Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Freedom and Equality in Tocqueville's America

Tocqueville's argument that freedom contracts as equality expands sounds like a clever idea until you stop to examine the premise: that freedom and equality are opposed to one another. For most people, freedom means simply the absence of external restraint. And yet, because we are finite creatures with mortal limitations, absolute freedom can only exist as a state of mind, or, as Hegel might say, as a pure idea. Political freedom is merely a subset of a larger metaphysical abstraction in which man discovers that he is only one link in the great cosmological chain of Being, where all notions of freedom are but variations on the theme of man's belief (or hope) in his own transcendence. Philosophically speaking, freedom is a product of the human imagination. It exists in conjunction with man's capacity for free will. Rocks and trees are not "free" because they lack the imagination or intellect to distinguish themselves from the world which contains them.

If, on the other hand, by "freedom" you simply refer to the state of being physically unrestrained, then freedom describes a narrow arc of motion that is permitted, by the laws of nature, to material bodies under no external force. In other words, the state of being in the cold vacuum of deep space. But even there, gravitational fields impinge upon the smallest particles of matter. So let us admit, once and for all, that freedom is a relative state of being (or as Janice Joplin said, "just another word for nothing left to lose"). All objects and people are affected by the world around them.

Now, what about equality? Tocqueville sometimes uses the word "equality" to mean equivalent wealth, or equivalent talent or other qualities of the human condition such as intelligence, beauty, virtue or artistic ability. Thus, when he attacks the idea of equality he really means "natural equality" or those human attributes that God has parceled out to mankind. Clearly, the distribution of physical or intellectual gifts that we value in society are not divided equally at birth amongst all people. Yet, the doctrine of equal rights does not rest on the foolish idea that we are all the same, but on the belief that our common humanity entitles us to a certain minimal decency which some of us believe is justified by religion and natural law. Whether or not you agree with the doctrine of equal rights, the term "equality" refers to a political idea which is derived from the broader notion of natural rights. On the other hand, equality can also refer to a purely biological sense of comparing one individual with another. The biological model of equality is strictly Darwinian. It measures the capacity for one individual to survive in competition with other members of the species. But as Hobbes made abundantly clear, you won't discover human freedom in a state of nature. There you will find only a constant "war of all against all."

But leaving biology aside, Tocqueville says that what Americans really want is absolute equality of condition, meaning an equal division of the wealth of the nation. He assumes that people in a democracy cannot tolerate the prospect that some people will have more money than others. Where he gets this idea is not entirely clear, but it may have something to do with his own experience of the French revolution. With history in mind, we see that Tocqueville's ideas about freedom and equality probably have more to do with a different social model-- such as the radical ideas of Rousseau-- than the American experience derived from Locke's ideas on liberty and property. Tocqueville confuses the American rejection of monarchical government with a desire for radical egalitarianism. He bases his entire view on the assumption that Americans crave both material prosperity and absolute equality, and will sacrifice their freedom to obtain it. But he presents no evidence to support this theory. He just announces it as a kind of revelation of nature, such as the mating habits of penguins. The truth is that Tocqueville, like many aristocrats frightened by the violence of Robespierre, clings to one image of democracy-- that it is a poor form of government reflecting the vulgar sensibilities of working class people who care nothing about virtue, and are willing to sacrifice everything in their struggle to become rich, and in fact, to become like the very people they despise... European aristocrats. This is a curious idea. For someone who traveled in America and observed the habits of its people, Tocqueville managed to avoid any real understanding of what Americans actually believe and what motivates them to live the way they do.

Despite Tocqueville's belief that Americans care more about money than freedom, it seems obvious today that democracy does not deprive people of freedom; rather, it makes possible the greatest amount of freedom which society can tolerate. It enables people to pursue their own individual interests while at the same time encouraging people to live in harmony with people they may not especially admire. Tocqueville's idea that people in a democracy want to be exactly the same is ludicrous. In fact, just the opposite is true. People want to be left alone, not interfered with by government, political parties, or haughty aristocrats. The whole point of the American dream is not to deprive wealthy people of their property, but to enable poor people to become wealthy also. The threat to liberty is not that Americans will all start thinking exactly the same, but that the desire for privacy may lead to social indifference, such that no one cares any longer who gets elected as long as our own families prosper. But that is a dark scenario based on confusing free market behavior with human values. The truth is that Americans care about other things than just wealth. But whenever the economy stalls, as we see going on today, people react to what they hear from media pundits who are quick to prophesize doom. People who live from paycheck to paycheck worry about how to make ends meet. But this is a far cry from a mob in the street exacting revenge upon the wealthy. When hedge fund managers get rich from greedy speculations while small investors go broke, people are naturally upset. Tocqueville, like many good conservatives, assumes that all regulation, meaning government interference with the marketplace, is bad. Thus, regulation (or law) translates into less freedom for financial speculators. But does this mean that all regulations are a device used by the poor to impose equality upon the wealthy? Hardly. The driving idea behind equality is that Americans-- being an optimistic people-- believe in the possibility of progress. We manifest this belief in our moral values and through our political institutions, and, in doing so, we extend the blessings of liberty, without prejudice, to all who come here to make a new home for themselves.

As the Founding Fathers understood, laws are needed to restrain human frailty. But the good will, honor and common sense of the people will obviate the need for an overly active government (at least we hope so). My freedom does not diminish as your wealth increases, any more than my honor or virtue declines if the stock market should rise. Tocqueville seems to think Americans are just naive. He thinks aristocrats are the only people who live virtuously. But we believe that you can live decent lives, and enjoy liberty and prosperity at the same time. After all, isn't this the whole point of democracy? Otherwise, why bother? One of the arguments by southern plantation owners against emancipating their slaves was that the poor dark people would be unable to care for themselves. Is this the kind of argument that would appeal to Tocqueville? If so, then I guess he could not conceive of a society where equality, freedom, prosperity, and human happiness coexist. On the other hand, if he could see us today he might shake his head in disbelief and say "I told you so." But then we could remind him that these vulgar, greedy Americans with their bad manners and filthy lucre came over to Europe and fought two wars to liberate his country. I guess that counts for something.


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