Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism III (concluding)

One of the various clichés floating around with regard to Tocqueville is that he was in favour of decentralisation in every respect, and that the value he placed on the American republic refers largely, or exclusively, to participation in local politics.  It’s true he does put high value on that participation, but he is particularly referring to New England (now the northeastern states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine), so this is not something he though applied equally across the Republic.  What he is referring to is a tradition, still present in New Hampshire, of local government through participation of all citizens in a town hall meeting.  Though he does not choose to say so explicitly, we are clearly expected to think of Athenian democracy in those passages, and as noted above he indirectly refers to Aristotle on the tendency of humans to live in towns, in this context.  What Tocqueville also says is that there should be administrative decentralisation and political centralisation.  What he meant was that the federal institutions should have sovereignty with regard to what was necessary to maintain and preserve the Republic, while administration of public services should be done at the most local level possible.  In his discussion of tyranny of the majority, influenced by the Federalist Papers and influencing Mill, that tyranny is thought of as most dangerous at the local level where a nearly completely dominant majority can emerge and deny rights to the minority.  He also mentioned the related difficulty of enforcing legal rights for blacks in the non-slave states at the local level.  He also thought there were considerable dangers in centralisation, and thought those dangers might become very active in America.  He suggested that the United States was more politically centralised than the absolute monarchies of European history, and that this could threaten liberty.   The answer is to a large degree the decentralisation which provides  a version of antique liberty against the danger of the state which guarantees modern liberty becoming too big and interventionist.

In his attitude to the relation between decentralisation and centralisation, localism and federalism, Tocqueville expresses a way of handling the competing claims of ancient and modern liberty.  Ancient liberty can be established at the local level, but should be constrained by a higher level of political sovereignty, which protects individuals against complete domination by the social body, and which guarantees individual rights.  That sense of balance, or creative tension, between the two kinds of liberty, runs throughout Democracy in America.  We can also see this in what he says about ‘individualism’, in America.  Despite his attachment to individual rights, he is concerned that individualism can become a form of narrow self interest which is morally inferior and provides a poor basis for resisting tyranny.  The answer is partly for individuals to look to the overall plan of their life rather than immediate desires.  That anticipates Rawls’ discussion of ‘plans of life’ in A Theory of Justice, section 63.  Ideally for Tocqueville, this should lead individuals to a religious point of view, but even without that step, thought about life as a whole provides a barrier against individualism.  Tocqueville’s idea of individualism has much in it of what Rousseau says about ‘self love’ (amour propre) as opposed to ‘love of self’ (amour de soi).  ‘Self love’ is where we seek to feel good about ourselves in comparison with other people, with regard to how we imagine they compare us with others, in their imagination.  Another example of how Rousseau belongs to classical liberal thinking, and so libertarian thinking, in some respects.  Another constraint on individualism is the press, which Tocqueville regarded as bringing something of antique republicanism to modern liberty.  In  political communities where geographical distance and population size prevent all citizens from gathering to make political decisions in a public space, newspapers provide the nearest equivalent.  They bring people together through reading of common material which leads them to concern with common issues.  As Tocqueville notes, the post office enabled newspapers, and other forms of written or printed communication to spread simultaneously across the republic, and create a common political life.

For Tocqueville, the best modern state combines ancient and modern liberties, and we can call this libertarian republicanism, or it should at least lead us to break down barriers between republicanism and classical liberalism or libertarianism.  His political thought shows that a classical liberal-libertarian can be more of an enthusiast for ancient Athenian republicanism that an egalitarian liberal, or the school of republicanism which defines republicanism as a form of egalitarian liberalism.


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