fbpx

Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity

Tocqueville several times argues in Democracy in America that the social structures people inhabit — aristocracy or democracy most notably — affects the social and personal possibilities people can conceive or imagine. I term this Tocqueville’s theory of “social semiotics,” meaning how social relationships construct the cognitive world in which people think and live.

It sounds more complicated in the abstract than it is in application. Tocqueville’s implicit deployment of the theory, however, is absolutely fascinating.

Tocqueville applies the theory at different times throughout Democracy in America. Perhaps the clearest application comes toward the end of Volume 2. Here he discusses several topics, including, importantly, “secondary” or mediating powers. Tocqueville writes,

The idea of secondary powers, placed between the sovereign and the subjects, presented itself naturally to the imagination of aristocratic peoples, because these powers contained within them individuals or families who were elevated above all others by birth, enlightenment, and wealth and who seemed destined to command. This same idea is naturally absent from the minds of men in times of equality for opposite reasons; it can only be introduced there in an artificial way, and it is only retained there with difficulty, whereas they conceive, as it were without thinking about it, the idea of a unique and central power that leads all the citizens by itself.

Aristocrats are a secondary power between “the sovereign and the subjects.” But the implications of their existence in a society — or their absence — goes beyond their direct mediatorial influence. It primes people psychologically to see some social and political possibilities, and to be blind to others. In the absence of an aristocracy, “in politics . . . as in philosophy and religion,” Tocqueville writes, “the mind of democratic peoples takes in general and simple ideas with delight. Complicated systems repel it . . .”

For example, as a result of democratic equality, “the idea of a unique and central power . . . presents itself most spontaneously to the minds of men.” This, for example, invites the administrative centralization Tocqueville famously warns against. (Interestingly, however, Tocqueville also suggests the semiotics of democratic equality also changes “the imagination of princes” in Europe. In particular, it allowed royal sovereigns to conceive of an omnipotence and ubiquity to their own powers that they did not imagine previously.)

The semiotic world created by one set of social structures or the other — aristocratic or democratic —are so powerful, and so invisible, that they lead to legal, political, and social outcomes in ways people are not aware. So powerful are these implications that they overpower other ways of framing issues, providing ostensibly solutions to problems that don’t really exist.

These opposite penchants of mind [aristocracy versus democratic uniformity] end up, on both sides by becoming instincts so blind and habits so invincible that they still govern actions even in the face of exceptional cases. . . . [I]n our day governments exhaust themselves in order to impose the same practices and the same laws on populations who are not yet alike.

Initial steps down the path of equalitarianism in turn create their own momentum, picking up speed and insisting on ever more conformity. “These ideas take root and grow as conditions become more equal and men more alike; equality brings them into being, and they in their turn speed up the progress of equality.” (Tocqueville also discusses how the power of aristocratic semiotics resulted in artificial inequalities being imposed upon “alike” people in the Middle Ages.)

It is, as so many of Tocqueville’s observations, a trenchant hypothesis. And one seemingly with explanatory bite even today. For example, the rapid spread of the idea of “marriage equality.” This could hardly have been called even the glimmer of an idea in the 1970s. Yet within one generation it moves from barely being even conceived to being enshrined in the U.S. as a matter of constitutional law. Legal recognition of heterosexual couples became legal privileges, and so were necessarily flattened by the intrinsic logic of equality as it gathered momentum.

More than that, the example illustrates the power of the idea. Increasingly today, many Americans cannot even think of permissible difference regarding marriage equality: Hence, if someone deigns to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual marriage, the distinction is ascribed to animus, the possibility of an alternative explanation that is not hateful is rejected. Hence intolerance toward the Colorado cake maker, Jack Phillips, all in the name of equalitarian tolerance.

Tocqueville’s hypothesis holds the possibility of numerous other implications and applications. What is fetching about his notion, however, is that that it accounts for how socially compelling ideas arise so naturally out of our social experience that we are not even aware of how they shape and control our thinking.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 29, 2019 at 10:13:53 am

Yes, Tocqueville does demonstrate effectively the "equality - centralization" nexus.

"For example, as a result of democratic equality, “the idea of a unique and central power . . . presents itself most spontaneously to the minds of men.”

However, in his other masterpiece, Ancien Regime and the Revolution", he provides a somewhat more detailed / nuanced history of the phenomenon by illustrating how the proliferating proto-bureaucracy reached, affected and / ior controlled every single facet of life in (almost) every single parish in pre-Revolutionary France AND how the people themselves sought to include themselves in this new "class."

In effect, the practical political realities of the Ancien Regime PREPARED the people for both equality and centralization - it was not quite so spontaneous as it would appear in Democracy in america.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on April 29, 2019 at 13:39:38 pm

OK, but colonial US and revolutionary France were obviously far different groups of people in terms of heritage and social institutions.

I find a telling current example of the sociopolitical conditioning of the US masses in life under the social-welfare state. Gone are the generations who lived before and during its implementation under FDR, and the Great Society generation is rapidly aging.

We are becoming a people who know nothing other than ever expanding paternalist government, and see that as normal...

read full comment
Image of OH Anarcho-Capitalist
OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on April 29, 2019 at 14:59:51 pm

Hi I would like a clarification. In the the last sentence of the third paragraph from the end, the sentence reads: "Legal recognition of heterosexual couples became legal privileges, and so were necessarily flattened by the intrinsic logic of equality as it gathered momentum." I assume the author meant "homosexual couples" and not "heterosexual." In other words, he is not in fact calling into question equality between women and men.

Thank you. Of course, Dr. Freud awaits in the wings if the original is in error. As I suspect it is.

read full comment
Image of charles lawrence
charles lawrence
on April 29, 2019 at 16:44:21 pm

"OK, but colonial US and revolutionary France were obviously far different groups of people in terms of heritage and social institutions."

Oh, I certainly agree - absotively!

My point (as I have suggested previously) is to consider our current dysfunction(s) in view of the development of a "centralized" form of government as NOT at all dissimilar to pre-revolutionary France.

Where we, today, in fact suffer the effects of a "paternalistic" form of governmental supervision, the Ancien Regime practiced a somewhat less *beneficial* (more arbitrary and rapacious) form of paternalism; sadly, the tendency toward centralization and citizen apathy is just as pronounced as in early France.

I highly recommend Tocqueville's "Ancien Regime" for those interested in HOW centalization may occur and WHY people are prone to accept it, if not as in France, EMBRACE it.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on April 29, 2019 at 17:06:28 pm

" Of course, Dr. Freud awaits in the wings if the original is in error."

Perhaps NOT that fakir Freud but someone else - a wizard!!!

What Rogers is asserting is that SINCE heterosexual marriage was eventually provided certain legal privileges, i.e. beneficial tax rates in the Tax Code, under the "regime of equality," where ALL are to be treated the same, the thinking then becomes "Well if hetero's get this privilege, THEN gays MUST also get it BECAUSE everyone MUST be treated the same.

Rogers is simply saying that this is the logical, indeed, inevitable outcome of the "equality regime" and / or mindset.

Hey, if straights get it - then gays get it.
It has, of course, progressed to the point where some jurists have now extended "equality" to animals AND rivers and streams, many of which now have *standing* in our Courts (see also Australia and New Zealand).

Evah one a Gawd's little creatures in now EQUAL.

Of course, being a wizened old Wizard, I Gargamel have known and practiced this for centuries.

read full comment
Image of gargamel rules smurfs
gargamel rules smurfs
on April 29, 2019 at 17:19:57 pm

So is the distinction here between legally married and not legally married heterosexual couples? (Domestic partnerships, civil unions, etc.) .. I am not clear myself as to the timelines of these various arrangements ...
Just looking for some clarification as to what the author had in mind .. thanks

read full comment
Image of charles lawrence
charles lawrence
on April 30, 2019 at 00:30:11 am

[…] Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity James R. Rogers, Law and Liberty […]

read full comment
Image of PowerLinks 04.30.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
PowerLinks 04.30.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on April 30, 2019 at 08:37:59 am

[…] — Read on www.lawliberty.org/2019/04/29/tocqueville-and-the-rigorous-logic-on-egalitarian-conformity/ […]

read full comment
Image of Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity – Daydreaming
Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity – Daydreaming
on May 02, 2019 at 16:02:13 pm

The marital act is life-affirming and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife. “Reflecting on the new permissive attitude of some bishops toward homosexuality, Fr. Murray condemned homosexual acts in blunt terms.
“A relationship based on sodomy is intrinsically evil,” Murray said. “You don’t sodomize someone and do a good act. That’s an immoral act”, and I would add an abusive act that is devoid of Love. No one can argue that the desire to not serve in any capacity that would result in condoning the engaging in or affirmation of any sexual act, including between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife, that necessarily, by it’s inherent nature, demeans the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, and thus is not and can never be an act of authentic Love, is due to animus. Love, which is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love is devoid of lust.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on May 21, 2019 at 20:47:03 pm

[…] https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/04/29/tocqueville-and-the-rigorous-logic-on-egalitarian-conformity/ […]

read full comment
Image of Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity – Philosophical & Scientific Transactions
Tocqueville’s Rigorous Logic of Egalitarian Conformity – Philosophical & Scientific Transactions
on May 22, 2019 at 07:58:29 am

[…] El texto completo en: https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/04/29/tocqueville-and-the-rigorous-logic-on-egalitarian-conformity/ […]

read full comment
Image of Tocqueville y una visión acerca de la influencia que pueden tener las estructuras sociales en la forma que la gente ve a la sociedad | Libertad y Progreso
Tocqueville y una visión acerca de la influencia que pueden tener las estructuras sociales en la forma que la gente ve a la sociedad | Libertad y Progreso
on September 30, 2019 at 07:37:14 am

[…] is the logic of ideologized equality as I’ve suggested previously that accounts for the modern destruction of the social in the United States. Brown is exactly right […]

read full comment
Image of Life in the Neoliberal Ruins?
Life in the Neoliberal Ruins?

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.