Tocqueville-an error

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

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