I Am a Tocqueville Conservative

This is the second in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The first is entitled, “The Gulf Which Divides Us.” The third is called “Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom.”

I am and always have been a bookish fellow. (I do not wish to boast or drop names, but to make a point.) In the discipline of political theory I have read a lot of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and the others. I’ve studied the debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I have spent fascinating hours — sometimes months — reading and discussing Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Macchiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Burke, Mill, Hegel, and . . . the list goes on.

I’ve also carefully studied some thinkers who particularly terrify a certain sort of conservative, the one who thinks that the safest intellectual course is never to wrestle with the words of those who disagree. As I write this, I’m about ten feet from a bookcase, one shelf of which is filled with well-marked writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bakunin, Fourier, Saint-Simon and a number of other socialists and communists of whom most people never hear and never want to.

Some of these thinkers have influenced my own thought profoundly, as in many cases they influenced each other; some have merely challenged or informed, which is also useful.

You’re now thinking that it’s a wonder I can function at all in normal human society, or communicate plainly enough to buy a postage stamp. Perhaps it is.

There’s another thing that may surprise you about all this. I have not named the two individuals who I suspect have had the greatest influence on my political thought.

One of these two dominant influences on my political upbringing was Ronald Reagan, through his daily five-minute radio spot, which I enjoyed on many weekday mornings from 1976 through 1979, when I was in the sixth grade, and then in junior high. (Now we can read or listen to many of those brief essays.)

The other of the two, the one who built the rock-solid connection in my mind between American political theory and real life, was a French nobleman, the pioneer sociologist who described us to ourselves in the 1830s. Thus it is that I call myself not so much a Reagan conservative as a Tocqueville (pronounced “TOKE-vill”) conservative.

Private Associations

In the mid-1830s a genius named Alexis de Tocqueville visited us. He was eager to learn why the American Revolution had succeeded in producing freedom, while in his native France and elsewhere revolutions had simply replaced one form of tyranny with another. He traveled extensively in the United States, observing as he went. Among other things, he found that, when Americans wanted to accomplish something, they formed private associations and got busy, while the French turned directly to their government.

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to . . . found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. . . . If they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government . . . , in the United States you are sure to find an association. (All citations here are to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Tr. George Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969. The current quotation is from page 513. Note that the George Lawrence translation is now difficult to acquire. The Mansfield/Winthrop translation is much more readily available and seems to be highly regarded.)

This is fundamental. By empowering themselves and their associations to accomplish their purposes, rather than insisting on a larger, more expensive, interventionist government, Americans kept their government from growing large and powerful enough to impinge seriously on their freedoms.


This insight came with a warning, however, about the sort of tyranny which could arise in such a society. It was brilliant foresight when he explained it, though perhaps we might also have learned it through experience by now:

The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle. . . . The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations. (515)

In Tocqueville’s thought, government encroachment of this sort is not even good for the rulers in the long run:

Those sovereigns . . . who try to concentrate on themselves alone all the . . . desires created by equality and to satisfy them will in the end . . . regret that they ever embarked on such an undertaking. One day they will discover that they have put their own power in hazard by making it so necessary and that it would have been safer and more honest to have taught their subjects the art of looking after themselves. (634)

If the rulers don’t discover the problem themselves, perhaps the people will, at least.


The future oppression which Tocqueville foresaw for America was “different from anything there has ever been in the world before” (692). His “vicious circle” is a gradual spiral into selfishness, passivity, alienation, and dependency. None of these destructive attitudes can thrive in a vigorous culture of voluntary associations whose members are determined to do things — anything honorable, really — without being compelled or paid to do so, and without requiring others to fund or staff their projects. But as that culture of independence and interdependence decays, free people gradually recreate their government as an overarching institutional parent, and they willingly submit themselves to a modern form of slavery. A once-free nation thus gradually becomes “a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd” (693).

Here is Tocqueville’s description of the people and the government involved in this gradual, seductive decline:

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rare, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. . . .

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules. . . . It hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd. . . . (692)

Ironically, the slaves themselves are persuaded that their freedom is intact and secure:

Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.

They think they have done enough to guarantee personal freedom when it is to the government . . . that they have handed it over. (693)

Thus is it that the personal freedoms of humans, complete with consequences both happy and sad, both just and unjust, are used as currency to purchase freedom from want, worry, risk, and uncertainty. In other words, the proper freedoms of adult human souls are surrendered in exchange for freedoms better suited for children or sheep.

A Tocqueville Conservative

The opposite of the classical liberal, the modern liberal believes that if a thing is good, then government should find a way to provide or mandate it. (See “The Gulf Which Divides Us .”) The Tocqueville conservative, who is akin to the classical liberal, believes not only that freedom (liberty) is good and that unrestrained government is its natural antagonist, but also that there are ways to provide effectively for the needs and wants of a people through voluntary associations. These associations, from churches to sewing circles to large nonprofit foundations, stand in a sense between the people and the government, preventing government encroachment on the people’s freedoms by occupying the middle ground and by and making that encroachment less necessary in the bargain.

If freedom in the traditional American sense (“freedom to”) is a moral good, and if these voluntary, non-governmental associations are freedom’s long-term, institutional defense against encroaching government, then free people have a moral obligation not only to support and participate in the associations of their choice, but also to turn to these voluntary, non-governmental associations — inventing new ones if necessary — instead of turning directly to government to resolve society’s problems and advance its aims.

Life is full of needs, wants, and problems which are beyond the capacity of a single individual or family to address. Economic freedom is crucial, to be sure, and government is necessary, too. But if society’s only options to respond to these concerns are the left’s government (which naturally tends toward tyranny) on one hand and the right’s free market (which also can be cold and even cruel) on the other, then neither side has two firm legs to stand on. Each side can make the argument — correctly! — that the other is fundamentally flawed and (at least to some degree) unacceptable.

The Tocqueville conservative sees that free, private associations of many sorts serve at once to warm capitalism’s sometimes-cold heart and to restrain modern liberalism’s inevitable, dehumanizing encroachments on essential human freedoms.

Constitutionally Speaking

This is not set forth in detail in the United States Constitution, but that document carefully protects the middle ground between government and the people. We’re accustomed to celebrating the Bill of Rights as a whole and the first few amendments in particular; these guarantee essential freedoms and protect us from specific government intrusions. We — and our judicial system — tend to lose interest before we reach the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, the last two in the Bill of Rights.

The Ninth Amendment says that our enumerating certain rights cannot be construed as denying that the people have other, unenumerated rights. Our understanding of popular sovereignty and limited government is that the people grant powers to the government; the government does not have the power of itself to grant or deny rights.

The Tenth Amendment says that any powers not explicitly delegated to the the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states or to the people. In other words, at least in principle, the federal government may do what the people tell it to do in the Constitution. It is emphatically not a matter of the federal government being free to do whatever it pleases, as long as whatever it pleases is not explicitly forbidden in the Constitution. Few principles have been so carefully and persistently ignored in our history and our civic education, but the Tenth Amendment is still there, and it says what it says.

These two amendments, properly heeded, would protect the people and their free associations. In principle they deny the federal government the power to encroach on that voluntary middle ground. In practice, however, we have seen that expanding government can crowd out those voluntary associations. Similarly, if those associations leave a vacuum, government will rush in to fill it. Either way, the institutional safeguards of our freedom are undermined.

In other words, if we are not diligent, vigilant, and creative enough to address our challenges (especially those which involve caring for the needs among us) through private associations, it is rational to expect government to rush in to fill the gap, depriving us of some freedom and jeopardizing such freedom as remains.

Perhaps Not Everyone Must Be a Philosopher

You might say this is the condensed version of a Tocqueville conservative’s manifesto. It is also an explanation why attempts to use government to expand human “freedom from” — from poverty, starvation, fear, illiteracy, illness, etc. — jeopardize the traditional, basic American “freedom to” — to live life as unfettered as possible by the will of others, to choose freely what can be chosen in one’s own life, to choose to lift others, and to face the consequences of one’s choices.

I did not expect this, but August 2009 has restored my confidence, which more than a few preceding months had severely eroded, that many Americans who haven’t studied their Tocqueville nonetheless apprehend, perhaps instinctively, that these things are so.

I am predisposed to believe that it would be better for more of us to understand the philosophical reasoning and its history. But for a while longer — perhaps not very much longer — it may be enough that many Americans still instinctively understand that the unwise pursuit of certain freedoms destroys other more fundamental freedoms and thus squanders, of all things, our humanity. Instinctively or otherwise, it seems, many Americans still value those traditionally American freedoms more highly than the comfortable, lazy freedoms of sheep.

(In the third essay in this series, I attempt to persuade you that a love of “freedom to” is less universal in humanity than our lofty rhetoric likes to claim.)

Author's Note
This essay is reprinted from LocalCommentary.com with minor edits and backdated to the date of the original post. To see it in its original habitat, look here.