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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

After his and Beaumont’s visit to the United States in 1835 Tocqueville identified quite quickly one of the unique aspects of American society of that time, namely the part played by voluntary private associations in the organization of social, political, and economic affairs. He thought that people had the right to “associate freely in everything” and that the “art of association” was the “mother science” which could be used to explain both how American society functioned as well as how complex social and economic problems might be solved. However Tocqueville felt obliged to reassure his conservative readers that free “political associations” were not dangerous to the state (as they were in France since the Revolution) in the long term. He admitted that that “after disturbing the State for a time, liberty of association strengthens it.”

Other quotes about Politics & Liberty:

27 June, 2011

Tocqueville250

Tocqueville on the spirit of association (1835)

Read the full quote in context here.

The French aristocrat and liberal politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was intrigued by “the spirit of association” which he saw everywhere in North America and came to the conclusion that there would be considerable benefits if men and women were “to associate freely in everything”:

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it.

When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it.

When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.

When certain associations are forbidden and others allowed, it is difficult in advance to distinguish the first from the second. In case of doubt, you refrain from all, and a sort of public opinion becomes established that tends to make you consider any association like a daring and almost illicit enterprise.1

So it is a chimera to believe that the spirit of association, repressed at one point, will allow itself to develop with the same vigor at all the others, and that it will be enough to permit men to carry out certain enterprises together, for them to hurry to try it. When citizens have the ability and the habit of associating for all things, they will associate as readily for small ones as for great ones. But if they can associate only for small ones, they will not even find the desire and the capacity to do so. In vain will you allow them complete liberty to take charge of their business together; they will only nonchalantly use the rights that you grant them; and after you have exhausted yourself with efforts to turn them away from the forbidden associations, you will be surprised at your inability to persuade them to form the permitted ones.

I am not saying that there can be no civil associations in a country where political association is forbidden; for men can never live in society without giving themselves to some common enterprise. But I maintain that in such a country civil associations will always be very few in number, weakly conceived, ineptly led, and that they will never embrace vast designs, or will fail while wanting to carry them out.

This leads me naturally to think that liberty of association in political matters is not as dangerous for public tranquillity as is supposed, and that it could happen that after disturbing the State for a time, liberty of association strengthens it.

In democratic countries, political associations form, so to speak, the only powerful individuals who aspire to rule the State. Consequently the governments [v. princes] of today consider these types of associations in the same way that the kings of the Middle Ages saw the great vassals of the crown: they feel a kind of instinctive horror for them and combat them at every occasion.

[More works by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) and on 19th Century French Liberalism]