Sunday, February 22, 2015

Alexis de Tocqueville and Liberlism

"The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst. But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness."

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a French politician and political philosopher, and a spokesman for Liberalism in the decades after the Revolution. Although he wa...
s born into the aristocracy, he was sympathetic to liberalism and democracy, and sought to defend and improve these in his writings.

In 1831 France’s liberal King, Louis-Philippe, sent Alexis de Tocqueville to the United States to study democracy in the country where it had been most successful. The idea was to learn how to make a democracy work, so that reforms could be instituted in France without repeating the disasters of the Revolution. The result was Democracy in America (1835).

According to de Tocqueville, a healthy democracy is based on a strong Civil Society – churches, clubs, unions, professional organizations, and in general all associations with voluntary membership and common goals. These are the “nurseries of democracy,” where people learn first-hand how to actively participate in public life. Strong institutions of local government are also essential, because they give everyone an opportunity to participate in politics, and often check the ambitions of the central government. 

 However, because democracy works on the principle of “majority rule,” it always tends to privilege the group over the individual. It is somehow offensive to people who are in the majority to have their ideas challenged by people who are not. They may respond by depriving nonconforming individuals of their rights. “King Mob” is every bit as tyrannical as any absolutist monarch, and perhaps more dangerous, because it operates under cover of democratic institutions.

Democracy also loosens the social bonds of deference and obligation which exist under an aristocratic regime, thereby weakening the individual’s ties to the community. Encouraged to consider their own benefit first in all situations, they may decide that other considerations, such as material rewards, are more important than their rights and liberties, or the well-being of the community. Individualism is both a product and a danger to democracy.

In order to guard against these threats, de Tocqueville recommended that democracies adopt a mixture of elected and unelected bodies. In the United States, the Supreme Court and (at the time) the Senate were appointed. This gave them the independence they needed to consider the long term interests of the community. Frequent elections, on the other hand, disorganize the political process by producing short-sighted policies and confused or contradictory legislation.

In The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), de Tocqueville argued that the aristocracy had been overthrown, not because it was oppressive (it was not), but because it claimed wealth and privilege far out of proportion to its social utility. This mismatch made them easy targets for criticism, and left them incapable of defending their prerogatives when they were put to the test. The moment real change became a possibility, the aristocracy was instantly attacked. “The most perilous moment for a bad government,” he said, “is when it seeks to mend its ways.”

He also pointed out that revolutions are often quite conservative in practice. For instance, during the French Revolution the First Republic came to power by denouncing the arbitrary power of the Bourbon Monarchy, but in practice it was far more oppressive and centralized than the Bourbon Monarchy had ever been. Because revolutions disorganize the political life of the community, they create opportunities for military adventurers like Napoleon to set themselves up as despots. So revolutions often end by defeating their own ideals. Peaceful reform from within is always preferable to violent revolution from without.

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XIV of XVII)

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