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Liberty: Adam Smith and Alexis De Tocqueville


 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 way. 

 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 institution.
 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" (226).
 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 society.
 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
 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
 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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