Tocqueville-an error
David R. Kotok
November 20, 2012



In our recent piece on the fiscal cliff and slippery slope we opened with two quotes. One was wrongly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. Several readers called the error to our attention. The original piece is posted on Cumberland’s website, .

The erroneous section reads “We shall see if Alexis de Tocqueville may be right in his quote, ‘A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.’ ”

I guess we could have written this more accurately by saying, Often wrongly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but more likely sourced to an obscure reference in 1951, this quotation applies to the current debate. “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of, it can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.”

One writer for whom we have great respect is Barron’s editorial writer Tom Donlan. He wrote:

“Dear David, Your 2d paragraph quote from Tocqueville is true, but not accurately attributed. It’s from a 1951 letter to the editor of the Daily Oklahoman. The letter-writer (falsely) attributed the quote to Alexander Tytler. For more than you’d ever want to know about it, see . Regards, Tom Donlan”

We thank Tom, and others, for calling the error to our attention.

The fiscal cliff piece was dictated while waiting for a plane. Voice recognition software captured my words and converted them into electronic impulses. The text quickly traveled cyberspace, was restored to a voice message and transcribed by an assistant in Cumberland. She had instructions to research the quotes and fact check the text. She used Google and found several citations that this was a Tocqueville utterance.

A second research associate independently confirmed Tocqueville. He noted that others, including presidents and congressional leaders had cited Tocqueville as the source. We included the quote in the final draft and sent it to Charley Sweet, a professional copy editor, and asked him for his review.

Charley and his partner are supposed to review text for facts and for syntax and for grammar. They left the Tocqueville quote intact. Charley has subsequently emailed me with an apologetic note.

Besides Charley, the others who tried to help me were all well intentioned. They sought sources, believed them and used them as verification. But the ultimate responsibility for a writer falls singly on the author.

So the citation error is mine and mine alone.

Tocqueville wrote about America during its fledgling period. His native tongue was French. Many attributions to him are translations of French into English so there is some inaccuracy involved since linguistic transition is never perfectly accomplished. His two volumes entitled “Democracy in America” contain warnings about socialism and how it can dilute and destroy the freedoms of democracy.

Here are some Tocqueville citations from Wikiquote.

“Socialism is a new form of slavery.” Source: Notes for a Speech on Socialism (1848)

“As for me, I am deeply a democrat; this is why I am in no way a socialist. Democracy and socialism cannot go together. You can’t have it both ways.” Source: Notes for a Speech on Socialism (1848)

“La démocratie étend la sphère de l’indépendence individuelle, le socialisme la reserre. La démocratie donne toute sa valeur possible à chacque homme, le socialisme fait de chaque homme un agent, un instrument, un chiffre. La démocratie et le socialisme ne se tiennent qu par un mot, l’égalité; mais remarquez la différence: la démocratie veut l’égalité dans la liberté et le socialisme veut l’égalité dans la gene et dan la servitude.”

Translation (from Hayek, The Road to Serfdom): Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

Source: 12 September 1848, “Discours prononcé à l’assemblée constituante le 12 Septembre 1848 sur la question du droit au travail”, Oeuvres complètes, vol. IX, p. 546

Our conclusion about Tocqueville is that he would have said something like the words wrongly attributed to him had he phrased his writings in English and not in French. The Tocqueville message about risk to the American democracy is sound, even if it was uttered by someone else in a 1951 letter in an obscure newspaper.

Our view of fiscal cliffs or slippery slopes remains intact. That is what the current Washington political debate is all about.

Happy Thanksgiving.


David R. Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors

Category: Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

13 Responses to “Tocqueville-an error”

  1. ilsm says:

    Attributing to de Tocqueville is a teapublican habit.

    Corporate libertarian propaganda using de T as authority is pretty weak.

  2. Frilton Miedman says:

    Any discussion that equates solutions to the ongoing strife over wealth & income inequality to “socialism” is completely dishonest if it doesn’t include the unfair advantages that corporations and the wealthy exercise over the government that got us here.

    One of countless examples, corporate banking paid politicians in “campaign bucks”, bribery, to eliminate Glass-Steagall and create the CFMA, which laid the groundwork for the greatest con-job in American history.

    Now that Corporate executives have fleeced the middle class of their net worth, it’s called “Socialism” to reverse the damage.

    Sorry, no sale here….no more 200 year old philosophies like “Tyranny of the majority”, Broken window Fallacy, or Ricardo’s trade theory that claims the opposite to common sense, Bill Clinton is right, this is a simple matter of Arithmetic.

    Do the math instead of conveniently cherry-picking through obscure philosophical writings to find your reasoning.

  3. econimonium says:

    And the point of this post was what? I can copy/paste French and obscure quotes in order to, somehow, get past the fact that I did poor research on another post? Frilton is correct: do some math and impress me. Otherwise this post belongs on some tea party blog, in my humble opinion of course. Can I have the time back I wasted reading it, even if I can read French? And let me add that “slippery slope” is an over-used metaphor. At least be original to think of something else.

  4. Conan says:

    Here’s a quote for you:

    Around 1790, Historian Alexander Tyler listed the 8 phases of a Democracy:

    Stages of Democracy
    1. From Bondage to spiritual faith;
    2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
    3. From courage to liberty;
    4. From liberty to abundance;
    5. From abundance to complacency;
    6. From complacency to apathy;
    7. From apathy to dependence;
    8. From dependence back into bondage”

    Where are we now? Many people I ask say #5 or #6

  5. marktwain says:

    Je ne regrette rien…cause it was the fault of everyone else.

  6. Frilton Miedman says:

    Conan, perfect example of my statement about citing 200 year old philosophy.

    To justify that question with an answer assumes Tyler’s 220 year old theory of Democracy is the final word on the subject, and nothing has been learned since.

    How many historical Democracies did Tyler have to draw from in 1790?

    He lived in a world that was exclusively monarchist, since then, 70% of the worlds civilizations are now Democracies.

    If he were correct, his phase of complacency to apathy to dependence to bondage would have been the early 1900′s, at the advent of Social insurance, entitlement and progressive taxation, and the U.S. would now be history.

    Inverse to that, the advent of Social insurance, civil rights and progressive taxation seems to have only strengthened the U.S. as the greatest empire in the world.

    Again, reversing the resulting transfer of wealth from massive fraud as a result of deregulation, by raising taxes on the beneficiaries of that transfer isn’t some type of inhumane socialist atrocity.

    Even if you cherry-pick through 200 year old philosophies.

  7. Conan says:

    OK, Mr Frilton, here is a more recent quote, only like a 100 years old from someone who can speak with a bit more authority from a left point of view:

    Democracy is indispensable to socialism.

    The goal of socialism is communism.

    The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.

    Vladimir Lenin

    Let’s also discount Socretes, Plato, Aristole, Newton, Galileo, Darwin or any of the other old folks who are out of date. Let’s only consider the modern anyone born after 1950.

  8. Conan says:

    However I do believe in Democracy and I’ll go with another revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson:

    Jefferson believed that each man has “certain inalienable rights”. He defines the right of “liberty” by saying, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others…” A proper government, for Jefferson, is one that not only prohibits individuals in society from infringing on the liberty of other individuals, but also restrains itself from diminishing individual liberty.

    Jefferson believed most persons could not escape corrupting dependence, the franchise should be extended only to those who could. His fear of dependence and patronage made Jefferson dislike established institutions, such as banking, government, or military. He disliked inter-generational dependence, as well as its manifestations, such as national debt and unalterable governments.

    Thus we need to be careful of patronage, Billionaires buying politicians or Politicians buying Votes through Unions, or certain segments of the population through government programs. Both sides of the spectrum can be a real concern. Patronage is a negative almost anywhere you find it.

  9. ilsm says:

    You can get pretty much any thing you want from the debates around the new US constitution in the late 1780′s.

    “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” Jefferson to James Madison 28 Oct 1785

    teapublicans have a Madision quote about property being the foundation of liberty!

    The “famous” quotes from de Tocqueville are disturbing at best.

    Was it de Tocqueville or else later in the 19th century who said that the free style form of advanced subsistence (glorified libertarians) that reined in the first part of 19th century US would die out as the frontiers ended and there was no more land to take from the natives?

    I like Thomas Paine, who said society exists and changes, they are not perfect and so government rises to perfect society.

    Or as Oliver Wendall Holmes said: ” taxes are the price of a civil society”.

    I do not think de Tocqueville or any of the philosophers quoted by teapublicans advocate civil societies.

  10. Conan says:

    Ism – said like a true Libertarian advocating for civil society, thanks.

    Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.[1] It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and business.[2]’s 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.[3] Sometimes the term is used in the more general sense of “the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society”

  11. Conan says:

    And about taxes, I wrote about this in an earlier comment concerning the 2% Wealth Tax idea.

    Read about Bill Clinton’s Flat Tax plan and see how it could work fairly:

    Read this as to how the original Income Tax worked when in acted in 1913:

  12. Anonymous Jones says:

    More reason we should be using the term “Freedom Fries”. Ha ha.

    Shorter Kotok: “Got quote wrong. In my defense, person I quoted made lots of other stupid predictions a couple centuries ago.”

    Pre-telegraph, hardly any city in the world had more than a million inhabitants, a clipper ship gets you from France to US in less than a month, 24 states in the union…is it really so odd to want to have compelling proof that the analysis of some random French dude traveling *that* country has much of anything to say about our society and the governance of our now technologically advanced country with dense urban centers of wealth?

    Shorter me: “I remain unconvinced.”

  13. Frilton Miedman says:

    Conan, use of the word “socialism” has been intended to infer Democracy is outright Communism, to provoke fear & outrage….I have to assume you saw the election outcome two weeks ago, the strategy failed. thankfully.

    To quote another more current personality

    “… in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily,”
    – Adolf Hitler

    I could just as easily use another’s quote, to imply the opposite extreme of Communism is currently ongoing -

    “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
    – Benito Musollini

    To conflate Democracy & Socialism to conclude it’s Communism is just that, a sensationalist lie to arouse emotional response. instead of a rational debate.

    The burning go of the Reichstag & the link to a single Dutch Communist was all it took for Hitler to convince a Democracy it was a good idea to “temporarily” bypass their constitution and invoke Marshall law.

    We just came incredibly close to a similar situation over the last decade, and it’s not over yet.

    As for the inference of Socialism, the Constitution was not written with the intention of preserving the property rights of monarchs & aristocrats when it comes at the welfare of the whole…this was Jefferson’s argument against Hamilton, Jefferson rejected the concentration of power in minority hands..

    Federalism was all but abolished by the mid 1790′s, around the same time many thinkers of the time only had the Roman Empire to refer to as an example of Democracy….and conclude our demise.

    That was my point, Rome was barely a Democracy, at best.
    It was replete with corruption and favoritism that led to the dissolution of infrastructure & the military, currency devaluation and ultimate collapse, all for personal greed over the welfare of the whole.

    We have these problems now, however, as demonstrated two weeks ago, unlike Roman Citizens – we all have a say.