The Forms and Formalities of Liberty

"The Forms and Formalities of Liberty," The Public Interest, No. 70 (Winter 1983), pp. 121-131.


This statement is long for an epigraph but dense enough to require explanation, and deep enough to reward reflection. Speaking of “forms,” Tocqueville directs our attention to institutions or practices in which the manner of action is more important than the end achieved. Why, we may ask, are democratic peoples in need of forms? And how do they undermine the forms that they need?

To understand what these forms are, we may think, first, of manners¬†in “society”–society not in any comprehensive sociological sense, but as the place where we are on our best behavior, the parlor or drawing-room of human life. “Society,” in this sense, imposes certain forms of correct behavior on us which are neither moral duties (though manners are obviously somehow related to morals) nor simply cost-efficient methods of attaining our ends. Indeed, these forms seem designed to avoid raising moral questions directly and to prevent us from using the most efficient instrument to gain our desires; they are barriers, as Tocqueville says, between ourselves and the objects of our desires, and also between one person and another.

That we now say “living-room,” rather than “parlor” or “drawingroom,” illustrates the drive toward informality which Tocqueville says is in the nature of democracy; yet, as Tocqueville also indicates, democracy is not always well served by informality. Tocqueville’s point was made recently by Miss Manners, a writer on etiquette for the Washington Post. Miss Manners inveighs against waiters and waitresses who have taken up the practice of introducing themselves to customers by their first names, as if to put business relationships on the level of friendships. Such a practice, she says, not only perverts friendship by using it for business, suffusing the latter with false warmth, it also hurts business by robbing the working person of his dignity. “If you and I are friends,¬†” Miss Manners asks, “how come I have to wait on you? But if I can be on equal terms with friends of my own choosing, it doesn’t matter if I perform a service for wages.”

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