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I took that title from volume 2, section 4, chapter 6 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840). Considering what has been happening legislatively (and not just in the last year-plus), it seems like a good time to revisit Tocqueville’s writing about democratic despotism.

He notes that despotism in a constitutional republic would be different from what it was in the Roman empire. How so? “[I]t would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.”

Specifically: “Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood. . . .”

But that is not its object. Rather, “it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

He goes on with an almost spooky prophecy:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville also sees the paradoxes of democracy. How relevant they still are:

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

“Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain. (Emphasis added.)

Tocqueville concludes, “Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated. . . . It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.

“A constitution [that is] republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts has always appeared to me to be a short-lived monster.”

Tocqueville might have had his timing off, but with a fiscal crisis on the horizon—the product of a bloated welfare state, an aging population, and a lackluster economy mired in corporatism—the “monster” is in trouble. Is it too late to turn things around?

* * *

One of the most politically safe government programs today is federal insurance of bank deposits. Yet there was a time when the idea of underwriting reckless bank behavior was thought so ridiculous that even President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed it. Warren Gibson explores the FDIC.

It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we think we can model but can’t. Max Borders explains.

The leading countries’ pressure on offshore financial centers—that is, low-tax jurisdictions that respect people’s privacy—is nothing less than an updated version of imperialism. So says Robert Stewart.

President Obama insists he wants to help small business create jobs. He even has a program for that. Is there less here than meets the eye? Bruce Yandle thinks so.

Americans rightly have an intuition that bureaucracies are inept. So why would the adoption of children be trusted to one? James Payne wants to know.

Once upon a time, central and eastern Europe were ruled by brutal and incompetent communist regimes. And back then, when the World Bank thought Romania had an enlightened despot, James Bovard took a little tour. He reminisces inside.

One of the founders of the modern libertarian movement was a newspaper magnate named R. C. Hoiles. Nothing raised his ire like government-run schools. Wendy McElroy tells why.

And if that’s not enough, there are the columnists: Lawrence Reed looks back at FDR’s great bait-and-switch in 1932. Donald Boudreaux considers the private provision of public goods. Burton Folsom sees ominous parallels between Roosevelt and Obama. John Stossel is outraged that we need government permission to pursue many occupations. Walter Williams wants no part of the “war on drugs.” And Art Carden and Mike Hammock, encountering the argument that government should underwrite investments in nuclear power, proclaim, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books on Obamanomics, big government, race, and the financial mess come under our reviewers’ scrutiny.

Sheldon Richman
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Sheldon Richman
Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.