[The power of government] 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 tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and hard-working animals, of which the government is the shepherd.’
– Alexis De Tocqueville
Mr. Schuettinger is a graduate student under Prof. F. A. Hayek of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is associate editor of the New Individualist Review (P.O. Box 4309, Chicago 80). This article has been slightly expanded from the original version first published in the Summer 1961 issue of that journal.
Alexis De Tocqueville was an aristocrat who was at the same time the most perceptive critic and the truest friend that democracy ever had; he loved liberty, as he himself said, with "a holy passion," and his greatest fear was that in the new Age of the Common Man the ideal of equality would become the means by which freedom would be extinguished.
His two books, Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution, earned for Tocqueville a lasting reputation primarily because he did not think that the historian’s role should be confined to relating facts or that the sociologist should be merely a statistician; he was interested in something more than in what the "scientific" historians called wie es gewesen (what actually happened). What he wanted to do was to understand why institutions grew up and why events came about. Describing America he regarded as much less important than the task of analyzing democracy.
He read little and was indebted to few predecessors. Those few, however, included Plato, Aristotle, and Burke, and these he mastered. His limited reading was not due to any lack of bookishness but rather to a conscious desire to think his own thoughts; because of this resolve, his works are packed with original ideas. The reader of Tocqueville is forced to proceed at a slow pace since he soon notices that almost every paragraph is the germ of another book.
He has been called "the prophet of the mass age," because he foresaw, in 1835, what were to become the two great movements of our time: the increasing centralization of government power and the irreversible trend toward equality. The first movement he condemned without any hesitation; the second, he welcomed, with reservations. He knew that democracy, while inevitable, could come to any country in either one of two forms: a free variety or an unfree. By a free democracy, Tocqueville meant what we now call nineteenth-century liberalism: a democratically elected government in which the rights of the individual are supreme and are safeguarded by a constitution putting definite limits on the power of the state. Unfree democracy, according to Tocqueville, can again be divided into two types. The first of these is the totalitarian state which is based on the belief that one man (Fuehrer-prinzip) or group of men (dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariat) effectively represents the will of the people and is mandated by them to eliminate all opposition. The second type is usually spoken of today as the Welfare State; it is what I have called in the title of this essay "the Bland Leviathan," a despotism different from the first in that it is gentle and benevolent. This does not mean, however, that the second form of despotism is any more to be desired than the first; as Justice Brandeis has remarked, "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent."2
Tyranny of Mediocrity
Tocqueville saw that the real threat to a democratic society in our age would not be what the Tories dreaded, anarchy, nor would it be the absolute dictatorship feared by the Old Liberals; rather, it would be the mild tyranny of mediocrity, a standardization of mind and spirit, a gray uniformity enforced by a central government in the name of "humanity" and "social justice."
In setting out to understand the present nature and future course of democratic society, Tocqueville was determined to be interested in the truth and in nothing else. History has confirmed so many of his predictions primarily because he divested himself of as many of his prejudices as he possibly could. This strength of character has earned for him an almost unique reputation among political theorists for fairness and impartiality. More often than any other commentator, before or since, he has been called "always just, always right."
Politically, he was a critic of both parties and a member of none. "Intellectually," he once wrote, "I have an inclination for democratic institutions, but I am an aristocrat by instinct… I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights…. I am neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative. Nevertheless, when all is said, I hold more by the latter than the former. For I differ from the latter more as to means than as to end, while I differ from the former both as to means and end." Tocqueville could not be a revolutionary because, as he once noted, their "spirit combines very well with a love for absolute government"; nor could he ever feel entirely comfortable with Tories since time and again their "insane fear of socialism" would "throw them into the arms of despotism." Clearly, as he himself said, he was "a liberal of a new kind."
A Full Life
Tocqueville was born in 1805 at a time when a people’s emperor ruled France; his grandfather, the Comte de Tocqueville, had been imprisoned during the Revolution and his more distant ancestors were included in the rolls of the Norman conquerors. He never used his title, however, and determined to make a career for himself as a lawyer and writer. In 1831, with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, he toured the United States; upon his return he began to write Democracy in America, the book which placed him second only to Montesquieu among French political theorists. Shortly after its publication, he was elected to the presidency of the Academie des Sciences Morales and Politiques. In 1839, he was elected to the Chamber, serving as deputy from Valognes and, briefly, as foreign minister for the Second Republic. His political career was terminated abruptly by Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851; after spending two days in a make-shift jail, Tocqueville retired to his estate to write history instead of making it. He died in Cannes in 1859, his life cut short by a disease of the lungs.
In his history of the Old Regime, Tocqueville applauded the men who had overthrown the tyranny of the Bourbons. In his own time, he ranked himself with those who were dedicated to destroying the power of privileged groups still hostile to liberty and equality. He saw, however, that as the old goals of equality before the law and equality of opportunity were reached, more and more men began to advocate the only possible means by which equality could be further extended: systematic regimentation directed by a centralized government. These men, who wanted economic equality even at the expense of liberty, were the socialists. As Tocqueville wrote, "They had sought to be free in order to make themselves equal; but in proportion as equality was more established by the aid of freedom, freedom itself was thereby rendered more difficult of attainment."
By raising up the absolute sovereignty of the people to replace the old divine right of kings, men found that they had only exchanged one master for another, and erected a new despotism upon the ruins of the old. The idea that right is simply what the majority of the people want, Tocqueville dismissed "as the language of a slave." In place of the notion that the supreme good is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number,"3 Tocqueville believed in a natural law, an ideal of justice against which all men’s actions must be measured.
Tocqueville was not at all interested in the outward forms that state power assumed. As he once remarked, "When I see that the… means of absolute command are conferred on a people or a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onwards towards a land of more hopeful institutions." What he was interested in was freedom.
The Nature of Freedom
But how did Tocqueville characterize the nature of freedom? If we are to distinguish between a genuinely free democracy and its perversion, this is the crucial question. In essence, he would have defined freedom as the right to do what you want to do, limited by natural obstacles but by no manmade restraints except the law that no man has a right to interfere in another’s rights.
Beyond this, however, Tocqueville looked upon the spiritual nature of freedom as much more important than any of its material benefits. He believed that in the long run, freedom brings prosperity to those who know how to keep it, but he admitted that there are times when it interferes with material comfort; there are times, in fact, when despotism alone can insure wealth or even subsistence. He knew that there would be many times in the future when the widespread craving for material wellbeing, for "security," would lead men straight to servitude.
Liberty To Grow
The chief value of liberty, he thought, was that it gave men the opportunity to be what human beings ought to be. This is why he wrote: "That which at all times has so strongly attached the affection of certain men is the attraction of freedom herself, her native charms independent of her gifts… apart from all ‘practical considerations’… the pleasure of speaking, acting, and breathing without restraint, under no master but God and the law. The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave."4
Tocqueville saw that no men, including confirmed tyrants, disputed the merits of freedom; in the case of despots, however, they wished to keep it for themselves, on the theory that lesser men were unworthy of it. He was aware that the value of freedom per se has never been at issue; what men are really quarreling about is their opinion of their fellow men. The more contempt men feel for those around them, the greater will be their admiration for a strong central government which will show them how they ought to live.
In Tocqueville’s own time, as in ours, there was never any shortage of what Wilhelm Roepke calls "the power-thirsty, cocksure, and arrogant planners and organizers." In a speech to the 1848 Constituent Assembly, Tocqueville pointed out the one characteristic which unites these social engineers of all schools: "a profound opposition to personal liberty." What the socialists wanted—a complete reorganization of society along "rational" lines—he saw could never be accomplished without instituting a new system of serfdom.°
Unlike most of his opponents on both the Left and the Right, Tocqueville had a strong faith in the democratic instincts of the majority of the people. Because he knew that nations accustomed to freedom would never voluntarily submit to totalitarian rule, Tocqueville was able to predict accurately that "hot" socialism would eventually be abandoned by almost all serious Leftists in Western Europe and the United States.° He saw that democracies would instead be corrupted slowly and almost unnoticeably by "a servitude of a regular, quiet, and gentle kind." He foresaw further that this "new despotism" would combine with some of the outward forms of freedom7 and that it would establish itself under the guise of the sovereignty of the people.
A True Prophet
Three decades before the Wohlfahrstaat of Bismarck and a full century before the Second New Deal, Tocqueville correctly perceived what many men of good minds and liberal education have difficulty in seeing even today. He understood that the time would come when a "new thing" which he could not name would have a power that is "absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild." Its authority would be like that of a parent, he wrote, except that a parent prepares his children for adulthood, while this power seeks, on the contrary, to keep its charges in perpetual childhood. This government willingly labors for the happiness of its subjects, "but it chooses to be the sole agent and 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?"8
Our Condition Foreseen
This then, as Tocqueville foresaw it, is the approximate condition of society in the United States today. We live in the shadow of a "Bland Leviathan," an overpowering influence predicated on the root assumption that the needs of society, as determined by the planners, should take precedence over the liberties of individuals. He saw that this leviathan was implacably opposed to individuality and free growth, to all the great moments of Western civilization, and, indeed, to human nature itself. The three necessities of a higher civilization—progress, excellence, and freedom—have always been its natural enemies. Because it is bland and because it lacks a definite purpose, it does not attempt to kill these enemies outright; instead, it imprisons, cripples, or slowly suffocates them.
Any limitation on freedom, Tocqueville realized, must inevitably restrict progress. He feared, in fact, that the equalitarian oppression which was aimed at society’s most independent thinkers would result in a general deadening of civilization. "Man will waste his strength in bootless and solitary trifling," he wrote, "and swing backwards and forwards forever without getting fresh ideas."9
Ironically, it is many of our best and most creative minds that are bringing us to a point where our medical profession, most of our educational system, and the greater part of our scientists will be slowly absorbed under the all-protecting power of the federal government. Beguiled as they are by the humanitarian visions of the Welfare State, these men have forgotten what, upon reflection, they must admit: that no man or group of men can hope to direct the creative energies of a nation without those energies being diverted into the safe and traditional patterns so congenial to administrators.
Progress has been defined as that which the rules and regulations do not foresee. Admiral Hyman Rickover, among many others, has recently borne witness to the difficulties in any system where professional administrators are assigned to supervise intellectuals.¹° The instincts of the two groups are almost completely opposed. The creative man wants plenty of room and time to follow his own hunches; he often harbors a disinterest in, or even a contempt for, the other "members of the team." The bureaucrat is trained to shun innovations; he is suspicious of reform; his life is dedicated to following precedents; in his world there is no place for initiative.
Just as no society based on the principles of the Welfare State can encourage progress, neither can it long endure the existence of excellence—except as a strictly private possession to be nurtured after hours or in retirement. It is becoming increasingly clear that in all but a few parts of the "public sector" and in large areas of the private, all talent above the average is being quietly smothered in the name of "equality" and "democracy." Since above-average ability in the right places is, of course, a necessity for progress and productivity, it is not difficult to see where the road we are on will end.
Next to freedom itself, the ruling passion of Tocqueville’s life was a hostility to mediocrity in all its forms. He was certain that when the average, the norm, are consistently held up as standards to be identified with, individuality and with it a free society—must soon perish.
After progress and excellence have been relegated to the dustbin of history, freedom will be the last victim of the Welfare State as it makes the transition to a totalitarian regime. As government gets bigger and bigger, there is an increasing tendency for the democratically elected legislature to delegate wider and wider powers to administrative agencies. These agencies are always supervised by nonelected officials who are practically independent of the President, the Congress, or the courts." Lord Ewart, in his important book, The New Despotism, cites as one example of this trend the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925 in which it is provided that… "[the Minister] may modify the provisions of this Act so far as may appear to the Minister necessary or expedient for carrying [his orders] into effect."¹2 The planners, it has been said, start by wanting to control things, but they end by controlling people.
Evidence such as this, which points to the inherent dangers in an expanding government, has, by 1961, become overwhelming. Despite all these examples, however, we are still being solemnly assured by people who will insist that they are democrats, that we should not be afraid of state power. After all, they will say, we ourselves are the government. Except for a few minor cases, this platitude was never true, and in this century, there is far less basis for the idea than there ever was.
The proper solution to the problems posed by democracy, according to Tocqueville, was not a reversion to aristocracy, but rather a renewed determination to harness the many virtues of the democratic process in order to insure that the rights of individuals would not be sacrificed to the demands of the state. He believed that free institutions could not be preserved except on a basis of equality. "Far from finding fault with equality because it inspires a spirit of independence," he wrote, "I praise it primarily for that very reason." By making all men conscious of their rights, he thought, "equality would prepare the remedy for the ills which it engenders."
Tocqueville clearly showed the way in which modern society could, if it chooses, escape from "the new despotism." A proper concept of equality is the first necessity; everywhere we must strengthen the position of private individuals—at all levels of society—in their own rights and property. Almost as important, we must strengthen those intermediate powers which stand between the government and ourselves, that is, our churches, labor unions, newspapers, political parties, business organizations, fraternal orders, and so on. It is difficult, in a mass society, for one person to make himself heard, but it can be done if he uses the amplifier provided by his like-minded associates. Following the same principle, we must maintain all the peculiar rights and duties of each of our independent governing bodies: the courts, Congress, the Presidency, the states, and the local administrations. At the same time we must be alert to promptly limit any or all of these bodies when they exceed their authorized powers.
We must also beware of slogans such as "national interest" or "national purpose." The words "national interest," especially in a time of war or emergency, often do mean something, but just as often they serve merely as a convenient device for justifying authoritarianism. The notion behind the idea of a national purpose, of course, is a dangerous one. It is based on the assumption that there is a collective interest which is separate and different from the interests of all the people who compose the society. In this country, until recently, we have always had individual hopes, ambitions, purposes; we have left the "national purposes" to the totalitarian states with their stadiums full of troops and flags.
As we have seen, no man better understood this conflict between the individual and the collective than did Tocqueville. On this problem, as on many others, he expressed what needed to be said when he wrote:
It would seem as if the rulers of our time sought only to use men to make things great; I wish that they would try a little more to make great men; that they would set less value on the work and more on the workman; that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social policy has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens."
This is not an ideal to appeal to many politicians—who love power—but it should appeal to all those who love the ideas that Tocqueville worked so hard to preserve: progress, excellence, and freedom.
The Greatest Boon of All
The profit system is the only one compatible with our political, moral and economic traditions. Only under the profit system has man attained those ends by which we set so much store: independence, ownership of property, savings, a sense of responsibility, a rational planning of one’s own life, and, that greatest boon of all, the freedom of choice and the courage to make it.
Roger M. Blough, Chairman of the Board, United States Steel Corporation
1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1954. Vol. II, bk. VI).
2 Justice Brandeis, in his dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States went on to warn that "the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding." Quoted in F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago, 1960) p. 253.
3 In disagreeing with the utilitarianism of Bentham and J. S. Mill, Tocqueville avoided the intellectual trap in which the latter found himself. At one time in his career, Mill thought that if communism did provide the most happiness for the most people, it would be preferable to the risks of a free society. See J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy (New York, 1883) vol. I, p. 269.
4 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. (New York: Anchor Books, 1955), p. 169. 5 In using the word "serfdom," Tocqueville was being precise. The British Labour Government, in 1947, passed an Act giving itself the power to assign any British worker to any job that it saw fit—for any length of time. See F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago, Phoenix Books, 1957), p. xiii.
6 See R. H. S. Crossman, Socialism and the New Despotism. Fabian Tract Number 298, London, 1956. On page one of this pamphlet, one of the Labour Party’s leading intellectuals writes that "more and more.. people are having second thoughts about what once seemed to them the obvious advantages of central planning and the extension of State ownership." He points out that "the discovery that the Labour Government’s ‘Socialism’ meant the establishment of vast bureaucratic corporations," of "a vast centralized State bureaucracy [which] constitutes a grave potential threat to democracy," had made it apparent that "the main task of socialists today is to convince the nation that its liberties are threatened by this new feudalism."
7 This point is of crucial importance, for it is the distinctive characteristic of the Welfare State; its proponents deny that they are socialists or authoritarians and, in most cases, they sincerely believe that their innovations would not seriously impair our freedoms. Prof. F. A. Hayek, in his latest book, The Constitution of Liberty (p. 259) explains, in one succinct paragraph, what Tocqueville’s prophecy has come to mean:
"We shall see that some of the aims of the welfare state," he writes, "can be realized without detriment to individual liberty, though not necessarily by the methods which seem the most obvious and are therefore the most popular; that others can be similarly achieved to a great extent, though only at a cost much greater than people imagine or would he willing to bear, or only slowly or gradually as wealth increases; and that, finally, there are others—and they are those particularly dear to the hearts of the socialists—that cannot be realized in a society that wants to preserve personal freedom."
8 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Vol. II, p. 336.
9 Quoted in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, (Chicago: Regnery,1960), p. 225. Tocqueville here almost exactly describes the modern bureaucrat’s fondness for paperwork and for using words and phrases which convey the impression of activity while concealing his lack of accomplishments. Examples come readily to mind: "coordination," "stability," "continuing effort," "the situation is under analysis," etc.
10 Vice-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, "Don’t Hamstring the Talented," Saturday Evening Post, February 13, 1960.
11Numerous examples of the harassment of private citizens by petty officials of the federal agencies (FTC, NLRB, FCC, etc.) are given in Lowell Mason’s The Language of Dissent (New York, 1959). The author enunciates "Mason’s Law" which holds that bureaucracy, out of view of the public eye, will arrogate to itself all power available under a statute, despite constitutional limitations.
12Lord Ewart, The New Despotism (London, 1929), p. 10.
13 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Vol. II, p. 347