Tocqueville Self Interest Vs American Individualism

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Self-interest rightly understoo; represented a desire to serve the general good and

understanding of the social dimension of private choices that was a complex balance of

seemingly opposite goals. The federal government encouraged people to balance public good

and private interest, as did intermediate institutions such as voluntary associations and the

structure of family life. By pursuing each individuals’ own interests, the total benefit to

society was greatest for all.

Tocqueville initially compared enlightened interest in a negative way with classical concept

of virtue, seeing Americans as driven primarily by material gain. He learned through his

American experience that enlightened self-interest meant more than a drive for material
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The individualism Tocqueville encountered in America

was very different than the world he had known in France, which led him to contrast the civic

virtues of French and American society and considered the way American individualism

differed from the more public-focused societies of Europe.

In America, Tocqueville found that the people “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of

man,” which drives the idea of self interest being a benefit and not simple selfishness. It was

believed that the individuals making their own choices were doing so as a way to improve

themselves, their condition in life and their standing in society. By pursuing their own

perfectibility, individuals offered balances to each other in a way that led to a thriving

democracy with free association, speech and public debate among engaged citizens. If the

people do not engage and are not educated, this could present a problem for democracy as

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