Part III: Tocqueville and the Authority of Institutions

Series Overview

The concept of limited government seemingly takes self-rule from the realm of the abstract and makes it the basis of a functional society. But, though it precludes the possibility of a central authority imbued with broad, sweeping powers, limited government is not synonymous to self-rule. The devolution of power that necessarily occurs as a result of the truncation of federal authorities might theoretically place power in the hands of individuals, but it is functionally exercised through institutions, be they state and local government agencies, or, more often, social institutions.

These institutions serve as interest aggregators, taking on a role nearly synonymous to those played by political parties: they organize the mass around commonalities and become a tool for establishing social morays. But, just as political parties run afoul of their purposes through the process of collectivization inevitable to the life cycle of intermediary bodies, so too can social institutions attain a level of power and influence disproportionate to their voice when measured as a portion of the greater communal whole. While the public sphere in which government resides is bounded, private actors have a much greater range of movement, and therefore social institutions possess as much potential to do damage to self-sovereignty as does the tyranny of government proper.


In The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke makes clear that the social contract is not all-encompassing. An overarching government body has absolute authority in the form of an egalitarian law code over all who live within its bounds, but this does not totally erode individual autonomy. Those who agree to exchange boundless freedom for the security implicit in rule of law still retain the ability to enter into other, lesser contracts with individuals and institutions. This precept, which places emphasis on relationships within communities and localities, is essential to individual ability to order one’s private affairs.

By implication, this means government is limited in its scope. Though it is the ultimate legal authority, it cannot command the relationships citizens pursue in aid of the ordering of their private affairs. Ancillary to this principle, Locke’s social contract also implies a vibrant private sphere governed by free associations.

The integral role of social institutions in a free society is a crucial element to self-sovereignty. Without a private sphere, individuals are completely dominated by the diktats of a centralized government. But if too much power is given to the public sphere, the same kind of abuse of power can occur in the private realm. Governments go awry when there is a disproportionality between factions and power. Tyranny of the minority means a few have gained an influence greater that is due to them when they are considered in view of the polity as a whole. Conversely, tyranny of the majority deprives the minority of the influence due to them.

The private sphere is generally seen as being immune to such abuses of power, as the intricate web of interpersonal relationships and the dependency of individuals holds would-be tyrants in check. The principle of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is as operative in the social life of communities as it is in markets.

However, the placing of limitations upon the individual can go too far in restricting individual. Social power can replace government power as a controlling agent. For some influential observers of early American life, this is even a possible. There is an anti-individualist strain to Tocqueville who sees social institutions as powerful not only in promulgating an egalitarian society but in placing checks upon the element he saw as most threatening to equality: the individual.

Equality, Not Freedom

For Tocqueville, the merits of democracy rest in its promulgation of egalitarian conditions. In Democracy in America, the famous work in which the French aristocrat commented on the uniqueness of early American life and offered his opinions as to what exactly made it function, Tocqueville departs from the more tradition vein of praise for democracy as the political situation most likely to bring about individual freedom:

“Freedom has appeared in the world at different times and under various forms; it has not been exclusively bound to any social condition, and it is not confined to democracies. Freedom cannot, therefore, form the distinguishing characteristic of democratic ages. The peculiar and prepondering fact which marks those ages as its own is the equality of conditions; the ruling passion of men in those periods is the love of this equality.”

It is equality, then, not freedom as an end to itself, that Tocqueville desires. In fact, he does not even seem to believe that a free society is particularly advantageous to the average citizen. Rather, it is equality of conditions he seems to prize:

“Political liberty bestows exalted pleasures, from time to time, upon a certain number of citizens. Equality every day confers a number of small enjoyments on every man. The charms of equality are every instant felt and are within the reach of all; the noblest hearts are not insensible to them, and the most vulgar souls exult in them. The passion which equality engenders must therefore be at once strong and general. Men cannot enjoy political liberty unpurchased by some sacrifices, and they never obtain it without great exertions. But the pleasures of equality are self-proffered: each of the petty incidents of life seems to occasion them, and in order to taste them nothing is required but to live.”

The emphasis placed on equality takes on greater meaning in context of just how highly Tocqueville values an integrated social fabric. Individualism, to Tocqueville, is a great threat to social breakdown. Society is like a great piece of tightly-knit cloth. Hence his preoccupation with equality: it breeds complacency in that it promotes political efficacy and feelings of contentedness. When one is satisfied with one’s lot in life, and sees it is of roughly the same cast as one’s neighbors, the seeds of revolution fall on hospitable ground.

Democracy, then, because it emphasizes the autonomy of man, represents an exigent threat to society, unless it is properly managed:

“Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his own ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

The mediating element which stymies the degeneration Tocqueville so obviously fears is a vibrant community life, which restores the sense of brotherly love he sees as so integral to a healthy polity. It is in this context that Tocqueville’s famous praise of associations, and Americans’ love of joining, appears.

He praises communities as a sort of social glue:

“When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests, and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow-men as he had at first imagined, and that, in order to obtain their support, he must often lend them his own co-operation.”

American associations are of particular note because they transcend all areas of life:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds—religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restrictive, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes, and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”

Whither Individualism in Tocqueville’s Society?

Given Tocqueville’s coolness towards personal freedom, his championing of institutions cannot be viewed in the same vein as, say, Locke’s. For Locke, and indeed for the Founders, the existence of a vast private sphere championed individual freedom of association; the joining of groups was done with some end, be it for business or pleasure or any other conceivable pursuit, in mind. It propagated what Madison termed a “multiplicity of interests.” The emphasis is properly placed on diversity: the fact that so many groups and institutions can exist and flourish represents the diversity sown into the nature of man. A vibrant private sphere, where each individual is free to seek his own self-defined good, is necessary if personal freedom is to exist.

For Tocqueville, on the other hand, social institutions are a sort of self-chosen shackle. They yoke men together, in areas of common interest. The emphasis here is on the resonance between men, not the difference.

Social institutions also carry a great deal of authority under Tocqueville’ imagining of the private sphere. They carry a degree of force, an element missing from the sphere of free associations imagined by Locke and the Founders. Tocqueville sees institutions not so much as a reflection of the unique needs of individual community members, who seek out relationships advantageous to their own self-interest, but as a way of mitigating the ability of the individual to pursue his own private affairs.

This is an understanding of the machinations of the private sphere totally at odds with the Founders: the social element is in this case a controlling, rather than a freeing element.

In the Next Installment: Tocqueville’s Society or Locke’s?

Are social institutions an impediment to free association or a propagator? Does the threat of disproportionately-wielded power threaten individual sovereignty in private life as it does in public life?

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.