Tocqueville noted the profound contrast between individual freedom and political freedom in his critique of American democracy. He observed that the people had a great passion for freedom and liberty, they were filled with beliefs rooted in idealism and founded by illusion. Americans also believed in a system based on equality. However, this equality, in theory, meant that extraordinary individuals were leveled down, while lesser people were brought up to a consistent level of equality. But freedom, stressing individualism, was rooted not in a consistent level, but celebrated differences among the people.
Michael Young also analyzes this inherent incompatibility in the Rise of the Meritocracy. However, Young views the phenomenon from the year 1958, he introduces a system which provides equality of opportunity but gives little recognition to freedom or individualism. People are only parts of a machine they have no use or individualism outside of the system. It is this mentality which spurs the crisis at the end of Young’s work. People want both ideals, but it seems to be a zero-sum game. The people now want “real equality” which recognizes each individual as important and different, in other words, individualism.
It is this conflict of human ideals, which dooms the society of “the one” to failure. The overwhelming theme of Democracy in America is the exploration of equality in the American context. He focuses particularly on the attempt by Americans to harmonize the ideas of equality and individual freedom. Tocqueville was convinced that this “American democracy” was destined to spread to the Old World. Because of this, he felt it was extremely important for his fellow Frenchmen to be aware of both the benefits and drawbacks of this new approach.
Therefore, in his critique of the system he focuses on this conflict between freedom and equality because he sees it as a peculiar and vulnerable aspect of American political life. He seemed to think that the success of the American experiment put the rest of the world in a very precarious situation. While he was excited by the prospect of eliminating the aristocracy, he also feared that American democracy maybe in opposition to the greatest political ideal, liberty. Tocqueville’s reverence for individual freedom is evident in his initial reactions to the American system.
He perceives that American citizens seem very free because they are not bound by the limitations of a class, as in an aristocracy. In an aristocracy one would unlikely see working class people pursuing great wealth and power. The American people had an ambition that was very unfamiliar to Tocqueville, having come from a country with rigid class divisions. Everyone seemed to be doing as they pleased, without regard to social position. To Tocqueville it gave the illusion of great freedom, and at first he believed Americans did posses a great deal of freedom. However, he later realizes that it was in fact all an illusion.
He had mistaken equality for freedom. Do to his misperception he is able to write about why he made this mistake. This begins Tocqueville’s discussion on what distinguishes freedom from equality and how the two actually contrast in many ways. Addressing this theme he writes: “Although men cannot be absolutely equal without being entirely free, and consequently equality, in its most extreme form, must merge with freedom, there is good reason to distinguish one from the other. So men’s taste for freedom and their taste for equality are in fact distinct, and, I have no hesitation in adding, among emocracies they are two unequal elements. ”
Tocqueville begins to realize the importance of his error to his understanding of the American political process. Americans appeared to be free because they all had some degree of “equal opportunity”. Unlike in an aristocracy, they all had an opportunity to gain wealth power and prestige within the system. With this newfound equality, the people were frantically seizing these new opportunities. In addition, many Americans had an equal say in government. The people also seized the opportunity to influence their government with great fervor.
It seems it was a combination of these behaviors, resulting from some degree of equal opportunity, which led to Tocqueville’s illusion of American freedom. Tocqueville knew that what he saw could not be freedom, because it could not coexist with such solidarity. Therefore, the people were not free due to the constraints that were imposed by the majority. In a democracy based on majority rule it was advantageous for individuals to be on the side that wins, the majority. In effect, the influence of the majority on the public enabled cohesion within the culture.
The members of the public were not acting by their own free will, but were acting in what way they were conditioned to act. The system is set up in such a way that the majority has an empty overwhelming amount of power over those in the minority. Tocqueville writes about the effect of such a majority on individual freedom: “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America The sovereign can no longer say, “You shall think as you do on pain of death”; but he says, “You are free to think differently rom me, and to retain your life your property, and all you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people.
You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in turn. ” Tocqueville theorized that this power of the majority forced conformity on individuals, thus diminishing their individuality.
It seems to be a prophecy of what would later happen in the “red scare” at the height of McCarthyism and in many other events in American history. Toqueville noted that Americans tended to cherish the formative notion of equality even more so than the idea of freedom. This may be because equality is more accessible. It is much easier to create a system based on equal opportunity than to maintain a society of autonomous citizens. This may explain why Americans came to identify equality as the primary goal of government.
In the Rise of the Meritocracy Michael Young also recognizes the conflict between freedom and equality. He writes of a system much like our current one but at a more advanced stage, a system, which is so focused on efficiency, social order, and equal opportunity that it nearly eliminates individual freedom. He foresees a system where the government determines one’s self worth based on what role one can fulfill in the system. Just as Tocqueville warned that American democracy may mutate into an industrial aristocracy, Young writes of a system based on hierarchical roles achieve through government determined merit.
The government does not discriminate by race, gender, religion, appearance or any other forms of discrimination common in the status quo. Its decisions are made solely on one’s “self-achieved” merit. This is a system that has much greater equal opportunity then any political system that has ever existed. People can achieve their desired positions through effort and intelligence. If they are still unable to achieve their desired position than they simply are not qualified to hold it. Young emphasizes the fact that every person in the society has his or her role in the system, just like a machine, every part is necessary for it to function.
However, we are not parts of a machine, we are human beings with thoughts, emotions and desires which transcend the monotony of a specialized role in a national machine. Young alludes to Tocqueville’s argument that: “When a workman is constantly and exclusively engaged in making one object, he ends by performing this work with singular dexterity Everyday he becomes more adroit and less industrious, and one may say that in his case the man is degraded as the workman improves. ” People are judged and recognized only according to their merit, the rest of their individualism goes unnoticed, by others and eventually even by themselves.
The real danger of a meritocratic system is that it may stifle individual freedom and confidence to such a degree that the public is left helpless at the feet of their own creation. When one is socialized to believe they are not worth as much as others in the society they are also likely to believe that challenging these superior people is futile. This dehumanization by the system leaves individuals with no self-esteem, actually with no self. The individual is left with no freedom to pursue personal goals, but is thrust into a system where even one’s goals are decided for them.
Of course one could deny the pressure of the system and choose to opt out. However, as Tocqueville expressed in the early quotation; “Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being ” This pressure to conform is enough to keep people on the track that the system sees fit. While the meritocracy does seemingly provide equality of opportunity, it does not lead to equality. Even assuming that there is no discrimination or flaws regarding the measurement of merit, true equality would still not exist within the system.
Why should one be entitled to any more than anyone else because of his or her innate intelligence? Is there not more to a person than their retention of facts and figures? Young expresses these ideas in the Chelsea Manifesto, which states; “Were we to evaluate people, not according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes.
Young uses the Chelsea Manifesto as a representation of individual freedom and to vividly contrast the importance of freedom and individuality with the trivialness of “equality of opportunity” based on merit. Through his satire he makes the reader aware of the ramifications of a system based on equal opportunity, a system that we are striving for and creating every day. We must question authority now and decide which direction we should truly head, towards equality of opportunity, as in the meritocracy, or towards a system which puts greater emphasis on individual freedom.
We are at a crossroads we cannot choose both. However, while there is a tradeoff between freedom and equality in practical terms, ideally they could coexist in their purest forms. If people were free to live according to their own individuality and respected all people’s equal right to do so then there would be a coexistence of freedom and equality. The problem is that it would be incredibly hard to accomplish such a system. It’s much easier to settle for equality of opportunity and abandon the ideal of freedom, in many ways that’s what were doing now in the United States and much of the world.