Saturday, May 13, 2017

The unknown Tocqueville in America

Several years ago, a friend presented me with a small volume entitled “Quinze jours dans le désert” written by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 when he visited (the only time ever) the young United States. This is a short book of some 100 pages, on his travel to the then extreme confines of “civilization”, Flint (the city which in the 1989 was the subject of Michael Moore’s famous documentary “Roger and me”) and Saginaw, both of them situated on the eponymous rivers.

The book is written in the recognizable limpid prose that we associate with Tocqueville and although it has no depth or pretension of his “Democracy in America” it is interesting and worth reading—for the reasons which I hope to explain.

“The desert” in the title does not refer to the physical “desert” but to the civilizational desert. The level of development (if that term has some meaning in the context of these areas in 1831) is so low, the amount of physical difficulties that beset the traveler on all sides is so huge, the forests  almost impenetrable, the mosquitoes omnipresent, the log cabins so few and so uncomfortable, the people barely existent, that the story reads like the adventure of explorers penetrating the deep Amazon. Indeed, the landscape offers, at the rare times when the traveler can relax, some astonishing sights of beauty (“la beauté sauvage” as Tocqueville terms  it, the word “sauvage” occurring probably 100 times on 100 pages of the book) felt in presence of intact nature. As Tocqueville mentions, there was absolutely nothing similar in Europe and the Mediterranean at the time. Perhaps only Siberia, parts of Africa or Brazil’s Northwest come close to such a complete dominion of nature over civilization and absence of practically any trace of human activity that Tocqueville and his companion (Beaumont) witnessed in the 1831 Michigan.

This naturally leads economists to think that perhaps no part of the world had seen such a dramatic transformation from where it was in 1830-1850 and today like the American Midwest and the West. It would be hard to put a number such as modern GDP per capita on what the level of income was in the Midwest then. While the production of anything was very low, so was the population, and while Indians clearly lived at the level of subsistence, European settlers were better-off perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3.  The scale of relative incomes was clearly established with “colonists” of English and French extraction at the top, the Indian-European mestizos in the middle,  and the Indians on the bottom. However, if we (tentatively) put GDP per capita at the frontier at $500 in PPP terms (note that the Maddison project update gives GDP per capita for the eastern board of United States in 1830 at $1600), income per person has then increased in Michigan by almost one hundred times in less than two centuries. This gives an astonishing average rate of growth of 2.5% annually which I doubt to have been “bested” anywhere in the world.

Tocqueville is interested in Indians as a prototype of people who had not developed much of what is (was) considered “civilization”. He is to some extent testing the hypothesis of the “noble savage” and gives what seems to me a realistic portrait of the situation of Indians at that time. When he meets Indians the first time, in Buffalo, as they queue to receive US government money for the land they had sold, he is disappointed by their physique and general looks that bear little resemblance to the idealized free warrior living in the state of natural freedom. They looked, Tocqueville writes, “like the lowest layer of population in our great European cities” (p. 10).

But that perception changes later when Tocqueville and his companion are led by two Indians through the wilderness of forests between Flint and Saginaw. He appreciates their incredible stamina (the two Indian guides lead the two Frenchmen, riding on horses, by running ahead of them), knowledge of nature, resourcefulness and honesty. Indian honesty (and what to a European seems like a naiveté) is several times contrasted with European cupidity. When the two Indians are introduced by a European settler to Tocqueville and Beaumont as reliable guides, Tocqueville asks how much they should be paid for their work (one day of guiding the two through quasi impenetrable forests). The settler says that two dollars would be enough but that since Indians do not know what to do with money, he (the settler) would give them instead goods worth two dollars. Tocqueville notices that what the Indians did get could not have amounted to even one dollar worth, the settler clearly taking 50% as his “fee”.

Here is how Tocqueville describes the settlers he met: “It is not only Indians whom the American pioneers take for fools. We were ourselves every day victims of their extreme avidity for profit. It is true that they never steal. They have too much of intelligence to do such an impudent thing. Yet I have never seen the owner of a hotel of a big city [in Europe] overcharge with such shamelessness as these inhabitants of the desert in whom I expected to find primitive honesty and patriarchal simplicity of manners” (p. 57). 

The contrast between the external polish of civilization and indifference to the lives of “others” is brilliantly drawn: “In the midst of this [American urban] society, so well organized, so prude and full of morality and virtue, one meets complete insensitivity, a sort of cold and implacable egotism whenever indigenous population is concerned. The inhabitants of the United States do not chase these Indians freely as the Spaniards did in Mexico. But it is the same pitiless sentiment that moves the Europeans here as it does elsewhere.” (p. 13) We are indeed far from “Democracy in America”.

Later in Saginaw Tocqueville also notes that Indians are “swindled” by being overcharged, although to an economist the charge of trumpery is not easily defended since Indians (one would expect) paid for the moccasins, clothes etc. what they believed was an acceptable price in the goods they produced. The issue is rather, I think, that Tocqueville uses the European prices: at these prices, the trinkets European sold were evidently much less valuable than the goods they received in exchange from the Indians. But at Indian prices, the trade might have been equally advantageous to them. So, Tocqueville’s example may rather convince an economist of the value of trade then of European duplicity.

Indians seem indifferent to comfort and to many of the commodities of “civilization”. The only thing that attracts them are European rifles. Interestingly, alcohol, often used in the stories of American Indian decadence and fall in the encounter with the Europeans, is never mentioned in the book. 

This small book comes to us like a piece, a remnant of a great monument. In it are recognizable many of the traits that have made Tocqueville famous, precursor in a number of social sciences. The great themes of civilization, colonization, imperialism, and development are opened—the themes that will become so pervasive in the next one hundred years with European expansion to the four corners of the globe. 

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