Tocqueville effect

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The Tocqueville effect is the phenomenon in which, as social conditions and opportunities improve, social frustration grows more quickly.[1][2] The effect is based on Alexis de Tocqueville's observations on the French Revolution and later reforms in Europe and the United States. Another way to describe the effect is the aphorism "the appetite grows by what it feeds on".[3] For instance, after greater social justice is achieved, there may be more fervent opposition to even smaller social injustices than before.

The effect suggests a link between social equality or concessions by the regime and unintended consequences.[4] According to the Tocqueville effect, a revolution is likely to occur after an improvement in social conditions in contrast to Marx's theory of progressive immiseration of the proletariat (deterioration of conditions).[5]


Alexis de Tocqueville described the phenomenon in his book Democracy in America (1840):

"The hatred that men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become fewer and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have least fuel. I have already given the reason for this phenomenon. When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye, whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity; the more complete this uniformity is, the more insupportable the sight of such a difference becomes. Hence it is natural that the love of equality should constantly increase together with equality itself, and that it should grow by what it feeds on."[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Swedberg, Richard (2009). Tocqueville's Political Economy. Princeton University Press. p. 260. ISBN 9781400830084. 
  2. ^ Mackie, Gerry (November 1995). "Frustration and preference change in international migration". European Journal of Sociology. 36 (02): 185–208. doi:10.1017/S0003975600007530. 
  3. ^ Vernon, Richard (July 1987). "Citizenship and Employment in an Age of High Technology". British Journal of Industrial Relations. Blackwell Publishing. 25 (02): 201–225. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8543.1987.tb00709.x. 
  4. ^ Vernon, Ronald (February 1979). "Unintended Consequences". Political Theory. Sage Publications. 07 (01): 57–73. doi:10.1177/009059177900700104. JSTOR 190824. 
  5. ^ Elster, Jon (2011). Tocqueville: The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press. p. xv. ISBN 1139498819. 
  6. ^ Tocqueville, Alexis de (1840). "Chapter III: That the sentiments of democratic nations accord with their opinions in leading them to concentrate political power". Democracy in America. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 272.