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Friday, April 2, 2010

“What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear”

The prophetic Tocqueville.

I took the title from volume 2, section 4, chapter 6 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. That chapter has been quoted many times in many places. But considering what has been happening legislatively of late (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?

What remains, indeed? 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. [Emphasis added]

Tocqueville also sees the paradoxes of democratic despotism. Note 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 reminds us that “it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life…. Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.”

What would he have thought about government’s laying the foundation for controlling our medical decisions?

He 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 [which 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” indeed is in trouble. With work, we might still be able to turn things around.

  • 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.