realizing that any proposed system is subject to the impact of human failings.  When we choose to either extoll or demonize individuals, businesses or other organizations, as well as government, we set ourselves up for systems that compromise, rather than pursue, a larger good.



[1] Despite Roosevelt’s many contributions, he remains a flawed human like the rest of us.  To that end, I feel compelled to point out that the inclusiveness of his domestic policies did not extend consistently to his foreign policy.  Most notably, his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine resulted in numerous interventions in Latin America, which did not respect the self-determination of those countries, not only during his administration, but in many to follow.

[2] As with many other thinkers of his time, Tocqueville not address the fact that the “equality of condition” – political, social and opportunity of equality – excludes populations that were either not considered citizens (free or enslaved African Americans) or were not vested will the full rights of citizenship (women).


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