Tocqueville returns to the idea of equality, which he argues is gaining ground rapidly in France. Ideally, everyone will eventually take part in governing and, because they accept the equal rights of all, will be free as well as equal. But the coexistence of freedom and equality isn’t inevitable: there may be equality in civil society—equality in pursuing pleasures, professions, and so on—without it existing in politics. While absolute equality can’t exist without absolute freedom, there are all kinds of possible combinations of partially fulfilled freedom and equality.
Once again, Tocqueville seeks to distinguish equality from freedom as he suggests that there are any number of ways by which the two can interact. As usual, Tocqueville prefers freedom to equality: here he cautions that equality can simply mean the equal opportunity to grow rich, to choose one’s profession, or to engage in different forms of leisure—none of which he thinks is important enough to take the place of freedom.
Tocqueville argues that freedom can arise (and has arisen) in non-democratic contexts: equality of condition, not freedom, is what characterizes democracy. Equality is far more difficult to abolish than political liberty is; therefore people cling to it not only because they prize it, but also because they assume it will last forever. While the advantages of freedom are only apparent in time, its dangers and difficulties are immediately apparent—the opposite is true of equality. The passion for equality can even at times grow violent: people “pounce” on it as a kind of precious treasure.
Tocqueville is clarifying that freedom is not specific to democracy—freedom has existed in many different times and places. What is specific to democracy is equality, which Americans tend to cherish more, he argues, because it’s what sets their society apart and makes it seem valuable. Tocqueville adds to his analysis about the threats to liberty by showing how much more fragile liberty is than equality.
Tocqueville turns to the specific case of France, where absolute monarchies actually did create equality among their subjects, far before a taste for freedom began to develop. Of course, then, the French prefer equality—together with its customs, opinions, and laws—to the novelty of freedom. While he does think that democracies have a natural taste for freedom, their love of equality is a more ardent, constant passion: if they can’t obtain equality in freedom, they’ll prefer equality in slavery—they’ll choose poverty and servitude before aristocracy.
Although Tocqueville seems to contradict what he just said about equality being fixed to the historical conditions of democracy (since, here, he argues that equality was present in French monarchy too), perhaps he’s simply acknowledging that equality too has a history, one that makes it both more anchored in and more dangerous for societies today.