Tocqueville & Rand, Contrasting Views of Individualism
By Tibor Machan - August 06, 2014

Individualism – a Hundred Years Apart

As a rather friendly observer of 19th Century America, Alexis de Tocqueville oddly shared a view of individualism with someone who isn't usually linked to his political viewpoint, namely, Karl Marx. This is understandable, to some degree, since de Tocqueville held various aristocratic premises the absence of which Marx also found to be lamentable in America's largely capitalist society.

Yet there was a difference between these two thinkers that influenced their attitudes toward the new world. Tocqueville admired individual independence or individuality, even while he expressed concerns about individualism. Marx, on the other hand, was opposed to the very possibility of individual independence, claiming that "The human essence is the true collectivity of man."[1] Why, then, did Tocqueville have the concerns he expressed about individualism, given his respect for individuality?

Here is where Ayn Rand's version of individualism – along with that of David L. Norton's – can help us out as a remedy to what Tocqueville appears to have misunderstood.[2] The crux of the matter, to provide a hint as to where this discussion is headed, concerns Tocqueville's pessimistic view of human nature, not an unusual feature of the generally conservative social and political philosophy he articulated in Democracy in America.[3] Drawing as he did on a religious – indeed, Roman Catholic – tradition in his understanding of human nature, it is not all that curious that while admiring the human capacity for independent thought and, thus, a polity that nurtured it, Tocqueville also feared the prospect of democratic or free men and women withdrawing into themselves, yielding to narrowly selfish inclinations, and thus leaving the concerns of the public realm to a central government. This way Tocqueville showed a curious paradoxical worry that it would be individualism that fueled expanded statism in free societies.[4]

In contrast, and less paradoxically, Rand believed that an ethical individualism or egoism would fend off statism, provided it is properly understood and practiced. If Tocqueville's pessimistic understanding of human nature is traded in for Rand's more neutral or even optimistic view – her "new concept of egoism" or individualism – the results of individualism would not be the shunting of public responsibility but the vigilant pursuit of a public policy of limited government.

Tocqueville's Individuality versus Individualism

In a widely discussed passage Tocqueville says,

…in the midst of the continual movement which agitates a democratic community, the tie which unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken; every man there readily loses all trace of ideas of his forefathers, or takes no care about them. Men living in this state of society cannot derive their belief from the opinions of the class to which they belong; for, so to speak, there are no longer any classes, or those which still exist are composed of such mobile elements, that the body can never exercise any real control over its members. As to the influence which the intellect of one man may have on that of another, it must necessarily be very limited in a country where the citizens, placed on an equal footing, are all closely seen by each other; and where, as no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority are perceived in any one of them, they are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition for trusting the authority of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up in his own, and affects from that point to judge the world.

Why does Tocqueville have this view of American democracy and culture? He answers this by saying,

I have shown how it is that in ages of equality every man seeks for his opinions within himself; I am now to show how it is that in the same ages all his feelings are turned towards himself alone. Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart."

He goes on, and I quote him at some length here, to elaborate this as follows:

Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition.

Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for centuries in the same condition, often in the same spot, all generations become, as it were, contemporaneous. A man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them; he thinks he already sees his remote descendants and he loves them. He willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will come after him. Aristocratic institutions, moreover, have the effect of closely binding every man to several of his fellow citizens. As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and permanent, each of them is regarded by its own members as a sort of lesser country, more cherished and more tangible than the country at large.

As in aristocratic communities all the citizens occupy fixed positions, one above another, the result is that each of them always sees a man above himself whose patronage is necessary to him, and below himself another man whose co-operation he may claim. Men living in aristocratic ages are therefore almost always closely attached to something placed out of their own sphere, and they are often disposed to forget themselves. It is true that in these ages the notion of human fellowship is faint and that men seldom think of sacrificing themselves for mankind; but they often sacrifice themselves for other men. In democratic times, on the contrary, when the duties of each individual to the race become much more clear, devoted service to any one man becomes more rare; the bond of human affection is extended, but it is relaxed.

Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.[5]

It is necessary to relate these long passages from Tocqueville because he reveals in them his conception of individualism, which is but a fraction more lofty – by which he means more ennobling, dignified – than selfishness. And Tocqueville's idea of selfishness is not of the type that we encounter even in the crudest of ethical egoisms, according to which one ought to serve one's own interests as one conceives of them.[6] It is rather of the psychological egoist type, according to which one will, driven by one's instincts, serve one's raw, momentary desires. This is the egoism associated with Thomas Hobbes and how he understands human beings in the state of nature, bent on overcoming the fear of death, bent on self-preservation and no more.

As Tocqueville characterizes it, there is a "too ardent and too exclusive tastes for well-being that men in times of equality feel."[7] Men have, what Tocqueville characterizes as an innate "love of wealth, but they can still [be] persuade[d] … to enrich themselves by honest means," which is the benign version of individualism that religion can help them to cultivate in a democracy. He states unequivocally, that "Materialism, among all nations, is a dangerous dis­ease of the human mind."[8]

Individualism, as Tocqueville conceives of it is more elevated, but only by a bit. Individualism "disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself." Why would this be Tocqueville's understanding of how an individualist would act? I believe this is based on his admittedly implicit religious and, therefore, substantially pessimistic view of human nature. So he does not credit human beings with a broad, what we might call classical egoist sensibility we can derive from Aristotelianism.

In terms of such a sensibility, a good human individual attends to his or her basic requirements and aspirations, pursues his or her happiness – eudaimonia – in life, which, however, includes one public interest as well. A classical individualist or egoist is one who realizes that apart from his or her own good life, and those of his or her intimates, there is the community within which all this is to be achieved that needs being taken good care of. Not that people will necessarily conduct themselves according to this ethics but there is nothing innately blocking them from doing so, such as original sin or an Hobbesian anti-social disposition. As Rand argues,

A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code.

"Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.[9]

Since paying heed to the structure of one's society is clearly among the projects that are best for an individual, since any individual can be committed to pursuing what is in fact good for oneself in this robust sense – for without taking care of the polity, all else is put at risk (just recall Rick's words at the end of Casablanca, when he decides to forego romance so as to secure liberty, which is in evident peril) – Tocqueville's belief that those on an individualist disposition would neglect public affairs must be grounded in his underlying pessimism. This is the pessimism so familiar within conservative sensibilities – Edmund Burke, is the classic proponent, and Russell Kirk is his 20th century epigone.

Rand's Optimistic Individualism

Contrast this with the much more optimistic or at least neutral conception of the human individual we find in Ayn Rand. She sees human beings as having the choice to become morally excellent and she understands by moral excellence the fullest possible actualization in each individual's life of one's human nature – being as completely as possible a rational animal, "a being of volitional consciousness."[10]

Ayn Rand rejects the Christian, Hobbesian or Freudian idea that there are built in destructive or even anti-social drives or instincts within human nature. This is her main critique of the doctrine of original sin, for example.[11] The idea that human beings are born tabula rasa means for Rand not – as it does for the very popular and prominent contemporary philosopher of mind, Harvard University's Johnstone Family Professor Steven Pinker – that there is no human nature, nothing definite that a human mind is.[12] It means, rather, that human nature involves a creative consciousness, one that has the capacity to freely attend to the world, to be alert to what the world provides it via the human sensory organs and what that activated faculty of human reason can discern by integrating and differentiating the evidence so provided. Rand's philosophy of human nature – with its major component of freedom of the will and the moral responsibility to excel as such a being of volitional consciousness – leaves it entirely up to the individual to actualize the potential for becoming as good at being human as one's circumstances will make possible. This kind of egoism or individualism requires one to live rationally. And living rationally requires that one acknowledge not only the immense benefits of a successful personal, family, fraternal and related life but also as a citizen.

Accordingly, whereas Tocqueville's pessimistic conception of an individualist human nature leads him to be deeply concerned with how individualism can serve the purpose of securing a just and effective political regime, Rand's implies the opposite. Only an individualist understanding of the moral life – the understanding that makes prudence a moral imperative at all levels of one's life – can promise a successful disposition toward politics. As she puts the point,

Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men: Living in a human society is his proper way of life – but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreement they entered).[13]

In this connection it will be useful to consider certain points raised by Adrian Bardon.[14] He brings up an issue that's central concerning the nature of basic individual rights that the American founders proposed as the foundations of a constitutional government (and were, in fact, partly incorporated and elaborate in the Bill of Rights).

Bardon argues that he has successfully "cast doubt on that approach to rights" that holds that "there are negative rights that cannot be outweighed."[15] Interestingly there is no need to go much further since Bardon's way of putting his point already shows how wide of the mark he is concerning an essential feature or nature of rights. Specifically, individual rights, the unalienable sort the Declaration lists, aren't like other good things – such as ice skating, volley ball, dinner at home or at a restaurant, a vacation in Hawaii or one in Italy – which may be weighed and compared. It's a category mistake to think they are, not unlike thinking that one can weigh seconds or that fingers can think about something.

Consider a very widely accepted right, that of a woman to be free of rape. What would it mean to have such a right outweighed? Bardon's conception of such a basic right raises the possibility that someone might weigh it against, say, a desperate male's desire to gain sexual satisfaction by using her against her will. But this is quite out of the question – the two are incomparable, incommensurate. The right to be free is a principle – a firm limit or a basic standard of right conduct if you will – which identifies the fact that women are free to do as they choose involving their own bodies, that they are sovereign authorities concerning how to live their sex lives, to whom they will give their consent to engage in sex, etc.[16]

Of course, Bardon is concerned with property rights but he forgets that these, too, are rights to action, not rights to objects. As Ayn Rand makes clear, "the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values."[17]

Put another way, the right to private property is a right to acquire and to hold – which are both actions – various items no one has previously acquired and is holding – or ones others who have acquired them and are holding are willing, freely, to part with (another action).

So, in fact, private property rights are akin to rights to act freely – as when one acts to engage in consensual sex or work or recreation. In the case of property rights, one acts to engage in, as it were, consensual acquisition or holding of some items. (Notice, no one may impose ownership on another against his or her consent because of this right to freedom of actions such as acquisition and holding.)

Thus, property rights identify someone's sphere or range of freedom of action vis-à-vis items in the world, not unlike the manner in which the right to freedom of speech spells out spheres of freedom of action vis-à-vis verbal or written expression of ideas. Indeed, these latter presuppose the right to private property, for speeches need to be given someplace to which one has a right or gained permission from those who do, and writing takes places on materials (paper, blackboards, sand, computers, etc.)

Now it is true that others could well desperately need the items someone has come to own by exercising the right to acquisition and holding but since that exercise may not be interfered with and interference with it would place others in the position of violating the agent's basic rights – that is, sovereignty – consent needs to be secured in order to obtain even such desperately needed items. A need cannot be weighed against a right, anymore than a wish or desire or urgent want can be weighed against a right.

There can be no weighing involved, not between rights, nor between rights and needs, etc., although a rights holder could very well weigh whether to hang on to what he or she owns, contribute it to the person in dire need, to some cause or project, or otherwise dispose of it in light of his or her weighing of the importance of these alternative possibilities. The weighing is not of different rights or different people's rights but of the importance or value of the goals to which one may contribute what one has the right to freely acquire.

Here is what would happen if the weighing were about rights. Someone would have to do the weighing. By what right would such a person weigh other people's rights? Would that person's right to weigh also be open to being weighed? By whom? The whole process would amount to a conceptual and public policy mess.

In fact, the role – or conceptual point – of basic individual rights is to remove from public policy, based on constitutional laws that rest on rights, the element of arbitrariness by basing decisions on self-consistent, compossible principles – that is, on the rule of law – instead. The very conceptual point of rights within the sphere of social, political and legal policy is lost if they are subject to being weighed since they are supposed to be the rock bottom of public policy decision making – if I have a right to do X, this is the end of the story – none may act against me as I do X.

There is no such thing as "weighing rights" – the idea is what philosophers call a category mistake, akin to talk about weighing, say, time or concepts. Indeed, to even consider weighing rights is to suggest that the importance of human beings vis-à-vis their place in the citizenry, may be weighed against each other within the realm of politics, something that had been abandoned once the idea of inherent status was jettisoned, finally, so no one could justly claim to be more important than someone else as far as the law of the land is concerned.

Whereof Democracy in Individualism?

An interesting beginning in the direction of understanding the relationship between individualism and democracy is forged in the work of David L. Norton.[18] It is not my purpose here to explore in detail Norton's ideas on this score. Suffice it to remarks that he is much more positive about the prospects of such a fusion:

In eudaimonistic perspective, the piece of work that each individual is has its associations, that is, its community and tradition. They represent the natural line of growth of the self from interests that appeared initially (in self-discovery) to be its own exclusively, to inclusive interests, that is, from the exclusively conceived self of classical liberalism to the inclusive self of eudaimonism.[19]

The precise political, let alone public policy implications of this eudaimonism are not at issue here. Norton envisions a more activist state, compared to Rand and the school of libertarians whom she has inspired.[20] However, no longer is it the case that individualism per se must be seen to be an obstacle to public spiritedness.[21]

As a suggestion, the democratic element in a fully free society that is composed of individualist minded citizens who are, also, public spirited, would be twofold.[22] On the one hand there would have to be a democratic commencement of such a society – or a democratic continuation of it – otherwise the country would disintegrate. On the other hand, the scope of democratic influence on public policy would be limited to what public policy itself is limited to, namely, the complex but unambiguous purpose of securing for all citizens the protection of their basic rights (as spelled out in the US Declaration of Independence).


[1] Karl Marx: Selected Writings, David McClellan, Ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), 126.

[2] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1961); David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976). Norton's Democracy and Moral Development, A Politics of Virtue (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991) may be taken as a start on a remedy of Tocqueville's misunderstanding. Another good source for understanding the different types of individualism is Alain Renaut, The Era of the Individual, A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity (Princeton University Press, 1997). See, also, Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism, The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (London: Routledge, 1998), and Capitalism and Individualism, Reframing the Argument for the Free Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990). Rand's moral individualism is on full exhibit in her best selling novel, The Fountainhead (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943).

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945).

[4] Tocqueville, of course, is mostly concerned with how the free society's encouragement of relative equality of conditions would influence its political affairs. This may be appreciated in part from considering his own and his own country's very strong aristocratic traditions. I will not be concerned so much with this aspects of Tocqueville's thought, except indirectly.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), pages 98-99.

[6] See, for example, Tom L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie, eds., Ethical Theory and Business (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 16, where the editors identify the view as holding that "all choices either do involve or should involve self-promotion as their sole objective. Thus a person's only goals and perhaps only moral duty is self-promotion; one owes no sacrifices and no obligations to others."

[7] Tocqueville notably feared the equality of conditions he associated with America. (He evidently ignored many Americans in this observation, especially, of course, slaves and Indians.) But in a fully free society that only type of equality that gains official support, as a matter of law and public policy, is the equal protection of individual rights. This equality does support greater equality of conditions than a system of protected social and economic classes, but it certainly does not demand equality of conditions – no one can maintain that the genius of Bill Gates, which is well received in a regime of equal rights protection, demonstrates equality of economic conditions in a society. And, of course, there is no reason it should – both exceptional effort and good fortune undermine such equality, as they naturally ought to.

[8] Ibid., pp. 154-55.

[9] Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 137, in "John Galt's Speech."

[10] Op. cit., Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.

[11] Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Random House, 1961), "Galt's Speech."

[12] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002).

[13] Ayn Rand, "A Nation's Unity," Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, 2, p. 3.

[14] Adrian Bardon, "From Nozick to Welfare Rights." Critical Review, Vol. 14 (2000), pp. 481-501.

[15] Ibid., p. 496.

[16] This sovereignty does not mean, as some have held against libertarianism, that whatever the woman chooses to do is morally unobjectionable. There is a vast difference between having a right to do X and it being morally proper to do X, and there is also a vast difference between morally condemning and legally banning doing X. Sovereign individuals are self-governing but not always morally right in how they choose to act.

[17] Ayn Rand, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. 322. Both Nozick and Rand make clear, pace Bardon's contention about defenders of private property rights, that earning isn't the sole means by which ownership can be established – we have a right to our hair or lungs without having earned these because to act to gain and to keep them, as it were, is part of the process of growing up and to become ourselves. (Life itself is a process of self-generated action so that even the right to life is a right to a wide range of actions.) See, Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 32-33, and Ayn Rand, "Untitled Letter, Part II," The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, #10, p. 169.

[18] Op. cit., Norton, Democracy and Moral Development.

[19] Ibid., Norton, Democracy and Moral Development, p. 148. As Norton makes clear, "For eudemonistic individualism, individual self-actualization is inherently social" (p. 134).

[20] See, for example, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty & Nature (Chicago: Open Court, 1990), Tibor R. Machan, Individuals and Their Rights (Chicago: Open Court, 1989) and Classical Individualism (London: Routledge, 1998).

[21] In this connection, see Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism Defended (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), especially Chapter 1, "Individualism and the Vitality of Community Life," and Chapter 8, "A Positive Libertarian View of Government."

[22] Some, such as Siegfried van Duffel, claim that "The idea that people are sovereign beings does not allow us to infer that they have an obligation to respect each others' sovereignty." "Libertarian Natural Rights," Critical Review, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2004), p. 371. Few if any libertarians hold that just being sovereign suffices to obligate one to respect the sovereignty of others. Van Duffel, while quoting a passage from my own book on rights, fails to examine how I, for example, argue for that obligation. Essentially I show that the moral responsibility to think, to conduct oneself as a rational individual, demonstrates to one "who would," as Locke might have put it, "but consult one's reason," that a regime of individual rights is to one's rational self-interest. That, in turn, obligates one to abide by that regime and respect others' sovereignty.

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