Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tocqueville, Meritocracy & the American Dream

‭The "American Dream." This vague term instantly conjures up hopes of unlimited opportunity. So long as you work hard enough and are smart enough (which you are, of course), you will find success. Moreover, it is these hard-working, gifted individuals who form America's elite. In other words, meritocracy should make everyone happy, both individually and as a member of society.

‎Or, so the legend goes. One of the dangers of trying to put meritocracy into practice, however, is the tremendous mental strain it places on individuals who, after working hard to distinguish themselves from others, still fail. For their entire lives, they have told themselves that they are the only obstacle to their success, so in the end all they can do is blame themselves. This leads to frustration and even intense self-loathing. This is the dark side of the American dream.

‎Here is how Alexis de Tocqueville put it, in Democracy in America (Vol. II, Part II, Ch. XIII, "Why the Americans are often so restless in the midst of their prosperity"):
‎“‏When all prerogatives of birth and fortune are abolished,‭ ‬when all professions are open to all and a man’s own energies may bring him to the top of any of them,‭ ‬an ambitious man may think it easy to launch on a great career and feel that he is called to no common destiny.‭ ‬But that is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.‭ ‬The same equality which allows each man to entertain vast hopes makes each man by himself weak.‭ ‬His power is limited on every side,‭ ‬though his longings may wander where they will‭…

“This constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind‎…

“That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance,‎ ‏and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances‭…

“In France we are worried about the increasing rate of suicides‎; ‏in America suicide is rare,‭ ‬but I am told that madness is commoner than anywhere else.‭”
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