Here’s an excerpt from Alexis De Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America. It’s from section four of the work, entitled ‘Influence of Democratic Ideas and Feelings on Political Society’. Chapter six of that section is called ‘What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear’.
By the way, Tocqueville’s two volume set is the chronicle of his travels around early 19th century America. Critics might dismiss it as flashback to a pre-modern, pre-industrial, mostly agrarian world with little to teach us about modern democracy. But that would be a mistake.
America, like Australia at the same time, was a political world unencumbered by the history and traditions of European politics. Tocqueville was fascinated by what participatory democracy looked like without a strong central government but WITH a healthy respect for the value of different factions (freedom of association) in society.
We thought of the quote last week in response to some of the feedback we got on our recent posts about freedom of the press in Australia. It may seem like no big deal. But in a free society, it should never be incumbent on the people to prove they deserve their freedoms. The government doesn’t grant you freedoms. You are born with them. Anyone who thinks or argues otherwise is both wrong and dangerous.
In the event, here is the extended quote on what we like to call the oppressiveness of modern democracy. You can see just how far ahead of his time Tocqueville was. His experience with plutocratic European society told him how the relationship man and State would evolve in America. Emphasis added is ours:
‘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 endeavouring 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 labours, 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.’
Don’t be a sheep.
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