Free Societies

Alexis de Tocqueville's legacy in the early 21st century

Photo Credit: US Mission Canada

Jean-Guillaume de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States as a young man in 1831. He is credited for having observed in depth, and accurately described, not only the political system of this new republic, but, beyond this, the principles of the democratic system and broader society. This work was done with a view, undoubtedly, to educate European countries, because historical circumstances had left most of them with centralized governments and a large public sphere.

Two observations about civil society particularly struck the young aristocrat. First, he marveled at the large number of associations that had been formed to efficiently tackle collective issues at the local community level, rather than counting on state or federal governments. As he later wrote, “In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”

His second and related finding was the “enlightened interest” or “self-interest rightly understood,” which led individuals to voluntarily join together in associations to further the interests of the group. They thereby served their own interests at the end of the day, because one may best succeed in an environment also filled with the achievements of others. In other words, the common good favors individual success, and individual successes fuel the common good.

Following my family’s tradition of French-American friendship, I set up in 2008 a Tocqueville Foundation with the purpose of maintaining the intellectual legacy of Alexis de Tocqueville, in particular to the extent that it stressed the fundamental role of civil society in a healthy democracy.

Never has Tocqueville’s legacy been more evident on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly if one considers the number of European countries in which the welfare state has reached its limits and become close to financial bankruptcy. Politicians in these countries lack a long-term vision of economic and societal priorities, and do not always have the leadership to conduct the necessary reforms, thereby hampering the creativity and energy of civil society.

Alexis de Tocqueville recalled the cardinal principles necessary to harmoniously combine individual development and living within society: freedom, individual responsibility, humanism, and tolerance. In the same tradition, the Tocqueville Foundation believes that the only way to strengthen the “social pact” and collective efficiency for the good of everyone, is to give back to citizens, especially young people and students, the desire to engage and give their time, ideas, and money, and for this to anchor in them the belief that their individual well-being also depends on collective well-being.

Efficiency in the service of the general interest does not depend on centralized governments and public structures, a classic "top down" approach — far from it. This is illustrated by the growing, and now global, influence of social networks and large private foundations that embody a "bottom up" approach for addressing societal issues — much more creative, flexible, and effective in practice. It is therefore essential to provide oxygen to the private sphere and civil society, too often stifled by bureaucracy and the routine of the public sphere.

Everyone in the technological world of today can make their voices heard, and our foundation, which is named with a brand known around the world to symbolize the values ​​of freedom, individual responsibility, and humanism, wants to be a major player in this evolution toward a new citizenship, a more active citizenship, and a society in which everyone understands that they can influence collective destiny in a more practical and effective way than by casting a vote every four or five years in political elections.

In addition to individuals, two types of entities exist in civil society: companies and associations, or for-profit and non-profit. Unlike governments, corporations have no borders. They must convince investors and consumers, who are completely free, to buy their products or services. If they spend more cash than they have on hand, they may be punished by market mechanisms or by courts.

Associations (unions, foundations, or private associations) are subject to the same types of constraints to a large extent, so that in fact the for-profit and non-profit worlds are increasingly interconnected as effective partners. Companies want to be good corporate citizens, because they find it is in their best interest rightly understood, and associations can greatly benefit from the professionalism and expertise of companies. These dialogues and partnerships are beneficial, and boost society as a whole.

The ambition of the Tocqueville Foundation is to increase awareness among civil society, citizens, businesses, and associations — which are all subjected daily to constraints of efficiency and good management — about their capacity for action, and the leverage they have today at their disposal for working in the public interest and helping the less fortunate, ultimately also serving their individual self-interest.

If public authorities in turn rely on a stronger civil society and downsize their role, they would regain momentum and legitimacy, and therefore become major beneficiaries of this revolution.