The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Are Democracy and Liberty Compatible?

Tue, January 4, 2011

The latest benchmark from the department’s political theory program, Steven Pittz, a government graduate student, has an article forthcoming in the “The Journal of Politics.” The article, “Providential Partners? Tocqueville’s Take on Equality and Centralization,” dissects a circular relationship in Alexis de Tocqueville’s two principal works, “Democracy in America” and “The Old Regime and the Revolution.” Pittz demonstrates that in each book Tocqueville argues two sides of the same coin, putting forth in “Democracy” that popular sentiment for equality within democratic societies leads to greater centralization of government power and administration, and in “The Old Regime” that centralization inculcates popular sentiment for equality. These dynamics were of great concern to Tocqueville, who believed that the democratic passion for equality threatened to stifle political freedom, and he did not interpret order gained through loss of freedom as a justifiable end.

By Tocqueville’s reasoning, the democratic man’s proclivity for public tranquility, so desired because it provides the opportunity to pursue and accumulate material wealth, creates popular support for state strength and stability. While democratic individuals forfeit liberties in allowing the state to guarantee public order, doing so provides individuals the opportunity to maximize personal wellbeing. Working in tandem with a democratic instinct to attack privilege, a phenomenon that leads societal forces to pursue equal privileges and protection from government rather than eliminating them altogether, the democratic social state reinforces the relationship between centralization and equality, and stabilizes itself in the process.

Pittz summarizes Tocqueville’s central argument in the following way: “the democratic love of equality leads men to seek a sovereign that serves all subjects in an equal way. They therefore prefer uniform legislation and willingly surrender social power to the state. Economic interests in democracies lead individuals or groups to seek special treatment from government to further their own causes, and hence the central power spreads as it becomes entangled with the commercial endeavors of its citizens. The privileges granted to some are felt and despised by others out of their love of equality, and these citizens look to the government to rectify these injustices of privilege. This appeal to government to level the playing field in fact gathers yet more power into the sovereign’s hand.”

The mutually reinforcing relationship between centralization and equality was anathema to Tocqueville, and he therefore sought to counteract the trends on moral and political fronts. Morally, he sought to elevate liberty to a value commensurate with equality and politically he urged the decentralization of administrative power.

Liberty is engrained in American political symbolism – “Lady Liberty,” “The Land of the Free,” “Liberty and Justice for All.” But this would seem to belie Tocqueville’s central dilemma: if democracy spawns equality and centralization, which reinforce the democratic social state while impinging individual freedoms, can democracy and liberty coexist in the long term?

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