In the lead-up to this November’s election, democracy has been increasingly held up by many as the touchstone of American greatness. But I have noticed that very few making such claims make reference to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 “Democracy in America” has been termed “one of the wisest works of modern thought,” that for understanding and preserving liberty, “the intelligent American reader can find no better guide.” Herbert Muller called it “more comprehensive and more penetrating than any contemporary studies.”
In particular, too little attention has been given Tocqueville’s warnings about the dangers democracy held for what he called his passions – “liberty and human dignity.” Therefore, reconsidering his insights into that relationship is a fitting homework assignment before casting ballots.
Everyone is the best and sole judge of his own private interest … society has no right to control a man’s actions unless they are prejudicial to the common weal.
Popularity may be united with hostility to the rights of the people.
The federal Constitution … disavowed beforehand the habitual use of compulsion in enforcing the decisions of the majority.
The natural evil of democracy is that it gradually subordinates all authority to the slightest desires of the majority.
When … the people are invested with the supreme authority … they discover a multitude of wants that they had not before been conscious of, and to satisfy these exigencies recourse must be had to the coffers of the state.
The main evil of the present democratic institutions of the Unites States … [arises] 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.
In the United States the majority … frequently displays the tastes and propensities of a despot.
[Under] the absolute power of a majority … [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.
[When] people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their aster 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.
Give democratic nations education and freedom and leave them alone. They will soon learn to draw from this world all the benefit that it can afford.
The democratic tendency … leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons…the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community … till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Another tendency which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely dangerous is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights of private persons … often sacrificed without regret and almost always violated without remorse.
Men become less and less attached to private rights just when it is most necessary to retain and defend what little remains of them. It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times, that the true friends of liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs. At such times no citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed; no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government.
Men accustom themselves to sacrifice private interest without scruple and to trample on the rights of individuals in order more speedily to accomplish any public purpose.
Alexis de Tocqueville saw that abandoning liberties to democracy “makes every eye turn to the state,” and that our constitutional constraints preventing democratic abuses were essential components of America’s greatness. That is why his central question – when is a majority vote the sole requirement necessary to justify “extorted obedience” from fellow citizens? – is just as important to America today as when he wrote:
Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times. I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it … the question is … how to make liberty proceed out of that democratic state of society in which God has placed us.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.