Our revolutionaries had the same fondness for broad generalisations, cut-and-dried legislative systems, and a pedantic symmetry; the same contempt for hard facts; the same taste for reshaping institutions on novel, ingenious, original lines; the same desire to reconstruct the entire system instead of trying to rectify its faulty parts.
He did not, like Burke criticise the French Revolution in its totality for he approved of its commitment to freedom and equality. But what he disapproved was the subsequent stress on extreme equality that undermined liberty and human greatness.
Though he proclaimed himself to be an aristocrat by instinct, one which despised and feared the masses he was prepared to accept the defeat of his class as inevitable. He described his age as a new one characterised by a desire for equality, a movement that was ardent, insatiable, incessant and invincible. America for him symbolised this new universal trend.
He was worried that this passion for equality would lead to uniformity, which would eventually destroy liberty. The power of public opinion led to conformity rather than individuality, mediocrity rather than excellence, materialism rather than spiritualism.
Tocqueville took note of the widespread respect for the rule of law in America whereas in France arbitrary rule had only encouraged contempt for the law. In America and England local self-governing institutions were strong whereas in France the sale of municipal offices by the Crown had weakened the tradition.
In America people naturally formed associations and groups whereas in Francs, individualism and reliance on omniscience of central government were much stronger. In America, there was no fear from an elected chief executive since the constitution not only limited the powers of the government but also had an elaborate mechanism of checks and balances to counter any excess. In France, by contrast, the long established tradition of centralised administrative power and a weak legislature made the elected president at the head of the executive a threat to liberty.
As a sociologist Tocqueville took interest in the ethos of society and pointed to the contractual nature of modern relationships without any moral obligations or human affections. He understood the role of the state as one that would unify all special interests of the various social classes into a whole body politic.
He could see the need for an adequate and equitable system of taxation if the state had to last for long. His insights into the economic foundations of the modern state enabled him to brilliantly analyse the character of the absolutist state.
In L’ ancien regime et la Revolution he discussed in detail the unfair distribution of taxes and services among the classes with the peasantry bearing the brunt. The absolutist state was made possible when the king liberated himself from constitutional institutions such as estates or parliaments in order to become free and independent to raise taxes for his own military or domestic projects.
Tocqueville was also cautious about the spread of democracy. He understood democracy to mean not only increased political participation but also civic and social equality. The abrogation of privileges was a means to an inevitable trend to the creation of an egalitarian society.
The consequences of this change were momentous. Removal of social barrier led to new innovations. It also meant constant change within the social structure, as in a democratic society, unlike its predecessors, there would be absence of natural leaders. Individuals would have to fight for political position on the basis of interests rather than privileges.
The passion for equality would lead to social leveling eroding any differences among human beings. Equality conferred power over public opinion and that meant the rule of the average person in the street. He argued that equal social conditions could lead to either ‘sovereignty of all’ or the absolute power of one man.
It is, in fostering free and particular political institutions that he saw the key to resisting the despotic tendencies inherent in the principle of equality. Tocqueville’s notion of the inevitable progress of equality is similar to the contemporary notion of modernisation. It is a historic process that would undermine all traditional or aristocratic political order that did not result in democratic self-government.
Tocqueville defined liberty as absence of external political restrictions. He remained sceptical and fearful of the excessive emphasis on equality. We took note of the threat at ‘the tyranny of the majority’ which would manifest itself in the form of intolerance of individual deviation.
But he was realistic enough to accept the inevitable progress towards equality and attempted to reconcile equality with liberty. His political ideal was freedom under the rule of law. He was insistent that people ought to have as far as possible direct control over their own affairs, through vibrant local government and free associations, something that was different from decentralisation under feudalism.
He, like Thomas Jefferson considered strong local institutions as a preventive to arbitrary intervention by central authority and the revolutionary subversion of the state, an aspect that the neo- conservatives in the United States revived in the last quarter of the 20th Century.