Tocqueville And The Bland Leviathan


[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.

Smothered Equally

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.

Encourage Individuality

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

Foot Notes

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

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