From Tocqueville to Sarkozy

Alexis de Tocqueville
Nicolas Sarkozy,  the French minister of the Interior, is an atypical Frenchman. Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian father who fled Communism at the end of the Second World War, and a mother who was herself the daughter of a Greek immigrant. “I like the frame of mind of those who need to build everything because nothing was given to them,” he says when asked about his upbringing.  The experiences of his youth have made Sarkozy a pro-American Frenchman. Pro-American Frenchmen are rare although one of the greatest admirers of America of all times, Alexis de Tocqueville, was a Frenchman.

Tocqueville (1805-1859) was born 200 years ago, on 29 July 1805. He became known through his books “Democracy in America” (published in 1835 and 1840 in two volumes after a visit to the United States) and “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (a history of the French Revolution of 1789, published in 1856).

Though an aristocrat by birth, Tocqueville was a liberal – a ‘liberal’ in the continental European sense that is. Friedrich Hayek prefers to call him an ‘old Whig,’ because Hayek wants to clarify that the European liberals of Tocqueville’s mold, sometimes also referred to as ‘classical liberals,’ have nothing in common with “the prevailing liberal (read ‘socialist’) philosophy that assumes that man, so far as the distinction between good and bad has any significance for him at all, must, and can, himself deliberately draw the line between them.” Classical liberals believe that the power of the state has to be minimal, which is only possible in society held together by a set of shared moral values.

One of the things that struck Tocqueville most when he was visiting America in the early 1830s was the moral content of that nation. “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other, but in America I found that they ware intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.” “Religion,” he added, “must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of the country for it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions.” The Americans, he concluded, held religion “to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” Elsewhere he wrote: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
The deep religiosity that Tocqueville perceived in America has remained a characteristic of the United States to this very day. It is what sets America apart from secularised Western Europe today. However, not every religion or faith leads to freedom. In a passage highly relevant to Europe today, where the religious vacuum left by secularisation is being filled by Islam, Tocqueville wrote: “Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.”

Tocqueville’s observations explain why America (and not the Muslim world, nor contemporary Europe) is at the same time the most religious, most free, most capitalist and most prosperous nation on earth. Prosperity follows from capitalism, while economic free-market principles follow from freedom as a general right of man, which concept follows from civil morality rooted in Christianity.

Moreover, Tocqueville noted another truth which has largely been lost in Europe but is still understood by many Americans (though, sadly, not by a number of its ‘liberal’ intellectuals): the fact that man’s morality is strengthened when the government is minimal: “One of the happiest consequences of the absence of government (when a people is fortunate enough to be able to do without it, which is rare) is the development of individual strength that inevitably follows from it. Each man learns to think, to act for himself, without counting on the support of an outside force which, however vigilant one supposes it to be, can never answer all social needs. Man, thus accustomed to seeking his well-being only through his own efforts, raised himself in his own opinion as he does in the opinion of others; his soul becomes larger and stronger at the same time.”

“The American Republic will endure,” Toqueville said, “until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.” This is exactly what socialism has done in Europe. “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

According to Tocqueville, socialism was the logical result of a flaw inherent to the philosophy underpinning the French revolution: “It was this desire of grafting political liberty onto institutions and an ideology that were unsuited, indeed adverse to it, but to which the French had gradually become addicted – it was this desire of combining freedom with the servile state that led during the last sixty years to so  many abortive essays of a free régime followed by disastrous  revolutions. […] Many Frenchmen have lost their taste for freedom and come to think that, after all, an autocratic government under which all men are equal has something to be said for it.”

Finally, “after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

It is this attitude of seeing the government as the citizens’ shepherd that Sarkozy says he wants to combat. The fact that he is currently the most popular politician in France and may even become France’s President in 2007 is an indication that Tocqueville, who is one of the best-known and most respected political philosophers among American conservatives, may soon become as famous in his home country as across the Atlantic.