Culture & the Family

Samuel Gregg | June 1, 2009

Despotism—The Soft Way

Samuel Gregg

Though it went virtually unnoticed, April 16th marked the 150th anniversary of the death of one of the significant thinkers of modern times, author of the classic Democracy in America (1835/1840), Alexis de Tocqueville.

Today Tocqueville is largely ignored in his native France, where the left-dominated intelligentsia dismiss him as "antidemocratic." Americans of all generations, however, have regularly turned to this nineteenth-century aristocrat to understand their past and future.

Travelling through 1830s America, Tocqueville was struck by government's apparent absence from this bustling commercial society. Unlike France, Americans had no particular regard for government officials, let alone politicians. They wanted to be let alone to follow their chosen pursuits. Why, Tocqueville wondered, did this not degenerate into anarchy?

The answer, he discovered, was twofold. First, Americans had developed habits of free association. They did not address social and economic problems by asking the state to fix the situation. Instead they banded together to resolve their own difficulties.

Second, there was the influence of religion. Tocqueville was amazed at the plethora of religious activities in America which, unlike European countries, had no established church. While religious bigotry existed, religious liberty was generally taken seriously by American society and government alike.

This, however, did not translate into ACLU-like attempts to exorcise religious influence from the public square. On the contrary, Americans openly drew moral sustenance from their various faith traditions. This helped temper the everyday tensions of civil, economic, and political life. Simply being "a nation of citizens," as President Obama recently labeled America, was not enough. "The Americans," Tocqueville noted, "combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other."

Without question Tocqueville regarded these features of America as portents of a great future. But other dimensions of American democracy troubled him, the poignancy of which is difficult to ignore today.

One concerned a fascination with equality. For all their love of liberty, Tocqueville stated, "Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, encouraged this fixation with equality because it requires people to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. This encourages us first to ignore, then to dislike, and finally to seek to reduce all differences that contradict this equality-particularly wealth disparities.

This is key to what Tocqueville considered democracy's tendency to "soft despotism." Democratic despotism, Tocqueville thought, would rarely be violent. Instead it would amount to a Faustian bargain between the political class and the citizens. He predicted that "an immense protective power" might assume all responsibility for everyone's happiness-provided this power remained "sole agent and judge of it." This power would "resemble parental authority" and attempt to keep people "in perpetual childhood" by relieving them "from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living."

Is America on the road to comfortable servility? "The American Republic," Tocqueville wrote, "will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." Since Roosevelt's New Deal, America has slowly drifted towards a political economy of soft despotism. Despite the Reagan Revolution, the trend lines of government spending and intervention have been in the anti-liberty direction. Entire constituencies of people now exist who regularly support politicians who promise that, in return for their votes, their entitlements (corporate welfare, bailouts for the "too big to fail," the old-fashioned welfare state, etc.) will be maintained and increased.

The problem is that governments can only tax and spend so much before incentives to wealth creation (as opposed to wealth transfers) begin disappearing. The material comforts of servility slowly start to wane for many people. Politicians then have a choice. They can tell citizens the truth and risk losing their votes. Or they can incite populist envy by blaming whatever's left of the wealth-producing classes for the situation.

In these circumstances, America's greatest hope is hardly its political leaders. Rather it is those millions of Americans who still treasure liberty and have no intention of becoming comfortable serfs. As Tocqueville himself observed, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

Let's hope he's still right.

Samuel Gregg (doctor of philosophy degree in moral philosophy, University of Oxford) is research director at the Acton Institute.

Samuel Gregg

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