Alexis de Tocqueville: Distinguishing Between Democracy and Liberty

Alexis de Tocqueville said that “the only passions I have are love of liberty and human dignity.” This is the bicentennial year of his birth. He was only 30 years old when his Democracy in America was published in 1835.

Gary Galles’s article Tocqueville on Liberty in America at the Mises Institute is worth reading. “The bicentennial of Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel, the Comte de Tocqueville, is an apt time to revisit the insights on liberty in Democracy in America.That is especially true today, since he recognized that liberty and democracy are not the same thing, despite the common modern confusion between them. Even more crucial, he recognized that democracy can be the enemy of liberty, and that of the two, liberty is far more important.”

Here, for the record, are a few selected de Tocqueville quotes from Galles’s article. People often talk very loudly about democracy. I wonder how many have considered what democracy actually means and what they mean by democracy. Indians, especially, need to think a bit about democracy and liberty.

• The Revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and reflecting preference for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence.

• It profits me but little, after all, that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquility of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life . . .

• The great end of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence and to place a legal barrier between the government and the use of physical force.

• . . . the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the Unites States does not arise, as is often asserted . . . from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.

• The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which is the sure method of debasing them.
• If the absolute power of a majority were to be substituted by democratic nations . . .[men] would simply have discovered a new physiognomy of servitude . . . when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men.

• The taste which men have for liberty and that which they feel for equality are, in fact, two different things . . . among democratic nations they are two unequal things.

• . . . democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.

• . . . public tranquility is a great good, but . . . all nations have been enslaved by being kept in good order.

• . . . the despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual.

• . . . the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world. . . . Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of poverty and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

• After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

• . . . the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again . . . they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.

One thought on “Alexis de Tocqueville: Distinguishing Between Democracy and Liberty

  1. We have just published (in English) Tocqueville in India by French scholar Jean Alphonse Bernard. A political philosopher who has published several books on Indian politics and society in French, Bernard visits India today in the imagined company of Tocqueville and a representative group of Indian intellectuals. It is available from our website


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