Tocqueville on the threat of a mild despotism

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Pioneer focuses on four policy issues that we believe are critical to making Massachusetts freer and more prosperous — a world-class education for all, accessible and affordable health care, government that can do big things but is not overweening, and a dynamic economy. That’s the mission, but the mission is informed by a deep belief in a republican form of democracy (both small r and small d) and a standard issue copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on the night table.

Bedtime reading brought me to a passage in Volume II that is both powerful and worthy of reflection.  Not because of this or that individual law, but because of, if you will, the accumulation, the “network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform” that are today firmly rooted features of schooling, healthcare, government and business.

Volume II of Tocqueville’s masterwork was published five years after the first volume, which described Americans’ “democratic state of society, which has naturally suggested to them certain laws and a certain political character.”

The second volume examines Americans’ “multitude of feelings and opinions,” which “were unknown amongst the elder aristocratic communities of Europe” because the revolution and ensuing social and political developments in the United States had “destroyed or modified all the relations which before existed, and established others of a novel kind.”  Of greatest interest to Tocqueville in the second volume was that these changes in relations had impacted American civil society just as much as they impacted the nation’s politics.

After covering the influence of democracy on “the action of intellect,” “the feelings of Americans,” and social interactions (“Manners Properly so Called”), Tocqueville’s second volume focuses on the influence of democratic ideas and feelings on political society.”  In the sixth chapter of Volume 2’s final section, Tocqueville discusses concentration of power, in recent European history and in democracies more generally.   His purpose is to examine a new “sort of Despotism Democratic Nations have to Fear.”

He starts out by noting that he has “remarked during [his] stay in the United States that a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism,” but that the five years that have passed since the publication of Volume I of Democracy in America have only confirmed his fears, even if they had “changed their object.”

No sovereign ever lived in former ages so absolute or so powerful as to undertake to administer by his own agency, and without the assistance of intermediate powers, all the parts of a great empire; none ever attempted to subject all his subjects indiscriminately to strict uniformity of regulation and personally to tutor and direct every member of the community. The notion of such an undertaking never occurred to the human mind; and if any man had conceived it, the want of information, the imperfection of the administrative system, and, above all, the natural obstacles caused by the inequality of conditions would speedily have checked the execution of so vast a design…

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that, in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands and might interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do…

When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

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 it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. 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?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

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.

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.

French writers and intellectuals have long noted Tocqueville’s powerful writing style — and this passage does not disappoint.  As always, Tocqueville proves to be more than a prose stylist.  He has an uncanny ability to be timely, whether 50, 100, 150 or now 175 years later.

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