Philanthropy and Democracy

Is American Philanthropy Really Democratic in the Tocquevillian Sense?

Editors’ Note: In an earlier post, Olivier Zunz outlined Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts on associations and philanthropy. Here, Emma Saunders-Hastings argues that, while many individuals have noted Tocqueville’s remarks on philanthropy as highlighting the special place of philanthropy in American life, the sector today is more aristocratic than democratic in the Tocquevillian sense.  

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America gives an early and famous assessment of the link between civil society and democracy. During his travels in the United States, Tocqueville was much struck by the fact that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.” This was a distinguishing feature of American public life and stood in contrast with public life in other countries: “at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association” (emphasis added).

The associations that so impressed Tocqueville weren’t all philanthropic ones, but Tocqueville’s remarks have often been interpreted as highlighting the special place of philanthropy in American civil and political life. The attractions of Tocqueville’s story, for people enthusiastic about the potential of contemporary American philanthropy, are obvious. Tocqueville’s account not only pays tribute to the extraordinary vitality of American civil society. It also suggests that philanthropy and civil society can help to sustain free political institutions. The philanthropic and voluntary sector provides a sphere in which people can act and organize outside the state, and it allows people to develop skills and values that they carry with them into political life.

This reading privileges the contrast Tocqueville draws between America and France: in democratic America, spontaneous associational activity replaces the French tendency toward micromanagement by government. Tocqueville suggests that the American arrangement has both pragmatic and political benefits. Even if a government could duplicate all the activities of American associations (which Tocqueville doubts), “The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations.” This strain in Tocqueville encourages us to see excessive state power and declining citizen participation as the greatest potential threats to the democratic character of American civil society.

But Tocqueville also contrasts America’s democratic civil society with its hierarchical English counterpart, and not only with French statism. Associations are the democratic alternative to aristocrats as well as to bureaucrats: “Among democratic peoples associations must take the place of the powerful private persons whom equality of conditions has eliminated.”  Tocqueville gives an economic explanation for why the world’s most democratic country generated the most voluntary collective action: quite simply, individuals weren’t rich enough to get things done on their own. By contrast, “in aristocratic societies, while there is a multitude of individuals who can do nothing on their own, there is also a small number of very rich and powerful men, each of whom can carry out great undertakings on his own.” Americans, Tocqueville thought, did not have such aristocrats in their midst and were therefore obliged to “form associations for no matter how small a matter.” In relying on associations, Americans had made a virtue of necessity.

To know whether American philanthropy today is democratic in the Tocquevillian sense, we need to know more than the rates of citizen participation or state interference. We also need to know whether the philanthropic sector is egalitarian or hierarchical in character. This last question is especially salient in light of another Frenchman’s research. Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the 21st Century documents the increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of the income distribution—a far cry from what Tocqueville once thought was American society’s inevitable tendency toward “equality of conditions.”

Tocqueville’s image of an economically and socially leveled civil society is no longer in line with the reality. But Tocqueville’s insight that inequality affects the kinds of philanthropic and associational activity a society will produce remains important. America is now considerably better supplied with very rich and powerful people who can carry out great undertakings on their own. These people can produce important benefits for society, and many have used their wealth generously and judiciously. But a philanthropic and associational sector funded predominantly by such people, and reliant on elite generosity, should be regarded as aristocratic rather than democratic in character.

-Emma Saunders-Hastings

Emma Saunders-Hastings is a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. She holds a PhD in political theory from Harvard University and is completing a book manuscript on philanthropy, inequality, and paternalism. 

One thought on “Is American Philanthropy Really Democratic in the Tocquevillian Sense?

  1. Pingback: What if Tocqueville had travelled to Prussia, instead of the U.S.? | HistPhil

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