Tocqueville’s Prophetic Word

Alexis de TocquevilleAlexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who visited America in 1831. He traveled extensively, made many notes of what he experienced, and wrote them down in a massive tome called Democracy in America. It is a classic, and is still being used today in university political science courses. It points out both the strengths and potential weaknesses he saw in this new nation.

It is obvious Tocqueville liked much of what he witnessed in this country, but he also wrote of the dangers that could arise from too much emphasis on equality, when taken to the extreme. He predicted that it could eventually turn America into a totalitarian state if handled wrongly.

There are countless spurious quotes by Tocqueville floating around the Internet, but I can vouch for this one. It’s found in a chapter called “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” The first paragraph, if read carefully, is startling in its predictive nature:

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 troubles of living?

What Tocqueville warns against is an all-powerful state that becomes all powerful by promising to take care of every need. It will provide anything and everything a people wants. The last line is particularly sobering.

He continues,

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 oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

In other words, we don’t need to choose; the government will do that for us. Don’t bother yourself with making key decisions in life; that’s too hard for you—the government knows best, so trust us.

Tocqueville concludes with this chilling thought:

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 be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

We are seeing this prophetic word come to pass in our time. Are we too far gone to reverse course? I’m not sure, but neither am I going to stop trying to undo the damage.