That’s a question The Federalist hopes to answer, with a new series featuring Frenchman Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s analysis of modern-day implications from Tocqueville‘s classic work, Democracy in America.

Gobry’s comments ought to lead to further reflection among people of all political stripes. Take, for instance, his reaction to Tocqueville’s emphasis on equality.

Tocqueville, after all, was no socialist. He was a classical liberal who admired Adam Smith and viewed redistributive taxation with deep skepticism. And Tocqueville notes that the US, even in the 18th century, had some pretty significant extremes of wealth (even in non-slave states). So while he’s not pointing to socialism, he is pointing to something else, and that something might be this: any collective endeavor, including self-government but also functioning free-market capitalism, cannot be successful for long if some significant number of the people involved in the enterprise feel that they’re getting screwed. Even if you see no value in equality as such and you are a total capitalist red-in-tooth-and-claw you must realize that if too many people feel that capitalism destroys them, at some point they will use the levers of political power to destroy capitalism.

At another level, Tocqueville’s endorsement of the concept of equality of conditions, in context of his lack of distaste for free markets, points to an important insight : that what matters may not be so much inequality in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of way of life. Think of the fact that, in opinion polls, the vast majority of Americans at all income levels describe themselves as “middle class.” Is the life of someone at the 20th percentile of income so different from that of someone at the 90th percentile? In some ways, sure. But both these people are likely to have a house, a car, drive to work, share a number of values, etc.

Of course, in different ways, these people are driving apart. In particular, as Charles Murray has noted, we are witnessing (to coin a phrase) an increase in marriage inequality as those at the top manage to build successful, solid families, whereas those at the bottom are seeing the institution wither away. When we are aware of the gains from strong families in terms of social, human and even financial capital, conservatives can see here that we truly have an inequality of conditions that should concern us.