Crowds assemble in the streets to agitate for greater equality. Meanwhile, voices on the airwaves champion liberty, sometimes abrasively. Both sides duke it out all across the Internet. Now is a good time to revisit the uneasy alliance between freedom and equality that is at the basis of modern political society. In what follows, I will offer some reflections on the matter by recollecting and contrasting arguments advanced by Thomas Hobbes and Alexis de Tocqueville, two preeminent thinkers who contributed to the articulation of both concepts in theory but who leaned in opposite directions regarding their relative value and coordination in practice.
Ideas regarding freedom and equality are fundamental to modern political society. Their meaning grounds, purposes, reach and relative goodness are matters of dispute. Their coexistence is simultaneously complementary and troubled. It is fitting that these two fundamental premises and values cannot be easily reconciled. We are both freer and in a sense equalized precisely because there is no incontestable rationalistic system that establishes definitively the exact meaning of freedom and equality and harmonizes them perfectly. It would be unreasonable to expect to find one, and there is something inherently illiberal in any attempt to stipulate and impose any such formula. The contestability of the relationship between freedom and equality and of our relationship to them is apt, and though it causes no end of frustration and quarrel, we should appreciate that condition more than we should lament it. That there is an ongoing argument here does not justify forgoing the endeavour to figure these things out. Indeed, it is almost a duty belonging to all citizens that they should participate in this conversation, gain an understanding of rival views and make an effort to adjudicate between them. This sort of engagement not only contributes to intellectual refinement but is also necessary to sustain the very society premised upon this set of ideas.
Hobbes is arguably the greatest democratic thinker in the canon. Don't be misled by the way he expresses preference for monarchy. A modernized, all-intrusive bureaucratic State ultimately headed by a single leader supported by many subordinate counsellors—rather than governed by a ruling assembly—fits his model better than the old-fashioned pre-modern monarchies of his era. Hobbes' thought is a fulcrum at modernity's outset, and like any actual teeter-totter, it naturally falls to one side. Of course, scholars disagree over whether or not to call him a liberal of sorts or something of a proto-liberal, or altogether illiberal. There is even a libertarian appropriation of Hobbes, which, I find, is as unlikely as the socialist accusation that he is a spokesperson for capitalist free markets. Hobbes provided the first comprehensive theory of political institutions and society premised upon the idea that all men and women possess an equal right to self-government. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is famously his premier friendly critic. Rousseau's rival abstract formulations for producing authentically free and equal peoples, and his psychological portraitures of men and women as they have been and could be, make nice foils for Hobbes' positions. Rousseauists have been making a public comeback recently, making big gains in the Canadian Parliament, especially in Quebec, not to mention the White House. I do not know if they realize how very Hobbesian the regime that they yearn for is. Although Hobbes has a rather English temperament, and as such does not seem like much of a romantic, the historical-political progressivism of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Mill and Marx has Hobbesian roots.
A less radical liberal tradition also emerges from Hobbes, a tempering of and modification of his teaching, developed through thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu and Publius. This strain is skeptical of mankind's capacity for self-perfection and wary of direct attempts to reengineer human nature. While there are admittedly some variations on liberalism that posit inflexible premises from which preferred policies are deduced, it is an ideologue's error to attribute strong ideological qualities to liberalism proper. Liberalism's principles are better understood as experiments or operating assumptions than as dogmatic doctrines. Even Hobbes spoke in terms of "as ifs." For example, we must treat each other as if we are equal. Those who criticize his theory while radicalizing it tend to overlook this. At its best, liberalism puts modern premises into practice in a moderate and qualified fashion, precisely because liberals know that politics isn't everything (or even the most important thing), that human nature is too complicated, and that not every incommodity is amenable to a political solution. Writing in the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville represents something of a culmination of classical liberal thought. He had the advantage of looking back on various efforts to put liberty and equality into practice and could compare and assess their consequences for the actual lived lives of people. He also looked to the future, extrapolating probable trajectories for democratic societies. What is most admirable about modern society, he discerned, is at risk of disappearing as modernity's favourite principles gather momentum and overextend themselves. Most worrisome to him is the way a modern democratic social state shapes souls suited for despotic governance.
Early modernity makes its break with the past in an explicitly willful rejection of the ancients, or at least the traditions of the ancients as they had been developed and compromised over the centuries. Hobbes calls his opponent "Aristotelity"—a sophisticated mix of Greek philosophy and Christianity toward which he exhibits only scorn. His own thought is indebted to Baconian technological science, Machiavellian counsel and the Reformation's liberation of Scriptural interpretation. He borrows discretely from the ancients and disingenuously from Scripture in order to propose an approach to the world that his contemporaries and subsequent generations may find attractive without identifying it as altogether subversive.
Hobbes' political teaching evidences early on how muscular egalitarian premises and imperatives call for an immense State with sweeping powers over the bodies and minds of the populace, against which there is little to no recourse. All rights, honours and privileges are for the State to establish and allocate, and even private property is held only with the allowance of the State—which is to say, those who dominate the State. Even representative government, a concept Hobbes helped develop, in which the rulers claim that their authority rests on the authorization of the people as a whole, requires elites. All power—political, economic, social, cultural—is to be consolidated within one massive, sprawling, complex entity. These new elites shall be technocratic—an allegedly scientific, enlightened, impartial government of disinterested experts serving the people through their service to the sovereign. Their laws and regulations will reach everywhere, even into the hearts of women and men, all the while pretending to be tolerant of, even protective of, diversity.
The Hobbesian State is intended to be the arbiter and author of all standards and attitudes. Hobbes feigns a moral relativism that flatters proud yet thin-skinned individuals while flattening them, inspiring in them dogmas regarding goods and values that are assumed to be universally acceptable and meant to be universally accepted such that they become reckoned incontrovertible. Hobbes thinks that he is being eminently charitable to mankind by setting its sights entirely on the mundane, the pleasurable and the instrumental for the satisfaction of appetites and the avoidance of pain. You don't have to think of any Hobbesian sovereign or sympathizer as anything but well-intentioned. Having reduced the human animal to an appetite-satisfying machine, Hobbes further understands that people want to feel free. Accordingly, he encourages governments to allow their subjects licence to enjoy the pleasures that they happen to prefer so long as they may be rendered harmless, allowing them to consider themselves as agents in their selection, pursuit and enjoyment. But to achieve this goal, higher faculty freedoms—intellectual, religious and political—must be played down, disincentivized, suppressed or forbidden until they are no longer missed.
Hobbes claims to regard religious toleration as a desirable policy but only insofar as it may be practised in a manner consistent with a new political religion to which all members of society must be principally faithful. People are to be convinced that all political debate is "polarizing" and all argumentation constitutes "attack," threatening to unleash violent strife upon us all. Publicly expressed religious disagreements and disgruntlements are the most dangerous of all, invariably portending theocratic terror. Thus, people come to look forward to the end of political dispute and public religiosity.
Hobbes eschews talk about souls and contrives his theology to be fully consistent with his meta-physical materialism. Put into terms familiar from Plato's Republic, however, where soul-talk primarily refers to qualities of character without necessarily connoting otherworldliness, it looks as if Hobbes regards human selves as tyrannical by nature and hopes that, through political artifice, this raw material could be hammered into democratic shapes. We are all insatiable, vain beings seeking relative apparent power for the sake of getting what we think we want. But that's okay. It's something that we can work with. Things can be arranged so that they turn out more okay than ever before if we are honest with ourselves in these matters—honest in a manner that declares illusory and toxic much of what human beings previously regarded as real, important, good and true. The success of the project depends on overturning the feeling that human beings have innate moral worth as individuals and affirming instead that they only possess socially constructed value as members of a collectivity. People will then find their freedom under beneficent totalitarian rule—totalitarian in the sense that it extends over the totality of the human condition, either denying or distorting those aspects it cannot in fact reach—arranging for a State that will present itself as serving them as a slave would serve a master: liberating them from necessities and enabling them in the satisfaction of their wants. Such a State will grant them limited freedom over a low and narrow part of their lives no longer perceived as low or narrow, the remainder of the human condition having been starved out or carved off.
The Hobbesian expectation is that it is the job of the central governing authority to solve our problems and relieve our suffering and insecurity. All of our behaviour is to be conditioned by, sanctioned by, sponsored by, entangled in and/or derivative of State power. Not just the economy at the macro and micro level but all social intercourse, learning and culture are to be advanced and perfected through the State. Having convinced people that bodily death is the greatest of evils, women and men will worship a government that promises to rescue them from it for as long as possible. Where and when the State proves unable to save us, falling short of omnipotence and omniscience, people will only demand that it become more powerful, trusting in its capacity for infinite goodness.
Unity of opinion is to be achieved by cultivating fear of the State's overtly coercive mechanisms and powers of surveillance but also (and preferably) through the construction of opinions and the cultivation of social norms through the control of education, which is to be more concerned with proper socialization than the communication of knowledge or fostering of critical thinking skills. Mutual esteem is to be prepared using vanity and vulnerability as ingredients. Each person's craven concern about having their vulnerabilities exposed combined with their sense of self-importance are transformed into moral sources. Affecting empathy with the vulnerability of others, a determination is made to approve and accept them all. Parents, Hobbes concedes, should be allowed to raise their children as they please; but through the political control of the schools and the professions, parents themselves will be educated and pressured to raise their children in a fashion that conforms to the State's mission.
Whereas a liberal in the Lockean tradition would be astonished to see people marching in protest, demanding that the State should wield more authority over them and further relieve them of any responsibility for themselves, Hobbes is the godfather of those who clamour that the State should be made more powerful so that everyone may be rendered more equal. His paternity here is, admittedly, unplanned, as he loathed public dissent, especially by those who believe that their cause is so righteous, their intentions so impeccable, and their sensitivities so evolved that they mobilize for systemic change in the name of the people. Hobbes knew better than today's more anarchical activists that perfect freedom and equality is chaos and misery. He would maintain that a revolution against commercial society today is far more likely to destroy everything of value and set us all against each other, like unto a zombie apocalypse. Whereupon order is restored, it would be neither liberal nor egalitarian, whichever side won. That said, Hobbes' sympathy with their cause is not negligible. In his view, some small inequalities among people are unavoidable, but there should be no instances of extreme inequality and everyone should accommodate themselves to each other and exhibit the virtue of "complaisance."
Hobbes' progressive bona fides are on display in the way he deploys his talents as a master rhetorician. He knows how to stipulate terms and definitions so as to frame debates in his favour. He knows how to speak with scientistic authority and rationalistic rigour so that his seemingly ineluctable logic may compel the obedience of minds and bodies. He used these powers to argue on behalf of a political sovereign who would be seen as having power over language itself, the right to pronounce new definitions for anything under the sun—even phenomena you may mistakenly suppose natural, such as family relations. Whatever is decreed shall henceforth be held rational, moral and permanent, and people will learn to speak and think in unison.
Hobbes discerned that treating people as independent individuals in isolation from each other makes them weak. Getting people to conceive of themselves in this fashion conduces to their assent to direct dependence on the very State that is responsible for inculcating in them this faulty self-conception. The same State promises to advance the salus populi and benefit every individual person. They need only conceive of themselves as its clients and gladly receive the kinds of goods it confers or arranges, affirm its doctrines and align their hopes with its purposes. The Hobbesian State crowds out, co-opts, subsumes, usurps or otherwise besieges all forms of association that can interfere with the direct connection each individual has with the central State, such as families, voluntary associations, charities and churches. Commercial, cultural and local political activities are likewise subordinated to over-arching State objectives. The Hobbesian State looks to override or dismantle all other obligations and sources of meaning. The consequence is to stifle participation in those activities that generate the habits of giving and sharing, cooperating with and learning from others, bargaining and compromising, debating, deliberating and deciding, taking risks and competing, or accepting blame and overcoming adversity, all of which go into teaching people their responsibilities as social beings. Nowadays, we the benefactors of the Hobbesian legacy find ourselves inundated with demands for "collective responsibility" issued by people who have barely assumed any personal and interpersonal responsibilities themselves—as if a collectivity could possibly practise responsibility when its members have not learned how.
While sovereignty in Hobbesian theory proceeds from the bottom up, once established, all power would flow forevermore from the top down. This model of governance mirrors the way in which Hobbes seems to argue deductively from abstract premises down to concrete practice in his political science. (A broader appreciation of Hobbes' historical and poetical learning shows that his science is more dependent on historical lessons, personal observations, psychological insights and practical judgments than he wants to show.) Hobbes' modes and orders may be contrasted with those of Tocqueville, who reasons explicitly from the bottom up, combining observations, conversations and historical research in order to ascend to a nuanced and dynamic theoretical model of democratic society. He then recommends sustaining families, churches, voluntary organizations, a diverse free press and local political activity as the bulwarks of freedom against the gradual tendency of democratic authority to become concentrated and despotic.
Tocqueville's Democracy in America remains a must-read today. It is a resource that continues to be drawn upon by political scientists and politicians alike on the left and right of the mainstream liberal democratic political spectrum for suggestions on how to improve modern society. Don't be put off by the focus on America in the title. The book's two volumes contain as much admonition and fore-warning regarding America as it does admiration, and the book was intended from the very beginning to offer friendly advice to democratic nations other than the United States, especially those that tend toward centralized government, as France always has, under both its monarchical and republican guises.
There are two big bads identified by Tocqueville in his big book: the tyranny of the majority and "soft" or "mild" despotism (le despotisme doux). These two dangers of democracy are usually portrayed as if they were divergent, but they may be understood as potentially coincidental if the majority that comes to tyrannize over a minority is comprised of well-meaning, equality-loving seekers of comfort and pleasure. Should they so endorse their destiny as Hobbesian subjects, such a majority would readily trade their own economic, moral, religious, political and intellectual freedoms in exchange for a government that takes care of them, in part by suppressing the activities and utterances of others that upset them. Lending a moralistic gloss to envy and timidity, the love of equality is insatiable and fundamentally sentimental, Tocqueville argues. Like a teenage crush, it is an enthralling passion that does not welcome critical inspection.
Tocqueville provides us with a corrective to Hobbesian statism. He acknowledges that democracy looks like "a providential fact," but he also finds theories of inevitable historical progress spiritually crippling. Modern men are too susceptible to reductionistic theories that posit vast, general causes to explain social conditions and explain away the values and views that men hold dear, stripping the ideas and actions of individuals of significance, redoubling their sense of insignificance except as riders on the waves of inexorable impersonal movements (or else drowning beneath them if they foolishly resist), carried upon an imagined tide that is expected to only ever rise and never fall. (Although, the concern for melting ice caps among progressivists spoils my metaphor.) As an aside, Tocqueville would recognize our apocalyptical environmentalism today as a manifestation of the pantheism he predicted would infect democratic peoples who cannot abide inequality of any sort, including the idea that human beings are exceptional creatures or the idea of a transcendent God. In response, they esteem all of creation as if everything within it were of inestimable worth—with the exception of human beings, who, insofar as they have hitherto imagined themselves special, are patently villains if not devils. Similarly with veganism.
Tocqueville admires the nobler aspects and effects of aristocratic society, but he does not suppose that it is possible to "turn back the clock," as progressivists like to allege of those who are skeptical of the unqualified goodness of absolute democratization. We are stuck with the question of just what kind of democracy we are going to enjoy, and Tocqueville makes the case that modern society is improved by the elements of premodernity it retains, now tempered and liberalized, allowing for the pursuit of personal excellence or greatness while checking the technological impulse to refashion and control everything. The cumulative effects of these factors generally redound to the benefit of society. Unlike Hobbes, Tocqueville is concerned more for the souls of persons than the system of power relations between them. Thus, any such system must be assessed in terms of what it does for and to actual human beings. Beware of those who conspire to mould people so as to fit some conjectural ideal system, promising happiness if only people would submit to their transformation. Tocqueville knows that happiness is a greater good than social justice, and that there is neither happiness nor justice except among human beings whose character and intellect have been well developed, hence the priority of intellectual, religious and political freedoms. The possibility of our cultivation depends on recognizing that human beings are not simply brute animals who want only to enjoy pleasures in safety, but rather creatures with ambitions and an impulse toward living dignified lives together. Human beings are supposed to be free, and they are at their best when they use their freedom well, which requires the opportunity to exercise one's mind and talents in public for both self-betterment and for the good of others. Against the thorough-going statist on the one side and the ideological individualist on the other, Tocqueville recommends both limited government and a vibrant civil society. We must remember that it is in our self-interest rightly understood, to use Tocqueville's phrase, to work in concert with others. We live fuller lives thereby. It enlarges and ennobles our souls. Political life is inherently partisan, ongoing, time-consuming, messy, risky and frustrating. It imparts a sense of perspective lacking in those who only wish and dream. It requires a healthy combination of courage and humility and no small measure of patience. Without participation in the active life, we forfeit our natural freedom and risk becoming so debased as to savour our servitude and commend ourselves for sharing in it.
In conclusion, I would recall an old Aristotelian maxim that informs Tocqueville's perspective. Human beings are both equal in some things and unequal in others. This fact is both natural and advantageous. It is unjust and disadvantageous to reduce justice to thoroughgoing egalitarianism. Tocqueville recognizes that democracy is more just than aristocracy, but this does not mean that greater democratization is always better. Moreover, human beings are naturally free, and so it is unjust to take their liberties away, even if to better fill their bellies and stimulate their pleasure centres. That said, we are not radically autonomous beings, and so the idolization of liberty to the point that it is indistinguishable from tyrannical licentiousness is a rightful object of objections. It may be impossible to perfectly harmonize the modern premises of equality and liberty, but we can be sure that both the hunger for extreme equality and the presumption of extreme inequality are dehumanizing, as are both the suppression of individual and social freedoms on behalf of the collectivity and the fanciful ideal of the sovereign individual.