Tocqueville's Principle on the Relation between Equality and Inequality

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Jonathan Bi:

"The famous Tocqueville principle states that the more a society tends towards equality the more the inequalities look like great crimes. This is because they become muhc more apparent and unjust. So as society becomes more equal, people feel they are less equal and become more resentful (This is a different argument from GIrard).

One can imagine men enjoying a certain degree of freedom which wholly satisfies them. Then they savor their independence free from anxiety or excitement. But men will never establish an entirely satisfying equality. No matter what a nation does, it will never succeed in reaching perfectly equal conditions. If it did have the misfortune to achieve an absolute and complete leveling, there would still remain the inequalities of intelligence which come directly from God and will always elude the lawmakers. However democratic the state of society and the nation’s political constitution, you can guarantee that each citizen will always spot several oppressive points near to him and you may anticipate that he will direct his gaze doggedly in that direction. When inequality is the general law of society, the most blatant inequalities escape notice; when everything is virtually on a level, the slightest variations cause distress. That is why the desire for equality becomes more insatiable as equality extends to all. In democratic nations, men will attain a certain degree of equality with ease without being able to reach the one they crave. This retreats daily before them without moving out of their sight; even as it recedes, it draws them after it. They never cease believing that they are about to grasp it, while it never ceases to elude their grasp. They see it from close enough quarters to know its charms without getting near enough to enjoy them and they die before fully relishing its delights. Those are the reasons for that unusual melancholy often experienced by the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of plenty and for that distaste for life they feel seizes them even as they live an easy and peaceful existence.

The Inevitability of Equality

The gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions is, therefore, a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics; it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.

Tocqueville, in the introduction to his book, explains one of the core reasons for the writing of On Democracy in America: the inevitable democratic destiny of Europe. While this destiny is guaranteed, for the reasons I will soon discuss, its successful implementation is not so, a fact that was blatantly obvious in, say, the French Revolution. Investigating why Tocqueville believes the march of democracy and its egalitarian ideals is inevitable is not only critical to understanding the motives behind his work but will also be informative in analyzing the trajectory of the modern world, a world in which democratic regimes are showing increasing signs of strain.

The rise of democracy coincided with one of the defining characteristics of modernity: capitalism. Capital revealed the stubborn class distinctions that were so entrenched in society to be a hinderance on commerce: before the eyes of a trader, everyone is equal in so far as they can pay. The great equalizer of the free market began eroding previous class distinctions in favor of the more egalitarian meritocratic system: “The influence of money began to assert itself in state affairs. Business opened a new pathway to power and the financier became a political influence both despised and flattered.”

While this trend may have been operating in the background, the inflection point happened, so Tocqueville suggests, at two key junctures. The first juncture is the introduction of private property as opposed to owning property within Feudal tenure. This is, for Tocqueville, an inflection point because it seems that the very introduction of private property set up a system in place that began eroding concentrated power of the wealthy that gradually lead to egalitarianism:

As soon as citizens began to own land on any other than a feudal tenure and when emergence of personal property could in its turn confer influence and power, all further discoveries in the arts and any improvement introduced into trade and industry could not fail to instigate just as many new features of equality among men. From that moment, every newly invented procedure, every newly found need, every desire craving fulfillment were steps to the leveling of all. The taste for luxury, the love of warfare, the power of fashion, the most superficial and the deepest passions of the human heart seemed to work together to impoverish the wealthy and to enrich the poor.

This, in our era when the examination of political economy has been so influenced by Marx and neo-Marxian thinking, is a deeply interesting and surprising claim. The introduction of private property, contra Marx, isn’t responsible for wealth concentration but rather wealth dissemination. (I guess Marx would agree that capitalism is more equal than feudalism) Unfortunately, Tocqueville does not give further elaboration as to why every improvement to industry and the economy post-property is an equalizing force. A first, and frankly quite uninteresting resolution, would be that it equalizes the old strongholds of power within Feudalism. While this could be included into what Tocqueville was hinting at, I doubt this explanation covers the entirety of his claim.

The second inflection point, one whose exact emergence is much harder to pinpoint than the first, is when we began to control nature with rationality:

From the moment when the exercise of intelligence had become a source of strength and wealth, each step in the development of science, each new area of knowledge, each fresh idea had to be viewed as a seed of power placed within people’s grasp. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man.

His idea seems to be that every act of human achievement over the natural world or manifestation of cultural brilliance has also contributed to the development of democracy. This may also be quite a surprising claim for the modern academic that has associated the control of nature with the oppressive and non-democratic control of society by a minority. What is most surprising is his final sentence within this arch: that even those who use these advancements of control against democracy, accelerate the emergence of democracy by displaying the goodness and power of humanity at large. What’s implicit in his argument is that should one believe in the grandeur of man then a democratic society, a mode of organization which gives the most freedom for this grandeur to naturally develop, would also be preferred.

Tocqueville further broadens the scope of this already surprising claim. Every action in history, whether for or against democracy explicitly, has engendered it in some way:

Everywhere we look, the various events of people’s lives have turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have helped its progress with their efforts, both those who aimed to further its success and those who never dreamed of supporting it, both those who fought on its behalf and those who were its declared opponents; everyone has been driven willy-nilly along the same road and everyone has joined the common cause, some despite themselves, others unwittingly, like blind instruments in the hands of God."