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State and Liberty: Democracy in America

The Montreal Review, March 2010

Is the state an enemy of individual liberty?


State relations with the individual and public liberties is always a topic of debate. Today, in the United States people ask should the health care be in the hands of the government or not? Should the government control and subsidize big private companies and banks with taxpayers' money or is it better that the economy stay in the invisible hands of free market? From the other side of the ocean, in China, nobody has the right to ask, but people in local communities are angry of the corruption of their non-elected administrators. In China national minorities, living in the outskirts of this vast state, are suppressed and depraved of basic political rights. In Russia, state nurtured oligarchs control the country's wealth and natural resources, while the ordinary citizen is nurtured with nationalistic propaganda and mild cult of personality to a former KGB officer. In Europe, perhaps 90 percent of the population do not know who their representatives in the European Parliament are and what exactly these bureaucrats do. In Africa, corrupted state officials torture the population with famine and misery while stealing foreign aid. In the Middle East, state politics and religion are enmeshed in iron tyranny over a population that suffers from anger and confusion... We can list a countless number of contemporary and past examples when the state and its agents abuse individual liberties and basic human rights and deprive people of happiness. The question about the state and individual liberty is always pressing.


In this article, I would like to speak about principles, not about particular events. Quite unusually, this writing will not be based on a re-reading of John Locke, D. Hume, Adam Smith or another classical liberal thinker, nor I will stop on some more contemporary authors such as Rand, Berlin, Rawls or Arendt. I will use the political insights of two writers very different in style and thought - Alexis de Tocqueville and Georg Friedrich Hegel.

Tocqueville and Hegel together are an unordinary combination. Tocqueville is a practical mind, a French aristocrat with talent for storytelling. His insights on French Revolution and democracy in America are an intellectual feast, the deepness of his thought, the sagacity of his observations, the freedom of his intellectual imaginations are not cleaved by the dry language and obscure terminology of the average political philosopher. Tocqueville writes like an aristocrat, but an intellectual one. His writing is like a play, because it is noble. He does not undervalue the reader's intelligence, and knows that the political philosopher must enjoy his work in order to give enjoyment to his readers too. There is no boredom in Tocqueville's company even in the moments when he delves into the most detailed descriptions of American political constitution.

On the other hand, in Hegel, we have a gloomy German professor with a stone face and profound erudition; a person able to construct immense metaphysical cathedrals without interior contradictions, a mind that re-creates a new world - a system of spiritual existence in which all human history can be laid down without doubts. Reading Hegel means getting small and insignificant. The protestant rigor of this great mind does not care about reader's esthetical enjoyment of reading; it cares only about the idea, the subject of his interest, which is the World Spirit. Of course, Hegel is one of the most criticized philosophers. From Marx to Schopenhauer and Popper, his fellow thinkers compete with each other to say how wrong and mystic he is. Yet, the words of the great minds are always battled, opposed and distorted, and Hegel is not an exception.

So let us start with the question. Is the state an enemy of individual liberty?

To answer this question I have to clarify what I mean under "state" and "liberty". Under "state", before all, I understand a product of human society and will. The state is a human work that operates through human, not physical, laws. This is important. We cannot change the physical laws, but the human laws and norms always depend on our reason and will. The state is not a material entity, although it has power over both the material and social world. The state is a composition of institutions that regulate social and physical environment over a given territory. It regulates its dominion with coercive power. The power is one of its greatest features. Like in the frontispiece of Hobbes' "Leviathan", its body draws energy from the will of a great number of individuals. The state is simultaneously evil and good. It subjugates and liberates. There is one antithesis to the state, it is the anarchy. The primary goal of every state is the creation of political order. It can be bad or good order, but never anarchy. State is the highest form of human organization, it is a concentration and management of power for a goal. How this power is used and what is its goal are fundamental questions.

What do I understand under "individual liberty"? Individual liberty, in my opinion, means free conscience and sense of hope. Freedom of conscience and a sense of hope are the fundaments of free society. Why? Because freedom of conscience is the seed from which a democratic political order can arise. On the other hand, the sense of hope, which is durable only in a free and democratic environment, is the only positive motive for political, economic, and social activity. The sense of hope creates strong families, successful businesses, and just political orders. The lack of hope leads to indifference, misery, and war. One of the first impressions that a man can receive from a visit in a poor country, ruled by corrupted government, is the desperation imprinted on the peoples' faces.

In Tocqueville's "Democracy of America", we see people led by hope to a foreign land. Some of these people were adventurers, others aristocrats, but the majority of them were members of Christian sects who had left their mother country with the hope that they would find a land where they can worship in freedom. These were people full of hope. The most important thing for them was the freedom of conscience that was lacking in their native countries. They left their countries in purely intellectual need, "they wanted to make an idea triumph", says Tocqueville (p. 32). In New England, these pilgrims had organized in a civil body for their own "better ordering and preservation" (Nathaniel Morton quoted by Tocqueville, p. 35). They had organized themselves in a community that grew up into a state that respected the first immigrants' ideas for freedom and dignity. The state they built was not an enemy of individual liberty. Quite the contrary, they built a society organized in a completely different way from all existing political orders. They created democracy in America, where equality and personal freedom were the most cherished political goals. Thus, we already have an answer to our question. The state is not necessarily an enemy of individual liberty.

If we agree in principle that the new American state was good for individual liberties, 1 what were its main features according to Tocqueville's observations? The immigrants who came from the traditional societies in Europe created this state (p. 29). They did not forge the social and political order they knew from their mother countries, because they were people who valued freedom and who fled from oppression; they came in a land that was wild, but free from nobilities, rigid social norms, and established political orders. The virginity of the new continent and the relatively equal social and material status of the new immigrants allowed them to create a new society where the traditional superiority of the ranks did not exist. Most of the immigrants were educated middle class people. They were educated because they were Protestant Christians, People of the Book. Religion was the source of enlightenment in America, says Tocqueville (p.42). Protestantism in Europe was the religion of the personal salvation, of individual effort in search of God. Puritans, Methodist, Quakers, Baptists - all these diverse groups - had common features. They had a strong sense of time, they were afraid of spending their days in leisure, and because of that they were industrious and disciplined people. Their profession was their vocation (See Max Weber's "Protestant Ethics..."). They valued literacy, because their religion in contrast with the ritualism and paternalism in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity rested on daily reading and individual interpretation of the Bible. They had a Calvinistic spirit; their material success was a proof for the approval of God. They were disciplined and adequate people. They never completely acknowledged human authorities neither in Church, nor in state. The highest authority they had was the Bible (p.62). The religious spirit was the foundation of the new American state. 2

This state was not an enemy of individual liberty. Because of religion, there was social conservatism (p.39), the moral behaviour was very important and social approval was critical in the early American communities, but there was also political liberalism. Politics was open for all, public life was not a prerogative of the aristocrats, people participated in creation of local and federal laws and government, they had voting rights, and taxation was always by consent (p. 43). In America the two opposites, religion and spirit of freedom, were reconciled. "Religion sees in civil freedom a noble exercise of the faculties of man... Freedom sees in religion the companion of its struggles and its triumphs...," writes Tocqueville (p.43). In America, there was aspiration to equality in everything. People did not find pleasure in demonstration of their material, intellectual or social superiority (p. 171). The Americans were pragmatic people (p.51), the haughtiness and aristocratic vanity were foreign to their culture; pride was not good for trade and for the social relationships, it was un-Christian. What the Americans love with an "eternal love" was equality, says Tocqueville (p.52).

The political order that they built rested on three pillars: township, county, and state (p.56). The most important of these was the local government. Township was the basic political structure and the central government of the state did not have control over it. The town councils consisted of local people who knew and cared about the problems of community (p.62). State apparatus in America was invisible, far from daily life of citizens (p.67). State officials were elected on their posts and the administrators did not have special privileges or importance as it was in Europe. The Americans were independent people; they were educated to rely on their own industry and talents, not on state patronage and support.

In America, there was division of powers. Legislature, executive power, judicial system, local governments, and central government, had different functions and were constrained by one another through a system of checks and balances. The government was decentralized, divided by small townships concerned with their own particular problems. The county did not interfere in the affairs of the townships, nor the state. The glue that kept the country united was not the central power that decides and directs on behalf of all counties and townships, but the common law that was respected and accepted by all. Between lawmakers, judges and government, there was a clear division. In Europe, Louis XIV declared "L'etat, c'est moi!" He was the law and the government; he was the state. In democratic America, the executive power did not have supremacy over the legislative assemblies (pp.76-78). People elected state administration for a certain period; there was no administrative hierarchy like in France, where during the Ancient Regime the state officials were subordinate in a complicated hierarchical structure, managed by appointed by the monarch Inspector General. The American citizen was safe from the dangers and abuses of the state officials. In America the existence of cronies benefiting from the central power was impossible; the corruption of state officials was not as widespread as in Europe.

"Proponents of centralization say that central government is better ruling local centers," writes Tocqueville, "but this is only good and true when the center is enlightened or possessing a good political culture and the locals are uneducated and unable to govern themselves without the risk of anarchy" (p.83). But the truth is that the central power no matter how enlightened, how learned it is, cannot gather to itself alone all the details of the life of a great people. It cannot do it because such a work exceeds human strength (p.86). Self-government may look sometimes incompetent and imperfect, but it is always better than the central state control and the appointed bureaucracy. Tocqueville says that self-government helped the Americans to build "schools as numerous as efficient; churches more in touch with the religious needs of the inhabitants; common highways better maintained..." (p.87) State did not interfere in local affairs and individual lives. People were free to act, to organize, and speak. The absence of state taught them to be responsible and independent, to rely on their own power and the power of their community (pp.180-181). The state is an enemy of individual freedom not only when suppresses, but also when meddles in individual affairs with intention to help. Following this logic, the welfare state could be harmful for society and freedoms, because it risks to making people dependant, weak, "tenants" (in Tocqeville's words), unenterprising.

In American democracy, the state was far from the daily life of the citizens, and the Church was not an arm of the state. People were free to express opinion; they had freedom of speech (pp. 178-180). They belonged to different religious denominations, there was no official religion, and they were free to organize in social, political and trade associations for their common good. The ordinary American was educated to be independent, to rely on his own efforts; this helped him to follow his own views without fear. He had the right to express doubts and freedom to experiment in business. Voluntary membership in civil associations polished his opinions and taught him how to communicate with his fellow citizens. The facility with which people associated helped minorities to resist the tyranny of majority. The tyranny of majority, along with the danger of inequality, was the greatest peril for the American democracy, according to Tocqueville (p. 183). Meanwhile, the citizen was not forced to scarify his convictions for the good of the organizations in which he was a member. In free associations, the individual is always independent and nobody expects from him full submission. Thus, the organizations in America seldom submitted their members, and their leaders never had an absolute and lasting authority.

In America, the state did not censor the press. Publication of newspapers was cheap and easy, the state did not issue licenses for every rag. Multiplicity of newspapers and opinions were heating the public passions, but never to the point of revolution. Multiplicity of opinions, the lack of authoritative public voices, did not debase public opinion, but taught people to be careful and be fair judges in debates. The wrong ideas disappeared through a natural selection, without special intervention from the state or from some enlightened, educated elite as it was in Europe.

I have offered, using Tocqueville's observations on American democracy, only a few examples of the state that is not an enemy of individual liberty. Of course, American democracy had and still has defects. There is no perfect state. But American institutions were novelty in the 18th and 19th century, they were different from the contemporary European monarchic and aristocratic orders. Moreover, the American democracy was an experiment that had no match in history.

The main thesis in Hegel's "Philosophy of history" is the existence of a World Spirit (Geist) that simultaneously creates human history and develops itself within the historical process. The Spirit manifests itself in human institutions; he is progressing from one stage of expression to another as every consequent stage is improvement from the previous one. The ultimate aim of Spirit's movement is the achievement of Freedom. Political institutions, systems of governance, the rise and fall of the empires and states, every new stage in history of political organization, works only for the improvement of the conditions in human existence.

Spirit is a divine impulse for creativity. And creativity flourishes only in freedom. Through freedom, the Spirit creates a material world, and through its own creation (the material world), the Spirit advances to freedom. This is an eternal process. The Spirit inhabits states and places where the freedom has reached its last point. The Spirit departs from a state or a place where freedom becomes insufficient or diminishing, leaving behind an empty shell of institutions without substance. There is no backward movement in Spirit's wanderings. According to Hegel we can look at history as an instant progress. The creation of American state in 18th century was the last manifestation of the World Spirit. American democracy was something unprecedented in human history - a whole continent, where people were free, educated, and materially thriving; where the origin and social status was not an obstacle to human ambitions and self-realization; where the state was built not for the wellbeing of the ruling classes, aristocrats and monarchs, but for the individuals.

According to Hegel, the Spirit, like the Sun, travels from East to West. This is not only geographical movement. It is the movement of history to freedom. History is the development of the human societies, culture and institutions, the measure for its advance is the level of achieved freedom. The Hegelian view is Christian and Eurocentric and because of that, it is not widely appreciated. This view has for a basis the decline and inferiority of the non-Christian societies and political systems. According to this view, the history progresses from East to West, and the end of the history, during the time of Hegel, was in Europe. Human institutions, with the advance of time and change of geography, are changing from ancient tyranny to democracy (Hegel sees in the German - West European- world and modern monarchy the last expression of Spirit). "The East knew and to the present day knows only that one is free", says Hegel, "the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that all are free" (p.104). And he continues, "the first political form therefore which we observe in History, is Despotism (Oriental states), the second Democracy (Greek polis) and Aristocracy (Rome), and the third Monarchy (West Europe)" (p.104). Therefore, the state, with the progress of time is becoming less oppressive and individual freedom more present.

In the Oriental state, only one, the despot, had freedom. This was the childhood of history, says Hegel. The Greek world he compares with the adolescence - some had freedom, but their freedom was more esthetical, than real. The Roman world was the third phase; the state was detached from the individuals (through the supremacy of law and tradition), it was an abstract entity, a Republic serving the Roman community, but above all the aristocracy. The fourth phase, according to Hegel, was the Germanic world, based on developed into a political form Christianity (pp. 103-110). In German world, the old antagonism between Secular State and Church vanished; the old Christian doctrine of two kingdoms had became non-valid. In the West European world, the spiritual freedom in Christian religion was reconnected with political institutions. Christianity became the source of individualism in Western civilization and political order.

Hegel's philosophical insights seem mystical, but they are not wrong if they are taken in principle and without modern biases. The Western democratic, capitalist state is not an enemy of individual liberty. It is not perfect, but today it is the most favourable political and economic system to individual liberties. The institutions of the western state serve, first of all, the individuals, and later the community. People living in the West understand this fact only when they travel in Eastern countries and witness the power of community and state over the individual there. Western culture is individualistic. And it is such, not because of the Enlightenment, but because of the Reformation. Individualism is a Christian heritage, because Christianity, in its true form, is a religion of personal salvation, in which the ritualism (as in Judaism) is missing, and politics (as in Islam) is lacking.

We have seen that the American state and its institutions, were a product of the will of immigrants, of Christians persecuted in their native countries because of their belief. They transmitted their culture in the political institutions they have built. Hegel explains this very well. Many emigrated, he says, to seek religious freedom (p.84). In America they united in establishment of civil rights, security and freedom, "and a community arising from the aggregation of individuals as atomic constituents; so that the state was merely something external for the protection of property" (p.84).

For a conclusion I would say that the state is not necessarily an enemy of individual liberty. The anarchy means lack of order. It is worse than a bad state. We can know if a state is good for the liberties through one simple sign - if its order is more visible than its existence.


1 I do not undervalue the existence of slavery or the harsh treatment of indigenous people. There is not an ideal political system. Some particularities in America such as non-universal suffrage (blacks and women were excluded) and racial discrimination, American ideals not always match the American realities. Yet, here in this article, I want to show how new and different was the American society and state in comparison with the traditional societies in Europe and other parts of the world.

2 I speak mostly about the colonies in New England. The South had different constitutions and norms, but after the Civil war, the North eventually succeeded to impose its principles of governing and social order. 


Tocqueville's Democracy in America is now available in a bilingual French/English edition. The edition consists of hundreds of previously unpublished variants, texts, travel notes and correspondence. The four English volume translation can be downloaded free at The Online Library of Liberty.


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