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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Alexis de Tocqueville: 15 Quotes on Democracy and Liberty

The need for a political majority has become virtually the only limit on government.

Image: Alexis de Tocqueville (public domain)

July 29 marks the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville. Motivated by his “love of liberty and human dignity,” his Democracy in America has been called “one of the wisest works of modern thought,” that for understanding and preserving liberty, “the intelligent American reader can find no better guide.”

Despite democracy’s prominence in his title, de Tocqueville’s focus was liberty, because “the only passions I have are love of liberty and human dignity.” Revisiting him is particularly important now, when the need for a political majority has become virtually the only limit on government, because he saw how democracy can subvert liberty.

“The Revolution… was the result of a mature and reflecting preference for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence.”

“The Federal Constitution… disavowed beforehand the habitual use of compulsion in enforcing the decisions of the majority.”

“It profits me but little, after all, that a vigilant authority… averts all dangers from my path… if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life.”

“I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns… as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”

“No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere… than it exercises… insupportable tyranny.”

“The despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual.”

“Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard… to secure for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of those possessions.”

“[People] 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.”

“The democratic tendency… leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe 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.”

“True friends of liberty… 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… [because] 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.”

“I hold it to be… a detestable maxim that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything.”

“When…the people are invested with the supreme authority…they discover a multitude of wants… to satisfy these exigencies recourse must be had to the coffers of the state.”

“Popularity may be united with hostility to the rights of the people, and the secret slave of tyranny may be the professed lover of freedom.”

“Defending rights against the encroachments of the government saves the common liberties of the country.”

“To lay down… limits to the action of the government; to confer certain rights on private persons, and to secure to them the undisputed enjoyment of those rights… [are] the main objects.”

It has been said of Alexis de Tocqueville that “no authority on America has equaled him in prophetic vision.” When we view how much political determination, in which “the ever increasing despotism of the majority…makes every eye turn to the state,” has displaced freedom, it is hard to disagree. 

The centrality of liberty to Democracy in America can be encapsulated by two of its key statements: “[Citizens’] chief business…is to remain their own masters,” recognizing that “to neglect to hold [liberty] fast is to allow it to escape.” Americans desperately need to heed his insights again.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).