How Democracy Leads to Tyranny Essay

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Political Philosophy II: Theories of Freedom

To answer the questions of why De Tocqueville and Mill think that democracy is a threat to the liberty of the individual and whether they are right, this paper will show that both De Tocqueville and Mill viewed democracy as a mechanism that could easily become tyrannical and thus overwhelm one's individual liberty. Considering that democracy in its various forms (direct, representative, constitutional) is capable of being corrupted (voters and/or representatives may be bribed, coerced, misinformed, misled, subjugated, harassed, mobbed, and so on), it is not difficult to see that both Tocqueville and Mill are correct in their arguments: democracy can be a threat to the liberty of the individual -- precisely because it is not necessarily predicated on truth, rightness, or goodness. Is there any system of government that does not represent a potential threat to the liberty of the individual when it is not predicated on truth, rightness or goodness? As Plato argues in The Republic, the ideal state is one that is led by a philosopher-king, who pursues truth and views the citizens as his own children, and who makes correct decisions for them in the same manner as a father makes for his family.[footnoteRef:1] For society to function there has to be some limit as to what is permitted and what is not permitted (in terms of rightness and wrongness). Mill's standpoint is that what is permitted should be based on what is deemed to make them happiest -- i.e., the greatest good for society (a pragmatic -- or utilitarian -- consideration). For Tocqueville, the question of what is permitted has a decidedly more moral character (which is rooted in his traditional sense of moral order as promoted by the Church). Ironically, personal liberty, in both cases, takes a back seat to moral or natural order and the common good. [1: Plato, The Republic, Book V.]

The concept of liberty was enshrined in Western society along with fraternity and equality during the Enlightenment -- the French Revolution formally -- but practically speaking in the American Revolution. De Tocqueville, a French Catholic who travelled to America to investigate firsthand the grand democratic experiment, described some of the inherent conflicts of interest posed by liberty in a democratic society: as a Catholic, Tocqueville's perspective was fashioned by a sense of moral order and correctness (right and wrong according to both natural and supernatural law) -- and therein lay the difficulty. Liberty of the press, for instance, could be seen as a safeguard against tyranny and authoritarianism by giving voice to the opinion of just men and women -- but it could also give way to the base and/or false opinions of an individual suddenly becoming adopted by the whole, which would be bad in an altogether different way (there would be liberty but error would reign).[footnoteRef:2] With error reigning over the minds of men, liberty would not last long in turn, for the need for more and more control would quickly be evident (and control would likely not be applied in a correct or moral manner). [2: Alexander De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, chapter 11, para 3.]

Mill likewise held that one's personal actions are "right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
"[footnoteRef:3] In order to elaborate on this definition of rightness, Mill had to define happiness -- which he did from an inherently Enlightenment perspective. For Mill, happiness is the absence of pain. In terms of governance, social pain comes by way of social tyranny, which is produced by the issuance of "wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which [society] ought not to meddle."[footnoteRef:4] Mill speaks of propriety with the same reverence as Tocqueville inherently holds for natural and moral law. He warned that individuals need to be protected "against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."[footnoteRef:5] Finding the limit of "legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence" was a matter that society must consider "as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs."[footnoteRef:6] That limit, today, is less clear than it was in Mill's own time. [3: J. S. Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2, para 2.] [4: J. S. Mill, On Liberty, introduction, para 5.] [5: J. S. Mill, On Liberty, introduction, para 5.] [6: J. S. Mill, On Liberty, introduction, para 5.]

The reason it is less clear is that the modern conception of democracy is less clear, just as the modern conception of goodness, rightness, correctness, truth, and virtue are less clear.[footnoteRef:7] Lickona argues that there is "no consensus" as to what character education even means or what it should consist of. Meanwhile, education curriculum is constructed by a group at a centralized level of power (individuals appointed by the President). Democracy has little to do with how various aspects of society are situated. As Kolodny notes, "an alternative form of rule, where social decisions would be made by an unchosen class, whether defined by birth, or virtue, or training, is not so much as seriously contemplated"[footnoteRef:8] -- and yet it is precisely what exists in today's so-called democractic societies. In fact, the inverse of what Mill and Tocqueville feared has come true: personal liberty (to a degree) is guaranteed (one may choose one's gender, one's sexual preferences, one's method of becoming an indentured servant) -- but one has very little choice as to who will govern (a two party system that so often resembles a one party system does not provide much choice, after all). Jones notes that this is the modern trade-off: personal liberty (typically sexual) for totalitarian control (political submission).[footnoteRef:9] By enshrining liberty in 1791, the West yielded up its liberty: in other words, liberty is not a foundation upon which one builds, but rather an outcome that is yielded from adherence to truth, rightness and order, as Plato indicated -- and what Mill….....

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De Tocqueville, Alexander. Democracy in America. Gutenberg.

Jones, E. Michael. Libido Dominandi. IN: St. Augustine Press, 2000.

Kolodny, Niko. "Rule Over None I: What Justifies Democracy?" Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 42, no. 3 (2014): 195-208.

Lickona, T. "The Return of Character Education," Educational Leadership, vol. 51, no. 3 (1993): 6-11.

Mill, J. S. On Liberty. Bartleby.

Plato. The Republic. IEP.

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