Burke and Tocqueville on liberty, then and now

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar put on by the Institute for Humane Studies. The theme was “Burke and Tocqueville on Liberty”. Both of these writers were important influences on Western political theory and so are still worth studying, even if you don’t agree with how later writers used them. Indeed, it occurred to me during the final day’s discussion that they are still highly relevant in understanding today’s left and right.

It was explicit in Burke and to a lesser extent in Tocqueville that they saw the early modern transition away from strong monarchy toward democratic republicanism to involve the loss of social unity, and Tocqueville, perhaps without knowing it, wrote extensively on the grasping efforts to replace it. This sentiment is echoed in other thinkers as well. Even if social unity under the Ancien Régime broadly considered was imposed and not chosen or commonly understood, at least it was there, and they missed it when it was gone. Both the left and right since that time can be thought of as pushing its replacement.

It came to me while thinking about several passages in Tocqueville and their modern versions criticizing low culture. People where assigned a place under the old systems and society made sense. When history finally allowed the mass of people to choose their own culture, from the aristocratic perspective of both writers the people chose poorly. They chose things concerned elites don’t think have value toward their larger social purposes. The modern left and right take turns bemoaning low culture for this reason. I understand the sentiment and share it on the level of taste but it doesn’t undermine how I think society should operate.

The French Revolutionaries, Burke’s bêtes noires, tried to replace the unity under king and church with a rationalistic patriotism that they more or less created from whole cloth, even a Temple of Reason! Aside from the fact that it led to very undesirable consequences, it wasn’t very successful at creating a new unity. The French underclasses mostly kept right along with their Catholicism, and with some exceptions the revolutionaries themselves seemed unfulfilled. By Tocqueville’s time the monarchy had been reestablished. It’s easy to dismiss this as one powerful segment of society arrogating benefits for itself, but it seems to have been deeper than that, and now I think I see why.

This makes more sense of the late 18th and 19th century intellectual currents emphasizing republican virtue. It wasn’t enough to replace the old forms of government. Something else had to be replaced too, and while the movements that became the modern left and right differed on what the replacement should be they implicitly agreed that they needed one.

This also helps me understand some sociological features of the libertarian movement. As good as I think its arguments are, it’s just not very popular as a total package. It doesn’t offer a replacement for the old sense of place and purpose. Conservatives have religion, tradition, and a sense of patriotism to cling to, and progressives have a sense of cosmopolitanism and a secular millenarianism. Libertarians have…whatever they individually find inspiring, which is why their movement a) is small and b) has the highest average IQ of the ones considered; it doesn’t provide the subconscious, passive satisfaction most people look for.

This also helps me understand thinkers like Smith* and Mill who thought about both moral philosophy and economics/political philosophy. They had great intellects incapable of satisfaction in only narrow channels, but these seemed naturally related to them. They were men of their time. The concern about faction of the writers behind Publius makes more sense in this light as well.

Libertarianism is like atheism in this way, offering an alternative to other modes of thought that isn’t exactly a full replacement for them. I’m not sure what to do about this, but at least I know what the issue is now.


* Smith lived before the storm but it was clearly already gathering.

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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