Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism I

The overall argument here is that Tocqueville is an example of what could be called libertarian republicanism, what for Tocqueville is simply a concern for liberty in its political, civil and personal aspects.  In recent political theory ‘republicanism’ has been largely identified with egalitarian liberalism, particularly in the work of Philip Pettit and the many influenced by him, a theory of republicanism serves as a way of giving political support to the kind of egalitarian theory found in Rawls, which refers to ethics and rationality.  Pettit’s normative theory is tied up with the historical work of J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner.  For our purposes, Skinner is the more relevant.  Skinner’s view is that republicanism represents a theory of liberty which precedes liberalism.  Liberalism is understood by Skinner to mean a mixture of utilitarianism and negative liberty.  The vital figure for him is William Paley though he is not widely read anymore, and who was a 19th century theological utilitarian.  Theological utilitarianism did have an influence on 19th century liberalism, the paradigmatic liberal statesman, William Ewart Gladstone, edited the works of Joseph Butler, an eighteenth century bishop whose writing has been taking as anticipating utilitarianism.  Nevertheless, this is a bizarrely narrow way of looking at the origins of liberalism.  Skinner makes this move in order to defend a theory of republicanism as ‘Neo-Roman’ liberty, a new form of the liberty of the Ancient Roman Republic.  Neo-Roman liberty exists in a polemical contrast with liberalism which Skinner understands as a defence of apolitical, and maybe social, individualism.  The kind of republicanism advocated by Skinner and Pettit is nevertheless rather a political.  Roman or neo-Roman republicanism exists in a contrast with Athenian republicanism, or Civic Humanism.  That is in contrast with the position that  human life receives some significant part of its meaning from the political sphere and from participation in civic affairs.  The Athenian republic rested in its democratic phases on regular gatherings of all citizens in the city centre to make major political decisions, and to  make laws.  Leaders of the Athenian republic (most famously Pericles) had to convince citizens  to support government policies, even in the middle of wars.  The Roman republic had similar meetings, but the centre of power was in the Senate, a gathering of the aristocracy.  Though the Roman republic rested on participation as much as the Athenian republic, just with more emphasis on aristocratic participation, the Skinner-Pettit claim is that Rome was a very different kind of state, more a republic than Athens.  They see something intrusive, conformist and over politicised about the Athenian state, compared with the Roman state.  This leads them to take the position they attribute to emergent liberalism in the 19th century, that is the position of the individual isolated from political union.  Pettit equates Athenian republicanism with Rousseau, joining a tradition in which Rousseau is taken to be the enemy of individual liberties, and the prophet of democracy turning to totalitarianism.  In these arguments, Pettit and Skinner are very close to Isaiah Berlin’s view of liberty.  That is the view that Berlin expresses in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958).  Berlin draws on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century discussions of moral and political liberty, in a rather schematic way which does not give much sense of the scope and ambiguities of this issue.  Nevertheless, his discussion is very influential in its presentation of a clearly drawn opposition between negative and positive liberty.  Negative liberty is the liberty to be left alone; positive liberty is the capacity for self-development.  However, positive liberty is quickly taken up as an aspect of state power, directed to elevating individuals and the society as a whole, according to ideas of perfection.  In Berlin’s account it becomes the source of totalitarianism, with Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel picked out as the philosophical villains who supposedly opened the way to totalitarianism with their notions of positive liberty.  Rousseau is contrasted with his fellow Swiss-French novelist and political thinker, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), who apparently had more respect for negative liberty in his account of the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Pettit accepts the Berlin schema, old and schematic as it is.  He offers what appears to be a departure from Berlin in presenting ‘non-domination’ as a third form of liberty, in which interference by government, or other sources of power is part of liberty if we consent to it. .  However, ‘non-domination’ is presented as closer to negative liberty than positive liberty, and Rousseau is a target, with the addition of Arendt who is supposedly too besotted by nostalgia for ancient Athens.  Tocqueville is briefly mentioned as part of the right sort of Roman Republicanism, along with Locke and Mill.

So should we think of Tocqueville as anti-Rousseau, like Constant.  That is as someone opposed to Rousseau from the point of view of his liberal objection to the unlimited sovereignty of Rousseau’s general will.  If Tocqueville is somewhere on the classical liberal/libertarian spectrum then do we expect him to be more opposed to Rousseau (and Arendt) than Pettit.  Any such expectation would be false.  Let us go back to Constant.  Does he have criticisms of Rousseau with regard to liberty?  Certainly.  Does he just condemn Rousseau as the teacher of tyranny.  Certainly not.  Constant is much more measured than Pettit or Berlin with regard to Rousseau, and he is far more sympathetic to the Athenian model than Pettit.  Constant’s criticism of Rousseau is that he sometimes confuses the general will, the sovereign creator of law in Rousseau’s Social Contract with government.  Hayek makes very similar comments.  This is in line with Rousseau’s own doctrine and is simply a suggestion that Rousseau is not always consistent.  The implications of his inconsistency are quite serious as that is what allows limitations on individual independence from the social body.  Constant famously compared antique and modern liberty to the advantage of modern liberty, because he thought that is more possible in the liberty of the moderns, as opposed to that of the ancients where liberty is to be part of the social body of an independent city state.  Constant does not condemn Athens as the paradigm of antique restraints on liberty though, he refers to its commercial life, the individuality and diversity that allows, and suggests it is the ancient state closest to modern conceptions of liberty.  Constant is closer to Arendt and Athenian republicanism than Pettit.  Hayek also has favourable comments to make about Athenian republican liberty.  In particular, he refers to the role of a court in Athens which checks the constitutionality of laws as a model for the modern world.


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