Madison vs. Tocqueville on Associations
A few years back I attended the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society in Krakow, Poland. The purpose of the Seminar was (and is) to bring together American and Eastern European students to reflect on how to build and maintain the free society. While the Seminar focused mainly on Catholic Social Thought, and in particular on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, we also looked at some portions of the Federalist Papers and Democracy in America for historical perspective.
Looking over my preparatory notes on these readings recently, I was struck by the differences between Madison and Tocqueville on the value of citizens organizing themselves together for some common political or social purpose (what Madison called “factions” and Tocqueville called “associations”).
Madison’s view of factions was decidedly negative. Not only were they self-interested, but it was “sown in the nature of man” that different factions would have interests “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions could arise out of a “zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points,” as well as from attachment to particular personalities. However, one of the chief causes of faction, Madison thought, had to do with what would later be called the conflict between labor and capital, as well as between different sectors of the economy:
Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.
The danger of factions, for Madison, was the risk that a single faction might at least temporarily be able to capture the machinery of the state, and thereby direct it to its own benefit and not to the common good. To avoid this possibility, he sought to design a system of government that would pit various factions against each other, thus neutralizing their overall negative effect. Divided and representative government, hemmed in by checks and balances, would make it difficult for an individual faction to ever seize total control of the state.
Tocqueville’s view of associations was more positive, in part because his conception of an association was broader than was Madison’s concept of a faction. For Tocqueville, associations need not be purely self-interested, but could genuinely and sincerely be concerned with the common good. Associations were also not limited to political purposes, but could be based on social, cultural, economic, or religious goal, and could even be formed based on the love of a shared activity (e.g. stamp collecting), or based on common ethnic, religious or cultural identity.
Far from being a danger, Tocqueville saw ” the liberty of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority.” The existence of associations allowed men to perform many tasks that otherwise would have had to be performed by the state. This served to check the growth of dependance on the state, which Tocqueville feared would “perpetually increase” if Americans lost “the notion of combining together” in associations.
This lack of dependance on the state was as much psychological as it was material. By creating multiple loyalties among the population, associations “constitute, as it were, a separate nation in the midst of the nation, a government within the government” with “all the moral power that results from it.” This divided loyalty helped to prevent people from falling into the trap of seeing the state as the source and sole expression of a society’s values. (It should be noted that when Tocqueville speaks of the “tyranny of the majority,” he refers not simply to the majority violating the rights of a minority, but to the idea – which he feared was a temptation in democratic societies – that matters of truth were to be determined by the opinion of the majority, and that it was somehow undemocratic to hold otherwise).
For what it’s worth, Catholic Social Thought tends to come down more on the side of Tocqueville than Madison on these matters. The 20th century Pope’s have long argued against any inherent conflict between capital and labor, and John Paul II reiterated in Centesimus Annus that politics should not be seen as a kind of “total war” between different self-interested groups. The Church has long supported the right of association, and has suggested that voluntary associations are the proper way of dealing with many social problems. And like Tocqueville, Centesimus Annus speaks of the danger of the tyranny of the majority:
Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority . . . [Yet as] history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.
Nevertheless, I think that Madison’s views can serve as a useful reality check to the more optimistic opinions of Tocqueville and JPII. While one can never be satisfied with a politics that pits one solely self-interested group against another, we must also take account of the fallen nature of man, and have to give consideration, when considering how to structure our system of government, to the possibility of self-interested and adversarial politics.