Analysis Of Liberty In Society Essay Research

Analysis Of Liberty In Society Essay, Research Paper Both Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville agree that an individual is the most qualified to make decisions affecting the

Analysis Of Liberty In Society Essay, Research Paper

Both Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville agree that an

individual is the most qualified to make decisions affecting the

sphere of the individual as long as those decisions do not violate the

law of justice. From this starting point, each theorist proposes a

role of government and comments on human nature and civil society.

Smith focuses on economic liberty and the ways in which government can

repress this liberty, to the detriment of society. De Tocqueville

emphasizes political liberty and the way that government can be

organized to promote political liberty, protect individual liberty,

and promote civil liberty.

Adam Smith’s theory makes a strong argument for the assertion

that a free market will provide overall good for society, but, as de

Tocqueville points out, it provides little or no protection for the

poor. Smith’s picture of human nature given in The Theory of Moral

Sentiments suggests that people would do good and take care of the

weak because of characteristics of their nature. Unfortunately, this

image contrasts with the picture of the individual which emerges from

his economic argument in Wealth of Nations and is a generally

unsatisfying answer.

In attempting to define liberty, Adam Smith is mostly

concerned with negative liberty, or freedom from constraint,

especially market constraints. According to him, in a free market, as

long as they are not fettered by government regulation, actions are

guided toward the public good as if by an invisible hand. Furthermore,

the economic sphere is the determining section of society. Therefore

from his economic model, he derives his argument for the best role of

government and asserts that the resultant society will be the best

overall for civilization.

Since he defines the individual as sovereign (within the laws

of justice), and he defines liberty as freedom from constraint, his

argument begins with the individual, defining a man’s labor as the

foundation of all other property. From this it follows that the

disposition of one’s labor, without harm to others, is an inviolable

right which the government should not restrict in any way (Smith 215).

He uses his economic theory to support his belief that this limitation

on government action creates the most overall good for society.

First, he defines all prices as being determined by labor

(Smith 175). Since labor causes raw materials to have value, Smith

asserts that labor confers ownership, but when stock is used there

must be something given for the profits of the investors, so labor

resolves itself into wages and prices (185). The support for the free

market lies in the way the prices are determined and the inner

workings of the market. The prices ultimately come from the value of

labor. A capitalist will want to produce as much as possible, in order

to make the greatest profit, therefore his demand for labor will rise.

As the demand for labor rises, wages will rise. As more people begin

working to meet the increased demand for labor, production will rise,

and prices will fall. Following this argument, in a free market,

everybody is working for his or her own personal gain, but maximum

production occurs, which increases overall wealth and prosperity. If

the government interferes by setting minimum wages, charging

prohibitive taxes, or regulating prices, it interrupts the natural

flow of the market. Therefore, Smith argues that the market prices of

wages and of goods should be regulated by the market rather than by

the government.

Smith then identifies three classes of people who develop from

capitalism: laborers, landlords, and capitalists. Each of these groups

act purely out of self-interest, and for this reason Smith does not

think any of them will be able to effectively rule with the good of

society in mind. The laborers are incapable of comprehending “that the

interest of the labourer is strictly connected with that of the

society…” (Smith 226). The landlords are the most impartial of the

classes and therefore the least likely to use government for any plan

or project of their own, but they are “too often, not only ignorant,

but incapable of that application of mind which is necessary in order

to foresee and understand the consequences of any public regulation”

(226). By process of elimination, Smith settles on the capitalists as

the most fit to rule, but stipulates, “the proposal of any new law or

regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be

listened to with great precaution, and out never to be adopted till

after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most

scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention” (227).

Due to the lack of a class which would be able to lead with

society’s interests in mind and because the unfettered free market in

which everyone is selfishly motivated produces the most, Smith

relegates to government only the three tasks of the defense of the

nation, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of certain

public works (289). This plan will prevent too many unnecessary

restrictions on “perfect” liberty, or complete freedom from

restraints, and will allow a system of natural liberty to establish

itself in which every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of

justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own


This role of government also solves the impassable lack of

information problem that, according to Smith, is faced by any

government which takes the responsibility for superintending the

industry of private people. No government official could possibly

account for all of the chains of cause and effect, and no government

can truly know what is in the best interest of every individual.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that in Smith’s

theory, the government is actually defending the rich against the

poor. The poor, according to Smith, are often driven by envy and need

to invade the possessions of the rich. “It is only under the shelter

of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property,

which is acquired by the labour of many years or perhaps of many

successive generations, can sleep a single night in security” (294).

Note the assumption that the rich are entitled to their wealth

because it is acquired by hard work either of the person or his

family. Because of this, Smith considers civil government a necessary


One objection to this view of government and to the economic

reading in general is that one of the duties of government is to

protect the poor from the tyranny of the rich. In fact, in Smith’s

economic perspective, money demonstrates preferences. Therefore,

people with more money are able to influence the market much more than

people with less, and would therefore be less needing of government

protection. It is the people with less money who can least afford

change and bad times. Thus, these people are in the least position to

combat unfair practices or to change their position.

Alexis de Tocqueville recognizes this fault in Smith’s system.

First, laborer becomes more and more involved in his labors, and

therefore more focused on the small details for which he is

responsible, while the industrialist becomes increasingly interested

in the larger workings of the factory. In this way, the two classes

become less alike and mobility between them becomes more difficult.

Finally, “the industrial aristocracy of our day, when it has

impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in time of

crisis to public charity to feed them” (de Tocqueville 558). In

Smith’s governmental plan, there are no provisions for taking care of

the poor when they are not taken care of by the market system.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith suggests that human

nature will turn the beneficence of the rich to the poor out of

sympathy for their condition (136), but this response does not offer

strong enough promise that the poor will be cared for when the

market fails. One can only hope that the de Tocqueville analysis is

wrong and the laborers will always make high enough wages.

Yet in Wealth of Nations, Smith says, “A man must always live by his

work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain

him,” (197), but is later forced to admit that when society is in

decline, wages fall even below “what is barely enough to enable [a

laborer] to bring up a family, or to continue the race of laborers”


It is the capitalists who are calculated to be the most

qualified to serve as government officials, it is the capitalists who

have the most control over the market through manipulation of their

money, and in the end it is still the capitalists who Smith thinks

need to be protected from the poor. This lack of provision for the

laborer makes Smith’s system rather unsatisfying.

Alexis de Tocqueville offers a more satisfying system stemming

from the same faith in individual sovereignty. Where Smith states,

“Every individual . . . can, in his local situation judge much better

than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him” (265), de Tocqueville

says, “Providence has given each individual the amount of reason

necessary for him to look after himself in matters of his own

exclusive concern. That is the great maxim on which civil and

political society in the United States rests…” (397) The phraseology

of these similar arguments is demonstrative if the different emphasis

of the authors. Smith’s phrase inherently limits government whereas de

Tocqueville’s includes it in government. By turning his focus to

political society, de Tocqueville highlights the role of positive

liberty 5 in government and builds an argument for the protection of

political liberty and individual freedom, which he considers to be

built into aristocratic society, but easily lost in democratic

society. In defining liberty, de Tocqueville applauds the following

definition of freedom by Winthrop: “There is a civil, a moral, a

federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority: it

is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty

you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives. . .This liberty

is maintained in a way of subjection to authority; and the authority

set over you will in all administrations for your good be quietly

submitted unto, by all but such as have a disposition to shake off the

yoke, and lose their true liberty, by their murmuring at the honour

and power of authority” (46). This definition emphasizes positive

liberty, which is maintained through subjection to the authorities

which have liberty as their goal. Implicit in this definition then is

the assertion that government will has the power to act in the name of


In an aristocratic society, negative liberty in the form of

freedom from arbitrary control is built into the system. Also, for the

aristocrats, positive liberty in the form of ability to act as a group

exists. The question which de Tocqueville faces in describing

democracy is how to expand these liberties to include all people.

Positive liberty is opened to all people by extending the suffrage

and electing a representative government, but there are no structural

barriers to protect the negative liberties.

Alexis de Tocqueville is especially concerned with the

tendency towards tyranny of the majority. He therefore examines the

institutions in American society which will balance the tendency of

the majority to overpower its opposition. One such system is that of

strong local government. De Tocqueville agrees with Smith that people

should be allowed to take care of their own affairs because they are

closer to them. He then extends his analysis beyond this to include

the social benefits of strong local government. “Local liberties . . .

bring men constantly into contact, . . . and force them to help one

another” (511). Such social benefits are the more important

consideration for de Tocqueville. If society can be maintained in a

way which counteracts the overpowering strength of the majority,

liberty will continue. Unlike Smith, however, de Tocqueville does not

think that this argument for strong local government leads to the

conclusion that federal government should be extremely limited. In

fact, de Tocqueville expects the tasks of government to perpetually

increase. This conclusion is based on the assertion that men will be

less and less able to produce the bare necessities (515). Smith agrees

with this statement but expects the market to step in and provide all

that is desired. De Tocqueville does argue that the government must

never wholly usurp the place of private associations.

Implicit in his criticism of Adam Smith’s industrial economy,

which argued that the industrial aristocracy would abandon the poor to

government support, is the assertion that government will take

responsibility for the poor. De Tocqueville observes that in the

United States the framers of government had “a higher and more

comprehensive conception of the duties of society toward its members

than had the lawgivers of Europe at that time, and they imposed

obligations upon it which were still shirked elsewhere. There was a

provision for the poor . . .” (44). The phrases chosen demonstrate de

Tocqueville’s support for the programs. While Adam Smith would argue

that these provisions would hinder the free market by redistributing

income and interfering taxation, de Tocqueville is clearly asserting

that the duty of society to its members does include obligations to

protect the weaker members of society.

One of Smith’s reasons that government should be limited is

because there is no group of people who will rule with the good of

society in mind. By turning the focus away from the individual or

class of people who will be the magistrates and towards the system of

selection, de Tocqueville makes a case for not needing to limit

democratic government as severely as Smith would like. “It is

certainly not the elected magistrate who makes the American democracy

prosper, but the fact that the magistrates are elected” (512). The

people collectively will elect a group of representatives who will

have the power to make laws, but the power of executing them will be

left to the lower officials. “Often only the goal to be aimed at is

indicated to [the magistrates], and they are left to choose their own

means” (206). In this way, the power of government is great, but the

power of each individual to turn it to personal gain is small.

It is not the definitions of liberty offered by the two

theorists which are wholly incompatible, but rather the assertions

about the workings of society and the conclusions about the role of

government. Adam Smith’s account provides a good argument for the

power of the market and for a laissez-faire governmental policy.

Unfortunately, his theory fails to account for the societal problems

such as maintenance of the poor. Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory uses

the same considerations of individual rights and self-interested

motives, but examines more closely the societal institutions which can

balance governmental action. He therefore relegates a larger role to

government which includes a duty to take care of its members through

legislation aimed at liberty.