Reading Tocqueville in Beijing
The old regime fears a revolution.
Tocqueville expressed his hostility to enlightened despotism in his comments on economist Guillaume-François Le Trosne’s book on French administrative and tax reforms, De l’administration provinciale et de la réforme de l’impôt. Le Trosne argued for the superiority of prerevolutionary France over England because the French kings could institute reforms unilaterally and “transform in an instant the condition of a country.” Tocqueville wrote in his private notes, “What ignorance! . . . What inexperience in practical politics!” For Tocqueville, it was simply false to assert that an executive order could so easily alter a population’s moral dispositions and the “ideas of which the habits of mind are formed.” More alarming were the measures to which a despot might turn where gentler methods did not suffice to alter a people’s mores.
Tocqueville’s intent, as he made clear in the preface to The Old Regime, was to diagnose what had destroyed liberty in France. An autopsy is for the sake of the living. His analysis of what went wrong in France’s transition to modernity was meant to provide readers with an understanding of the keys to a different future—a future, ironically, the Chinese will contemplate more fruitfully if they combine their study of Tocqueville’s Old Regime with attention to his more famous account of a successful political transition, Democracy in America.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.