Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Democratic People's Love of Equality Over Liberty
Suppose that all citizens take part in government and that each has an equal right to do so. Since no man will then be different from his fellow men, no one will be able to exercise a tyrannical power. Men will be perfectly free, because they will all be entirely equal, and they will all be perfectly equal because they will be entirely free. This is the ideal toward which democratic peoples tend.
Liberty has manifested itself to men in various times and forms. It is not associated exclusively with any social state, and one does not find it only in democracies. Hence it cannot constitute the distinctive characteristic of democratic centuries. The particular and dominant fact that makes such centuries unique is the equality of conditions; the principle passion that stirs men in such times is love of that equality.
If it were possible for a people, by itself, ever to destroy or even diminish the equality prevailing within it, it would require long and arduous effort. It would have to modify its social state, abolish its laws, renew its ideas, change its habits, and alter its mores. To lose political liberty, however is easy: fail to hold on to it, and it slips away.
Hence men do not hold on to equality solely because it is dear to them; they also cling to it because they believe that it must always endure.
Political liberty, if carried to excess, can endanger the tranquility, property, and lives of private individuals, and no one is so blind or frivolous as to be unaware of this. By contrast, it is only the attentive and clear-sighted who perceive the perils with which equality threatens us, and they usually avoid pointing them out. They know that the miseries they fear are remote and are pleased to think that they will afflict only future generations, for which the present generation evinces little concern. The ills that liberty sometimes brings on are immediate. They are visible to everyone, and to one degree or another everyone feels them. The ills that extreme equality can produce reveal themselves only a little at a time. They gradually work their way into the body of society. Only intermittently do they become visible, and by the time they have become most virulent, habit has already ensured that they will no longer be felt.
Democratic people love equality in all ages, but there are times when their passion for it turns to frenzy. This happens when a long-threatened social hierarchy finally destroys itself in one last intestine struggle and the barriers that once separated citizens are finally knocked down. At such times men swoop down upon equality as upon conquered spoils and cling to it as to a precious good that someone would snatch from their grasp. The passion for equality then inundates the human heart and fills it entirely. No use telling people that such blind surrender to an exclusive passion jeopardizes their most cherished interests: they are deaf. No use pointing out to them that liberty slips through their fingers while their attention is focused elsewhere: they are blind, or, rather, in all the world they see only one good worth coveting.
Men cannot enjoy political liberty without making sacrifices to obtain it, and it has never been won without great effort. But equality offers up its pleasures for the asking. They seem to arise out of the most insignificant episodes of private life, and to savor them one has only to live.
I think that democratic peoples have a natural taste for liberty. Left to themselves, they seek it out, love it, and suffer if deprived of it. For equality, however, they feel an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion. They want equality in liberty, and if they cannot have it, they want it still in slavery. They will suffer poverty, servitude, and barbarity, but they will not suffer aristocracy.
This is true in all ages, and especially in our own. All men and all governments that seek to combat this irresistible power will be overthrown and destroyed by it. Nowadays, liberty cannot be instituted without its support, and even despotism cannot reign without it.
~Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Democracy in America, Vol, II, Pt. 2, Chapter 1 translated by Arthur Goldhammer (NY: Library of America, 2004), pp. 581-4.