Independence and Freedom Not the Same

“It would be wrong to muddle independence with freedom.  No one is less independent than a free citizen” (269, footnote 46, in The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution).

No statement in Tocqueville more succinctly captures the difference between his version of conservatism and the hyper-individualistic ideology that passes as conservatism in contemporary America.  I sympathize with the Corey Robin point that conservatism is always about protecting privilege, that Burke’s corporate conservatism and Hayek’s individualistic conservatism may look different in various ways, but, au fond, they are both about preserving power and wealth in the hands of thems that already gots.

That’s why republican virtue is perhaps the best tradition to attach Tocqueville to. He is against liberal individualism if that means vigorous pursuit of economic prosperity; but he is all in favor of individual rights, seeing the protected civil liberties are essential—and that they should be extended to all.  In that respect, he is not a conservative.  He has no truck with privileges being granted to only one class of citizens.  He is an egalitarian.

But . . . He also believes that there should be a political class that takes on the responsibility of managing public affairs.  It is that class which truly enjoys “freedom,” but which lacks independence precisely because of its great responsibilities.  Self-government (which is freedom) is not an exemption from the collective; it is, rather, action within the collective.  That’s where he is not liberal—and where he tends to conservatism because he is an elitist about this political class.  But it is also where he is most at odds with contemporary American conservatives for whom independence is the essence of freedom—the very mistake that Tocqueville deplores.

Two complications.

1. “The aims recommended by the reformers were many and varied but their methods were the same.  They wanted to borrow the strength of central government and use it to smash everything and rebuild it according to a new plan of their own devising.  Such a task could, they thought, be accomplished only by the central power” (77).  This is the liberalism of fear (Judith Schlar’s term.)  Fear the accumulation of power.  Build in checks and balances; disperse power so it resides in several locations.  Yes, he wants a political class—but he also wants to hem in its power by various institutional safeguards. Revolutionaries are to be feared both because they want to smash everything, want to rebuild according to a plan grounded solely in unrealistic theory, and because they are all about accumulating power into their own hands.  They are the quintessential centrailizers.

2. Not completely clear in Tocqueville what he sees as the optimal relation of the legislative to the executive power. He is very clear that local assemblies, the more local the better, should legislate.  But he also seems to say in various places that a truly free people executes its own decisions.  The doing should be done by the people who are also the beneficiaries of those actions.  So he can seem a very radical proponent of direct or participatory democracy at times—even while at other times he relies on a distinct political class to alone be the political actors.  So he can write with despair about a situation in which “no one imagined that an important matter could be brought to a successful conclusion without the involvement of the state” (77)—suggesting that his ideal is when the state proves unnecessary because the people take matters into their own hands.  But he will show a deep distrust of the people in other places.  And, of course, his anti-state bias in favor of a republican mode of citizen involvement has all the classic scale problems that afflict the republican tradition.  The emphasis on the local works against any larger political entity—but empire and, subsequently, the nation-state are persistent historical forms that swallow up small-scale city-states and their like.

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