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Jon Elster, Alexis de Tocqueville. The First Social Scientist

Jimena Hurtado
p. 334-338
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Jon Elster, Alexis de Tocqueville. The First Social Scientist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 212 pages, ISBN 978-052174007-4

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Crédits : Cambridge University Press

1Will we ever speak about Elster’s Tocqueville as we are used to speak about Skidelsky’s Keynes, Winch’s Smith, Hollander’s Ricardo or … Elster’s Marx? Following his lifelong research, Jon Elster presents in this book the political and social thinker that he regards not only as his predecessor, but also, as the title of the book indicates, as the first social scientist: Alexis de Tocqueville. Elster recognizes how contestable this claim of being the first, and particularly, the first social scientist, can be. The book is then intended to prove this contention, which must be understood within a precise definition of the scope and aims of the social sciences. Elster shows Tocqueville offers not only insights, but also abstract and general models of preference formation, beliefs and emotions. Such models are the first step in the study of mechanisms that explain individual and collective decisions. But more importantly, Elster asserts Tocqueville was obsessed with causality. So, even if causal models might be found in Montesquieu or Adam Smith, it is the “density of mechanisms” in Tocqueville that would justify his being the first social scientist (10). In Elster’s words, in the quest to find the correct interaction between the micro and the macro level, Tocqueville “can still remain an inspiration” (182) in offering “exportable causal mechanisms” (187) capable of grounding “the fine-grained analysis of a given society or regime” (184).

2Each of the nine chapters of the book is devoted to exploring and analyzing Tocqueville’s texts in order to show his insights in game theory, preference and belief formation, and the causality between desires, opportunities, and individual and social behavior. In the first chapter Elster presents three effects that would explain the formation of preferences in terms of preferences of others: the spillover, the compensation, and the satiation effects. In chapter two he deals with belief formation by conformism, showing the influence of public opinion and interests on individual beliefs. However, this conformism does not lead to fatality because Tocqueville presents individuals with a choice: equality with freedom, or equality with despotism. In this chapter, Elster constructs what he calls the Hegel-Tocqueville theory of the development of belief, going through three stages leading to “mature reflective belief” (37). In the third chapter, Elster explores self-interest and individualism, placing Tocqueville “in the tradition of the French moralists” (47), and showing how he tries to solve the problem of coordination and cooperation among self-interested individuals. Chapter four analyses the effect of passions on preferences, with particular attention to envy. Chapter five deals with the interaction between desires and opportunities, and how, in democratic times, individuals might be willing to reduce their option set as a result of a rational decision. The next chapter presents the circular causality between social conditions, legal institutions, and mores. In chapter seven, Elster presents Tocqueville’s social dynamics, in particular, dynamic versus static equality. The last two chapters offer an analysis of Tocqueville’s insights in democratic government, and in his lifelong topic, revolution.

3All these subjects might seem familiar to readers of Tocqueville. However, Elster deals with them in such a way—using modern game theory, rational choice and collective action theory—that it makes the book more about Elster’s theory than about Tocqueville’s ideas. Not that this is an undesirable outcome; Elster’s Tocqueville is all the more interesting since what makes it thought-provoking is not only its contents but also, and foremost, the way it is written. At first sight, the book might seem an exercise in the history of ideas. Nevertheless, there is something more personal to it: Elster is looking for a predecessor to his own work, to his own way of conceiving the social sciences, to his own way of approaching social phenomena. Their common methodological stand counts for something in Elster’s quiet admiration of Tocqueville: both are ethical and methodological individualists (6 and 95), speaking a familiar language for anyone working in the social sciences today.

4The structure of the book reflects this familiar language. Starting from the most micro level—preferences, beliefs, passions, desires and capacities—Elster reconstructs Tocqueville’s thought up to social causality and, finally social and political organization. In this reconstruction, Tocqueville talks in a language close to neo-institutional and behavioral economics, filling a gap Elster sees in answering questions “about mechanisms of preference formation and preference change” (11) that, at least, economics has been unable to solve. This approach also reflects Elster’s concern with the disappointing results of rational choice theory; specially, concerning its inability to account for choices within interactions, where emotions, desires and beliefs play a primary role (cf. Elster, 2009 and 2010). Introducing Tocqueville to this discussion might be the most innovative aspect of Elster’s book. For all that—and as an aside—one should not forget that Tocqueville has been also influential on the Institutional Analysis and Development framework, developed by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their colleagues since the 1970’s. In his analysis of Federalism and, what he calls, a Compound Republic, Vincent Ostrom draws on Tocqueville to show the importance of the role of ideas and language in human cultural evolution. As opposed to a purely inductive method, much used in social sciences, Ostrom presents Tocqueville as a source of inspiration to build a framework based on “the idea that commonwealths or human societies are fashioned by human beings who draw upon concepts and aspirations to create their social reality” (Ostrom, 1994: 19). According to this framework, human interactions, based on beliefs and emotions, lead to the formulation of rules regulating common life.

5Elster’s originality stems from his ability to make use of this reconstruction of Tocqueville’s thought in his analysis of all the topics found in the text, so that familiar aspects of Tocqueville’s thought appear under a new light. For example, in chapter 6, Elster’s use of circular causality, allows him to give new insights into Tocqueville’s view of the connection between mores, laws and a social state: “In equilibrium, social conditions, legal institutions, and mores support one another mutually, just as do needs, ideas, and sentiments within mores” (97-98). Such an explanation overcomes what would otherwise seem contradictory statements in Tocqueville; but, more importantly, it shows the limits of unidirectional mechanisms, common in standard rational choice theory.

6Another case in point is Elster’s presentation of the long-term effects of democracy, as regards, for example, freedom. Keeping in mind a distinction between democratization and democracy —separating transition effects from equilibrium effects (100-104)— it has been widely acknowledged in the literature that, according to Tocqueville, in democratic times equality might become more important than freedom, leading to an undesirable rise of a new kind of despotism. A recurring explanation of this situation is that whereas equality has almost immediate benefits for individuals, freedom only has long term ones. Moreover, the short-term costs of freedom seem to outweigh its long term benefits. Elster adds that, for one, this kind of analysis might diverge between the agent and an outside observer; and, for the other, “the benefits of freedom are essentially by-products of the love of freedom for its own sake” (106). This offers an interpretation of the love of freedom in Tocqueville that not only reinforces the noninstrumental value of this passion, but also the impossibility of artificially generating it, in order to guarantee that, in the future, society will arrive at the desired equilibrium represented by a stable combination of democracy, equality and freedom.

7Finally, let me mention Elster’s explanation of equality in Tocqueville, certainly one of the most commented topics in his work. Elster addresses “the casual role of equality” (114), distinguishing static from dynamic equality. Whereas the former refers to the distribution at a certain moment, the latter has to do with high social mobility. Such view, allows bringing together two central themes in Tocqueville’s thought, under a causal mechanism that explains social dynamics in general.

8All these examples also attest of Elster’s intention of unifying elements, insights, and stands in Tocqueville’s work in order to make it more coherent and structured. Elster repeatedly states he regards Tocqueville neither as a theorist nor as a systematic thinker; he provides no law-like theory or sharp predictions; what Elster finds fascinating in his work, is the mechanisms he presents in spite of the ambiguities, vagueness, contradictions and speculative nature of Tocqueville’s texts. Maybe this lack of unity allows Elster to find parts of Tocqueville that seem particularly interesting today, and which make him a stimulating conversation partner, capable of talking and understanding our modern terminology. Tocqueville appears as an inspiring thinker, with an outstanding perception of his times, and to some extent of ours.

9Throughout the whole book, Elster keeps reminding us and pointing at the contradictions he finds in Tocqueville’s work. This is not a complacent reconstruction of a past author, neither an attempt to show his influence on his contemporaries, nor to reconstruct a system of thought, or to replace the author in his own context. Elster presents a contemporary Tocqueville, someone who has something to tell us for today. By showing the reader all his insightfulness, and his actuality, Elster also shows us his shortcomings and limitations. But maybe, it is these flaws and contradictions which also render an author’s analyses richer, and especially open to become a permanent, and almost, endless source of inspiration.

10In order to evidence the causal mechanisms explaining social phenomena Elster urges Tocqueville to contribute to present day analysis, using contemporary language and tools. As readers, we are invited to experience an extended present­—after Boulding’s phrase—where we can have a conversation with a modern-day Tocqueville. Elster introduces Tocqueville within an analytical framework that is not his own; even if we accept that Tocqueville did not have one, it is this ability of making Tocqueville talk within this framework which renders the conversation so fruitful.

11The kind of exercise Elster presents in his book, has always encountered a recurrent question: Is this something we are allowed to do with any author of the past? And, moreover, is it Tocqueville we find in these pages, or has Elster chosen the specific texts that highlight his purpose, presenting us someone completely different or even loosing Tocqueville in the attempt. I believe Elster gives us a lesson not only in rational reconstruction but, above all, in reading. This is a refreshing conversation, only possible thanks to Elster’s precise and detailed knowledge of his counterpart in this dialogue, which needs no intermediaries and has the readers as spectators.

12Elster himself recognizes the risk, expressly stating his rational reconstruction of Tocqueville (47), and sometimes the reader can be tempted to think the contradictions Elster finds in Tocqueville are due more to the reconstruction than to Tocqueville himself. However, Elster manages a fragile equilibrium between reconstructing and deconstructing Tocqueville’s ideas. This allows him to go back and forth between an analysis of Tocqueville’s work, and an analysis of several topical subjects in social sciences through Tocqueville. Preference formation, game theory or pluralistic ignorance seem subjects far from Tocqueville’s concerns; nevertheless, Elster builds this conversation in such a way that they can be expressed in Tocqueville’s terms. After finishing the book, the reader is left with the impression of having met a new Tocqueville but, mostly, of having read Elster. Not that Tocqueville is an excuse for advancing Elster’s own views, not at all. This knowledgeable, discerning reconstruction of Tocqueville’s work is a masterly way for any reader to assist to a productive conversation: A conversation in which Elster asks Tocqueville questions.

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Elster, Jon. 2009. Le désintéressement. Traité critique de l’homme économique, I. Paris: Seuil.

Elster, Jon. 2010. L’irrationalité. Traité critique de l’homme économique, II. Paris: Seuil.

Ostrom, Vincent. 1994. The Meaning of American Federalism. Constituting a Self-governing Society. San Francisco: ICS Press.

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Jimena Hurtado, « Jon Elster, Alexis de Tocqueville. The First Social Scientist  », Œconomia, 1-2 | 2011, 334-338.

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Jimena Hurtado, « Jon Elster, Alexis de Tocqueville. The First Social Scientist  », Œconomia [En ligne], 1-2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2011, consulté le 25 février 2018. URL :

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Jimena Hurtado

Universidad de los Andes

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