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
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
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.