Go to contents

[Opinion] Equality and Mores

Posted May. 23, 2005 03:45,   


Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher, discovered “the real state of democracy” when he visited America in 1831. The essence of democracy he talked about in his book “Democracy in America” is the aspiration for “equality of conditions.” This “equality of conditions” is also the actual message and ideological background of the modern socialist revolution. However, the aspiration for equality, the driving force behind democracy, is accompanied by both danger and opportunities.

According to Tocqueville, democracy entails two dangers: disorder and slavery. “Equality of conditions” results in disorder and causes “individualism” by dissolving the traditions, authorities and ranks that generate cohesion between societies and their members. However, the isolated individuals who soon become scared take the mass as the subject of authorities and obey its enormous power. Ironically, there comes another form of arbitrary rule. Reckless individualism also spreads materialism in the pursuit of worldly pleasures.

However, such a fate for democracy is not inevitable. Tocqueville said whether the principle of equality works in favor of slavery or freedom is up to the people’s effort. The judiciary that prevents the tyranny of the majority, local autonomy, and elections are institutions and rules that protect a sound democratic republic. But what is more important are mores. He referred to voluntary association, the free press, religions that guard against materialism, education that teaches self-restraint, and families that keep tradition as antidotes to the problems that results from radical equality.

In Korea, May is a month with a variety of commemoration days including Parents’ Day, Teachers’ Day, and the 5-18 Democratic Movement Day. It might be a coincidence. However, in Tocqueville’s point of view, family, education, religion, and democracy are closely related. Families that teach love and self-sacrifice, education that praises integrity, and religions that awaken people to the meaninglessness of materialism reduce the dangers from the aspiration for the “equality of conditions.” To achieve a sound democracy, it is time for us to bear in mind mores as a condition of equality.

Yoo Hong-lim, Guest Editorial Writer, Professor of Politics at Seoul National University, honglim@snu.ac.kr