Habits Of The Heart

Aug 12 2012 @ 2:22pm

by Matthew Sitman

The Claremont Review of Books recently published an essay on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America by the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. He finds the French aristocrat’s understanding of religion’s effect on American habits particularly incisive:

Habits-heart[Tocqueville's] most interesting argument was that the mores and the habits of the people are what keep the U.S. great. As you all know, many countries have adopted a system of constitutional arrangements very similar to that which you find in the U.S. In Mexico, in the Philippines, indeed, in most of Latin America you find duplicates of the American Constitution. But despite these duplicates and despite the fact that some countries, like Argentina, are rich in natural resources, you do not find our tradition of settled government, a respect for the rights of others, and the slow emergence of freedom which leads you to give due regard to the interests of other people without abandoning your commitment to the country as a whole.

How can you explain this?

Tocqueville said that our habits of the heart reflected self-interest rightly understood. Self-interest rightly understood is different from individualism; because individualism, he argued (I think wrongly) means withdrawal into a private sphere and the abandonment of collective and public action. But self-interest rightly understood means that individualism has to be tempered by the view that Americans feel it is in their interest to be perceived to be honest and reinforced by a religion which Americans practice without shame.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)