On the 209th Birthday of Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville — Beware the Vacuum of “Individualism”

 

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great commentator on America, was born in Paris on yesterday’s date in 1805. Alexis’s father, Hervé — the Comte de Clérel de Tocqueville — was, early in life, an officer of King Louis XVI’s Constitutional Guard. At 21 years old, he married Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, the granddaughter of Malesherbes — famously one of the King’s defense attorneys before the National Convention. The King’s trial was in December 1792 and a year later Alexis’s parents were thrown into prison to be guillotined. But with the revolt against Robespierre beginning 220 years ago this month, they escaped the fate suffered by so many friends and family. If the Jacobins had been more efficient, this world would not have been given an Alexis de Tocqueville.

Though it is heartwarming to read Tocqueville as a flatterer of America — giving us an Ol’ World pat-on-the-back for our “townships” — the truth is that he challenges us more than he compliments us. We should not read him to tell us why America is great; we should read him to learn about where we have been and where we likely will dare to go.

For example, perhaps to your surprise, Tocqueville detested “individualism.” He believed the atomization natural to democracy — which makes every man “free” but alone — would cause the end of freedom. Consider Tocqueville’s description of life under the “mild despot,” something like socialism:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. . . .”

This is not “collectivism” as described by Ayn Rand; it does not resemble our instinctive contempt for Marxism. Instead, Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity, and the pursuit of a collective political greatness — messy, challenging endeavors — with the glamorization of work and petty material comforts. He warns those of us who would make self-interest the only good: individualism is a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled with government.

Today’s conservatives want less “government.” Fine. But if we really want less government bureaucracy and tampering, then healthy political activity is important, communities are important, privatizing everything is dangerous, and denigrating public life is dangerous. In honor of Tocqueville’s vision, we should reflect more on that. And his words:

“One must therefore not reassure oneself by thinking that the barbarians are still far from us; for if there are peoples who allow the light to be torn from their hands, there are others who stifle it themselves under their feet.”

There are 31 comments.

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  1. Inactive

    I am also opposed to individualism. My faith tells me that the welfare of all is my responsibility. I am my brother’s keeper. 

    My commitment to conservatism isn’t because I want to be shed of all of you; it’s because the only logical basis of civil government is the consent of the governed, which by its nature is limited. The authority of government, if it exceeds the consent of the governed, is invalidated. At that point, government is merely a flexing of power, instead of an act of self-governance.

    It’s no accident that the advocates of government are the ones who are zealously pushing attacks on religious liberty. They can’t stand any rivalry for who gets to say how you must live your life. Let’s face it, government is jealous. 

    By the way, it should be noted that capitalism is designed to harness everyone’s self-interests so that, once combined, they produce the greatest good for everyone. Capitalism is based on self-interest, but it isn’t based on individualism – because capitalism, self-interest, and individualism are all different things.

    • #1
    • July 30, 2014 at 6:44 am
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  2. Inactive

    The danger, as Tocqueville claims, is not that we are somehow withdrawn and apart from one another. Nor do we lack a sense of shared destiny. It’s simply the case that most Americans prefer as much personal autonomy as possible until a great crisis (WWII, 911) or a shared vision (the moon landing) summons us to collective action. Our objection to government, as currently construed, can be found in the millions of petty vexations inflicted upon us needlessly by an administrative state intent on regulating every aspect of our lives. We also recognize that the exegesis for more and more legislation is entirely contrived (global warming, income inequality) to justify the ever increasing size and reach of the bureaucratic state. We know that almost every new rule and regulation is entirely unnecessary, expensive in its application, and ultimately counter-productive in pursuit of its stated goals.

    • #2
    • July 30, 2014 at 7:08 am
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  3. Inactive

    Tocqueville’s is a pretty apt description of western society over the last 50 years.

    • #3
    • July 30, 2014 at 8:01 am
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  4. Moderator

    Louis Beckett:

    Instead, Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity…

    So Tocqueville fears a particular type of individualism. That isn’t the same as fearing all individualism.

    There was a time when our understanding of individualism and self-reliance was much more sociable – and more accurate – than the modern stereotypes we have of those terms. Before the New Deal, when fraternal organizations provided many ordinary and even very poor people with reciprocal social services, belonging to such a society was advertised as a way to assert your individualism and self-reliance. They understood back then that being an individual didn’t have to mean being isolated from mutual social obligations. Then the welfare state came along and rendered those mutualistic bonds obsolete, replacing them with coercion.

    If you have not yet read “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State”, I believe you would find it interesting. I have one (or more) posts drafted on the topic. At this rate, they’ll be up sometime in August.

    • #4
    • July 30, 2014 at 8:45 am
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  5. Founder

    You sure like to start a fight, Louis, and this post is sure to create a ruckus between conservatives and libertarians. In re which, a couple of thoughts:

    1) The passages from Tocqueville that you quote amount to a neat summary of the reasons I myself am a conservative, not a libertarian.

    2) As a practical matter, the present danger is so overwhelmingly from the expansion from the state, and not from some excess of individualism, that on about 98 percent of all issues we conservatives need to lock arms with libertarians and march along together. Remove the welfare state–roll it back!–and civil society will reassert itself.

    • #5
    • July 30, 2014 at 10:24 am
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  6. Inactive
    GKC

    The role of modern technology must be considered here. It has only abetted the atomization of society, albeit equally the coercion of the collective welfare state. The eye of Sauron presents.

    • #6
    • July 30, 2014 at 10:51 am
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  7. Member

    Peter Robinson: on about 98 percent of all issues we conservatives need to lock arms with libertarians and march along together. Remove the welfare state–roll it back!–and civil society will reassert itself.

    Right on, Peter!

    • #7
    • July 30, 2014 at 11:28 am
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  8. Contributor
    Louis Beckett Post author

    Peter Robinson:

    2) As a practical matter, the present danger is so overwhelmingly from the expansion from the state, and not from some excess of individualism, that on about 98 percent of all issues we conservatives need to lock arms with libertarians and march along together. Remove the welfare state–roll it back!–and civil society will reassert itself.

    Let the ruckus begin! ha, I actually think that a focus on civil society and community is, as a practical matter, the initial way forward if we want Americans to demand: “Enough! We don’t need your tampering.” I suppose I’m not talking about a simple majority view in an election, but a widespread consensus. Libertarian individualism does not emphasize going through the trouble to build communities together, and one could even say it discourages such projects. As an oversimplified contrast, it is either:

    (1) Cry for the destruction of the welfare state while realizing that there currently is
    (2) Little in its stead . . . until, at some unspecified future time, we decide to care about mores and build civil society; or

    (1) Work together to build communities which will, in turn, motivate a consensus of Americans to
    (2) Demand that an unnecessary and meddling welfare state be destroyed

    I think Option A is convenient to adopt as a political platform, but it doesn’t make practical sense to a consensus of Americans after 100 years under the administrative state, absent a revolution. Fortunately, we still have the freedom to pursue Option B, though it is more inconvenient and nearly impossible to summarize neatly. If you’ll forgive the poor metaphor, I think the tree of the administrative state needs to wither and die; it is unrealistic to plan on just chopping it down.

    • #8
    • July 30, 2014 at 11:34 am
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  9. Moderator

    Louis Beckett:

    As an oversimplified contrast, it is either:

    (1) Cry for the destruction of the welfare state while realizing that there currently is (2) Little in its stead . . .

    (1) Work together to build communities which will, in turn, motivate a consensus of Americans to (2) Demand that an unnecessary and meddling welfare state be destroyed

    Yes, that is an oversimplified contrast. It ignores the crowding-out effect that the welfare state exerts.

    Do you know what we had before the welfare state? Perhaps not so much an abundance of charity as an abundance of mutual aid. People (even very poor people) joined dues-paying fraternal organizations and mutual benefit societies because they realized  how much they benefited from these voluntary associations.

    Through these associations, ordinary people organized their own sick and unemployment pay, their own group healthcare services, their own old age and death (“life insurance”) benefits. But once the welfare state came along, people decided, quite reasonably, that paying these dues for services the government would now provide “as if by right” wasn’t worth it anymore. And it will continue to be not worth it as long as the government bennies persist, crowding out what could have been.

    • #9
    • July 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm
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  10. Contributor
    Louis Beckett Post author

    You’re right Rattlesnake — could we promote voluntary associations and try to tear down the welfare state at the same time? Sure, but to heed Tocqueville’s advice, we shouldn’t make individualism the goal — it cuts against voluntary associations and sets the stage for a part (3) in “Option A” — a return to the administrative state.

    • #10
    • July 30, 2014 at 12:28 pm
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  11. Moderator

    Louis Beckett:

     could we promote voluntary associations and try to tear down the welfare state at the same time? 

     That would be ideal.

    …but to heed Tocqueville’s advice, we shouldn’t make individualism the goal — it cuts against voluntary associations…

    I used to think that, too. Then my eyes were opened as I read the history of mutual aid organizations: I realized that, along with forgetting the history of mutual aid, we had forgotten another, much more social, definition of individualism.

    The modern schoolchild’s understanding of individualism comes from Thoreau, Emerson, and Rand. By that understanding, individualism is lonely, asocial or even anti-social.

    By contrast, members of mutual aid societies believed that mutual aid paid highest honor to the individual, making it real individualism. Membership – and the sacrifice membership entailed, dues and good conduct – was wholly voluntary, honoring the individual’s choice to meet others’ expectations. Benefits were reciprocal – each individual could expect to receive his due as long as he fulfilled his obligations, not just the neediest or the most powerful.

    We are the poorer for having lost this older, more sociable, vision of individualism, and our current poverty creates needless fights between individualists and communitarians.

    • #11
    • July 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm
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  12. Coolidge

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: So Tocqueville fears a particular type of individualism. That isn’t the same as fearing all individualism.

    Right on, Mr No-Shoulders.

    If Tocqueville fears individualism, that’s fine, but tyranny starts with one man imposing his beliefs on another.

    • #12
    • July 30, 2014 at 2:03 pm
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  13. Coolidge

    Louis Beckett:

    You’re right Rattlesnake — could we promote voluntary associations and try to tear down the welfare state at the same time? Sure, but to heed Tocqueville’s advice, we shouldn’t make individualism the goal — it cuts against voluntary associations and sets the stage for a part (3) in “Option A” — a return to the administrative state.

    But voluntary association is part of individualism. Liberty gives us individualism, individualism gives us associations. Whether individualism or associations, it should not be any of the states business.

    • #13
    • July 30, 2014 at 2:07 pm
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  14. Coolidge

    Peter Robinson: Remove the welfare state–roll it back!–and civil society will reassert itself.

    Spot on. Exactly right. Well said. Period.

    • #14
    • July 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm
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  15. Member

    Louis Beckett:

    (1) Work together to build communities which will, in turn, motivate a consensus of Americans to (2) Demand that an unnecessary and meddling welfare state be destroyed

    I’ve also thought about this and realized that it imposes a burden upon us. Even as conservatives who want to roll back the welfare state we have grown accustomed to the status quo. Do we (or most Americans, for that matter) know the cost and are we willing to take that burden away from the govt? 

    • #15
    • July 30, 2014 at 2:28 pm
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  16. Member

    JimGoneWild:

    But voluntary association is part of individualism. Liberty gives us individualism, individualism gives us associations. Whether individualism or associations, it should not be any of the states business.

    I’m not so sure about that. I can’t speak to this in depth but my understanding is that individualism, the way the right talks about it today, is something of a modern phenomenon. Not that no one believed in it before but the emphasis it gets today is something new. 

    I also think I read Richard Epstein talking about how the rights in the Constitution were in a corporate context. That is, it was about the rights of people within certain kinds of associations, or corporations. 

    • #16
    • July 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm
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  17. Thatcher

    The current Progressive agenda is designed to create the America Toqueville warned about. It aims to destroy, or bring to heel, all voluntary associations that do not conform to the government’s will. The goal is a society where all that will be left standing is a leadership vanguard embedded in the government and atomized individuals and tamed associations reduced to dependency all working towards the same ends, whatever the vanguard decides those may be at any particular point in time.

    • #17
    • July 30, 2014 at 6:52 pm
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  18. Contributor
    Louis Beckett Post author

    Bereket Kelile:
    Do we (or most Americans, for that matter) know the cost and are we willing to take that burden away from the govt?

    GKC:

    The role of modern technology must be considered here. It has only abetted the atomization of society 

    Brilliant. These two issues ought to be at the forefront of millenial conservatism.

    • #18
    • July 30, 2014 at 8:37 pm
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  19. Inactive

    KC Mulville:

     My faith tells me that the welfare of all is my responsibility. I am my brother’s keeper.

    My commitment to conservatism isn’t because I want to be shed of all of you; it’s because the only logical basis of civil government is the consent of the governed, which by its nature is limited.

    You’ve just posted two remarkably conflicting points of view.

    And then this:

    By the way, it should be noted that capitalism is designed to harness everyone’s self-interests so that, once combined, they produce the greatest good for everyone.

    The very essence of capitalism is that it doesn’t harness self-interest; it in fact encourages and promotes it and this is precisely why it does produce the greater good. The demands of a free market naturally encourage entrepreneurs to provide product that will appeal to individual choice.

    • #19
    • July 30, 2014 at 10:53 pm
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  20. Member

    I’m not a fan of individualism, either. I recently moved to the Bay Area, and I must say, I’ve never seen a place more individualistic or liberal as this (including Amsterdam, where I spent one summer).

    One does reach a point where individualism is less about individual empowerment than epater la bourgeoisie. That very much seems to be the case where I’m living.

    • #20
    • July 31, 2014 at 12:32 am
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  21. Coolidge

    EThompson: By the way, it should be noted that capitalism is designed to harness everyone’s self-interests so that, once combined, they produce the greatest good for everyone.

    KC response: The very essence of capitalism is that it doesn’t harness self-interest; it in fact encourages and promotes it and this is precisely why it does produce the greater good. The demands of a free market naturally encourage entrepreneurs to provide product that will appeal to individual choice.

    Thanks, KC. You nailed it beautifully.

    I would add that “capitalism” is a word created by, I think, Marx as a put down. What Capitalism really is is Individualism. Liberty gives individuals the right and ability to do as we wish, whether it be building a church, a car, planting a field, or joining with others to, say, starting a colony.

    • #21
    • July 31, 2014 at 9:43 am
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  22. Coolidge

    Bereket Kelile: I also think I read Richard Epstein talking about how the rights in the Constitution were in a corporate context. That is, it was about the rights of people within certain kinds of associations, or corporations. 

     You lost me here. I’m not sure what Richard said. Can you clarify?

    • #22
    • July 31, 2014 at 9:47 am
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  23. Inactive

    JimGoneWild:

    EThompson: By the way, it should be noted that capitalism is designed to harness everyone’s self-interests so that, once combined, they produce the greatest good for everyone.

    KC response: The very essence of capitalism is that it doesn’t harness self-interest; it in fact encourages and promotes it and this is precisely why it does produce the greater good. The demands of a free market naturally encourage entrepreneurs to provide product that will appeal to individual choice.

    Thanks, KC. You nailed it beautifully.

    I would add that “capitalism” is a word created by, I think, Marx as a put down. What Capitalism really is is Individualism. Liberty gives individuals the right and ability to do as we wish, whether it be building a church, a car, planting a field, or joining with others to, say, starting a colony.

     I hope you realize you have transposed comments, so I assume you believe I have nailed it beautifully. :)

    • #23
    • July 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm
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  24. Member

    JimGoneWild:

    EThompson:

    Thanks, KC. You nailed it beautifully.

    I would add that “capitalism” is a word created by, I think, Marx as a put down. What Capitalism really is is Individualism. Liberty gives individuals the right and ability to do as we wish, whether it be building a church, a car, planting a field, or joining with others to, say, starting a colony.its

     I don’t know about that. There are all sorts of collective actions in capitalism, from businesses and corporations to civil society, to the political activism necessary to keep the government from strangling the economy. I’m not sure I’d call these things “individualism.”

    • #24
    • August 1, 2014 at 12:10 am
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  25. Inactive

    I completely agree that while Toqueville did have positive things to say about America, the most enduring value of his book for contemporary readers comes from his sensitivity to the dangers of modern democratic culture.

    Let me suggest that we can measure the loss of our sense of the importance of civil society by the proportion of people for whom the claim that “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” sounds intuitively correct, rather than being recognized as an obvious sleight-of-hand.

    Yuval Levin had an excellent post on this at National Review a while ago (“More Than Dependency”), which was especially good on these themes (and which also quotes Toqueville). I expect that many Ricochetti caught it first time round, but if you didn’t it’s well worth your time. At the core of Levin’s argument is the claim that the problem with the modern welfare state should be understood not as the creation of dependence (we are dependent on each other after all), but as fostering the illusion of an impossible independence.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/346517/more-dependency

    • #25
    • August 1, 2014 at 8:16 am
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  26. Member

    JimGoneWild:

    Bereket Kelile: I also think I read Richard Epstein talking about how the rights in the Constitution were in a corporate context. That is, it was about the rights of people within certain kinds of associations, or corporations.

    You lost me here. I’m not sure what Richard said. Can you clarify?

    I can try, and I’m not !00% sure it was Epstein. The point was that they had in mind individuals as part of these associations, or corporations, when they framed these provisions in the Constitution. 

    • #26
    • August 1, 2014 at 11:18 am
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  27. Coolidge

    EThompson: I hope you realize you have transposed comments, so I assume you believe I have nailed it beautifully. :)

     Correct. It didn’t “comment” right, and, unfortunately, I’m at work and have to work very quickly. Sorry. :0) 

    • #27
    • August 1, 2014 at 4:49 pm
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  28. Inactive

    JimGoneWild:

    EThompson: I hope you realize you have transposed comments, so I assume you believe I have nailed it beautifully. :)

    Correct. It didn’t “comment” right, and, unfortunately, I’m at work and have to work very quickly. Sorry. :0)

    Understood; just anxious to protect my FiCon bona fides.:)

    • #28
    • August 1, 2014 at 4:52 pm
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  29. Coolidge

    Bereket Kelile: Bereket Kelile JimGoneWild: Bereket Kelile: I also think I read Richard Epstein talking about how the rights in the Constitution were in a corporate context. That is, it was about the rights of people within certain kinds of associations, or corporations. You lost me here. I’m not sure what Richard said. Can you clarify? I can try, and I’m not !00% sure it was Epstein. The point was that they had in mind individuals as part of these associations, or corporations, when they framed these provisions in the Constitution. 

    OK. That is interesting. Corporations are, I think, misunderstood by many, including me. Leftists believe they Constitutional after thoughts, or at least, extra Constitutional, and therefore bad. Well, the Left seems to hate anything they can’t control or doesn’t donate enough money to their causes.

    • #29
    • August 1, 2014 at 4:55 pm
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  30. Member

    Louis Beckett’s focus on Alexis de Tocqueville’s warnings regarding the perils of ‘individualism’ towards which ‘democracy’ leads does not explain enough. According to de Tocqueville, democracies value freedom but are more demanding of equality. What he witnessed in his travels in America was individualism in a democratic republic where liberty and equality were both valued principles and the dangers posed by ‘individualism’ (the connecting obligations between individuals dictated by aristocratic class distinctions were shattered by democratic equality) were mitigated by America’s free institutions facilitated by diversity at state and local levels through the concept of Federalism. Of course, at that time in America, we still had at least some semblance of operating in the ‘public interest’ within our political process. These free institutions are now gone and pretty much all things are decided by the government/corporate ‘despots’. Public Choice Economic Theory suggests that possibly only something equivalent to a revolution can restore a political economy that operates in the public interest once it has reached where our government and corporate structures are now.

    • #30
    • August 1, 2014 at 9:02 pm
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