American Individualism in Business

(A selection from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, with an introduction by Keith Vlasak.)

There's a phrase, "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door," that defines American capitalism.  If you can think of a better way to do anything, you've got the beginning of a business.  The phrase also implies context -- "a better" mousetrap -- which suggests a cultural state where an individual has incentive to contemplate figurative mousetraps and start a business.  That implies another cultural distinction: "The business of America is business."  That was true in America long before Calvin Coolidge said it (and Coolidge, it's worth noting culturally, contemplated his remark and added to it, paraphrasing, that business is a method of improving society and that "ideals" are what Americans value more than money).  Business is the American way.

Already in 1831, Alexis de Toqueville (in Democracy in America, published in two parts, 1835 and 1840, and in the public domain and available online, Henry Reeve translation, at Project Gutenberg) saw into the heart of America with a clarity that maybe only a foreigner would have been capable of -- including the following example of American business in action, the better mousetrap idea in motion.

It is difficult to say for what reason the Americans can trade at a lower rate than other nations; and one is at first led to attribute this circumstance to the physical or natural advantages which are within their reach; but this supposition is erroneous. The American vessels cost almost as much to build as our own; they are not better built, and they generally last for a shorter time. The pay of the American sailor is more considerable than the pay on board European ships; which is proved by the great number of Europeans who are to be met with in the merchant vessels of the United States. But I am of opinion that the true cause of their superiority must not be sought for in physical advantages, but that it is wholly attributable to their moral and intellectual qualities. ...

The European sailor navigates with prudence; he only sets sail when the weather is favorable; if an unforeseen accident befalls him, he puts into port; at night he furls a portion of his canvas; and when the whitening billows intimate the vicinity of land, he checks his way, and takes an observation of the sun. But the American neglects these precautions and braves these dangers. He weighs anchor in the midst of tempestuous gales; by night and by day he spreads his sheets to the wind; he repairs as he goes along such damage as his vessel may have sustained from the storm; and when he at last approaches the term of his voyage, he darts onward to the shore as if he already descried a port. The Americans are often shipwrecked, but no trader crosses the seas so rapidly. And as they perform the same distance in a shorter time, they can perform it at a cheaper rate.

The European touches several times at different ports in the course of a long voyage; he loses a good deal of precious time in making the harbor, or in waiting for a favorable wind to leave it; and he pays daily dues to be allowed to remain there. The American starts from Boston to go to purchase tea in China; he arrives at Canton, stays there a few days, and then returns. In less than two years he has sailed as far as the entire circumference of the globe, and he has seen land but once. It is true that during a voyage of eight or ten months he has drunk brackish water and lived upon salt meat; that he has been in a continual contest with the sea, with disease, and with a tedious existence; but upon his return he can sell a pound of his tea for a half-penny less than the English merchant, and his purpose is accomplished.

I cannot better explain my meaning than by saying that the Americans affect a sort of heroism in their manner of trading. But the European merchant will always find it very difficult to imitate his American competitor, who, in adopting the system which I have just described, follows not only a calculation of his gain, but an impulse of his nature. ...

America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion, and every movement seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.

This perpetual change which goes on in the United States, these frequent vicissitudes of fortune, accompanied by such unforeseen fluctuations in private and in public wealth, serve to keep the minds of the citizens in a perpetual state of feverish agitation, which admirably invigorates their exertions, and keeps them in a state of excitement above the ordinary level of mankind. The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle. As the same causes are continually in operation throughout the country, they ultimately impart an irresistible impulse to the national character. The American, taken as a chance specimen of his countrymen, must then be a man of singular warmth in his desires, enterprising, fond of adventure, and, above all, of innovation. ... It is this same passion, applied to maritime commerce, which makes him the cheapest and the quickest trader in the world.