March, 2022

Tocquevillean Association and the Market

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In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville highlighted the facility that Americans have with the art of association as well as how important associational life is within American communities.  Tocqueville confessed to admiring "the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States succeeded in setting a common goal for the efforts of a great number of men, and in making them march freely toward it."  It is through associations that Americans, according to Tocqueville, undertook both small and grand projects.  It is through associations that Americans did everything from celebrating a holiday to building a church or prison.  Tocqueville also acknowledged the industriousness of Americans.  As Tocqueville remarked, "no people on earth...has made rapid progress as the Americans in commerce and industry.  They form today the second maritime nation of the world, and, although their manufacturing has to struggle against almost insurmountable natural obstacles, it does not fail to make new gains every day." There is a sense in which, however, this observation by Tocqueville presents us with a puzzle: How has America developed both a robust civil society and a vibrant commercial society when markets and community are supposedly at odds with one another?