Is the Despotism that Tocqueville Feared Inevitable?

Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift:Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect Paul A. RaheYale University Press, 2008; 400 pages, $38.00 The American people have fallen into the habit of expecting government to solve all problems, removing risk from their lives, and providing for all their needs and wants. It is commonplace now for individuals to look to government—rather than the family and civil society—to relieve their most ordinary concerns, support their basic endeavors, and make good on the simplest injuries anticipated in daily life. As more and more citizens look to government for benefits and services, they become increasingly dependent on them. Are Americans, therefore, becoming the clients of government rather than its self-governing master? In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned of a tendency of democracies, bent on bringing about equal results in all cases, to succumb to a centralized and consolidated government that promises to master every social condition and outcome in pursuit of this elusive goal. The combination of egalitarianism and the regulatory power of centralized administrative government, Tocqueville feared, could lead to a new form of despotism that would destroy the human spirit. In this future, he foresaw “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Government would become the all-powerful instrument serving these insatiable appetites. Self-governing citizens would degrade themselves into passive subjects of an impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state. Written almost 170 years ago, Tocqueville’s analysis of a form of despotism that democratic peoples should most fear seems ever more prophetic: Above [the people] an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed,
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