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Analysis of Liberty in Society


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.



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