Americans prefer equality to freedom — Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville argues that Americans prefer equality to liberty. Why does he think this is the case? What are the political ramifications of preferring equality to liberty? Does this analysis still apply to America today?
I wrote this essay as part of my American Political Thought course at Shawnee State University — Spring 2022. I hope it provides you with some valuable information.
It has long been established that liberty and equality are the core values of the democratic political system in America. However, it seems that one value is more equal than the other*. From the Declaration of Independence, in which the fundamental ideal of equality is mentioned before that of freedom, to the American Revolution, which was a huge victory for equality. This development raises the question: why do democratic nations show a more ardent and enduring love of equality than of liberty?
To shed light on this question, one can look to Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his book “Democracy in America”, argues that Americans prefer equality to liberty. Tocqueville’s theory ultimately illuminates how in a democracy, Americans would ultimately favor equality over freedom because its material benefits are more immediate and tangible.
Tocqueville’s theory is explained in three sections in this paper. The first section lists the reasons why he thinks Americans prefer equality over liberty. The second section examines the political ramifications of this preference. The final section examines whether this analysis still applies to America today.
The reasons Americans venerate equality to freedom
Tocqueville claims that in democracies the passion for equality is stronger than the passion for freedom. He presents this argument in three parts in a chapter of “Democracy in America” explaining “why democratic nations show a more ardent and enduring love for equality than for liberty”.
First, he says that in democracies the desire for equality overpowers that for freedom because freedom has manifested itself around the globe in various eras and various forms. Thus, it was not exclusively linked with any social status and was not limited to democracies. In other words, freedom is not what is distinctive to such regimes. “Freedom cannot, therefore, form the distinguishing characteristic of democratic ages.” (DA, 473). Simply put, equality was the hallmark of the era in which people live, which, according to Tocqueville, is a sufficient argument to explain why they prefer it to others.
Second, Tocqueville tells us that democratic people are extremely attached to equality because they think it will last forever, whereas political liberty is more easily lost; he states that demolishing the equality that exists would only be possible via lengthy and laborious efforts. Because it would “have to change its social state, abolish its laws, update its concepts, shift its habits, and change its morality. However, it is sufficient not to adhere to political liberty for it to be lost.” (DA, 474). To put it another way, equality is firmly embedded in-laws, social conditions, mores, habits, and attitudes, and destroying it would be extremely difficult. On the other side, political liberty is easily lost. Therefore, equality is valued because it is assumed to be eternal. “ not only do men cling to equality because it is dear to them; they also adhere to it because they think it will last forever. ” (DA, 474).
Finally, Tocqueville argues that the benefits of political liberty are only experienced infrequently by a very limited number. Furthermore, such liberty necessitates sacrifice and effort, whereas equality is simple: it “daily provides each man in the crowd with a variety of small rewards,” and “offers its pleasures for free.”. In other words, the benefits of freedom are visible only with time and sacrifices must be made to exercise it, while the benefits of equality are felt immediately and are easily obtained. As a result, “democratic peoples’… passion for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible. ,” (DA 475). Thus it is more highly regarded.
To wrap up this part, people in America have a deep-seated passion for equality over liberty. Ultimately, the most ideal version of equality necessitates complete liberty. Yet, imperfect equality can lead to despotism. Furthermore, the dangers of liberty are obvious and immediate, whereas the dangers of equality are subtle and visible only over time.
The political ramifications of the preference for equality over liberty.
Tocqueville aims to warn democratic societies of the political ramifications that the passion for equality produces. Equality has certainly brought men closer together, but it has also resulted in a decline in freedom. Thus, the development of a more ardent and long-lasting love of equality than of liberty can lead to a corrupt democracy in which liberty is ignored.
According to Tocqueville, the dilemma of democratic times is rooted in an excess of equality research. People will demand additional rights in the name of equality. The desire for equality will lead people to individuality, which Tocqueville sees as a weakness. Individualism, according to Tocqueville, is a significant threat to both individuals and democratic society. He is concerned that by pursuing independence and freedom at any cost, the individual abandons his civic purpose and entrusts everything to the state, including his freedom. As a result, the individual who overestimates the State’s ability to handle problems will divert his citizen power. In addition, he will always feel tempted to refer to the State in any situation. However, acting in this manner absorbs the citizen’s individuality and eliminates his freedom, because the State becomes his primary respondent in any situation.
The tyranny of the majority, according to Tocqueville, is another serious consequence of Americans’ passion for equality. Tocqueville demonstrates how the tyranny of the majority leads to democratic conformism and thought standardization. When it comes to conformism, it is a tendency to be concerned about the health of democratic societies, particularly when all citizens wish to eliminate their diversity to conform to a single idea. Since men in egalitarian societies believe they are similar, they frequently assume that their ideas and opinions, and consequently the beliefs of each person, are linked with the majority. As a result, when people take opposed positions to the majority, freedom of expression suffers. Individual identities are destroyed, freedoms become impractical, and the majority’s voice is heard. As a result, majority tyranny is proof that any quest for extreme equality leads not just to the loss of liberty, but also to the hiding and trivialization of minority concerns, and even to the rejection of differences.
Does this analysis still apply to America today?
Tocqueville recognizes the risks of abandoning liberty in the name of equality. Some of this analysis still holds true in today’s America, but on top of that, over the past several years, a new passion for safety has arisen. Americans gave up their liberty in the name of security. While in Tocqueville’s time, equality was the hallmark of the era, nowadays, security is the hallmark of the era. This involves the pursuit of energy security, security in possessing the most powerful weaponry, and security against cyber attacks, among other things.
Furthermore, in contrast to Tocqueville’s analysis that equality is treasured because it is considered to be eternal, men in America experience constant anxiety, which is summed up in the fear of losing their achievements. Ultimately, what stirs the human heart is an unfulfilled need to possess something and the constant fear of losing it. As a result, while they want to have material wealth and want to embrace equality, they are afraid of losing it. As a result, they isolate themselves from others and value their own lives and possessions.
It is also worth noting that now, the United States’ political regime is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. A regime, where the health of democracy is suffering from a lot of internal conflicts and divisions.
The first section of this paper, as stated by Tocqueville, focuses on the reasons why Americans prefer equality to liberty. The second part demonstrated how this desire for equality leads to plenty of democratic problems and political ramifications. Finally, it was observed in the concluding section that Tocqueville’s thesis does not entirely apply to America today due to changes and evolution. This begs the question in the reader’s mind, “What do I prefer? Equality or liberty.” Neither is the answer, rather it is justice, the fuel of equality and freedom.
*Reference — “ All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Animal Farm by George Orwell