His trip to the US inspired Alexis de Tocqueville to write the famous 1835 essay entitled “Democracy in America.” In it he warned “of the dangers of a nurturing government extending its arm over the whole community,” and he contemplated presciently how “a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism”.
Never before, in de Tocqueville’s estimation, had a rule undertaken without force to direct and bring all its subjects into uniformity. For all their brutality, even the Roman emperors left the “details of social and private occupations” to their subjects. Not so this benevolent tyranny, which seemed capable of degrading men without tormenting them. In its mission to eradicate the natural inequalities of men, de Tocqueville feared this “administrative despotism” would also diminish their imagination and their passions.
The outsized infants of the contemporary victim movement, who can bring to its knees an entire industry with the aid of benevolent public health bureaucrats, lobbyists, and sycophants of the law, would have de Tocqueville gasping, “I told you so.” For he warned, not of tyrants, but of the ruler as guardian. Unlike a parent, this guardian would not be “preparing men for manhood,” but seeking to keep them in perpetual childhood by sparing them the trouble of thinking and living.
What would de Tocqueville have said about the “free agency” of an individual whose demand for a risk-free society is met with a safety militia so intent on saving him from himself that it compels him to coddle his spineless frame with an ergonomic seat at his place of work; it fits his aspirin bottle with a cap only the jaws of life can pry open; it monitors the supplements he takes, and even promises to find a way to teach him to leave off the fries he so loves to eat. Most frightening is that, as this benevolent power robs him of his ability to make full use of himself, the individual will paradoxically see the losses as benefits.
This governance “does not destroy, but 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 shepherd.” According to de Tocqueville, it would be futile to call on a people “which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power”. When people sink “below the level of humanity,” even voting—ostensibly an act of free will—is meaningless.
It is a perverse irony that has people concerned more with the insane ramblings of Nostradamus, than with the coming full circle of de Tocqueville’s closely argued words. The effect of the creeping statism de Tocqueville foresaw, however, fails to give pause, because the minds and hearts of people have been conquered. For a large portion of the population, government has become a source of wealth through its redistribution of money, benefits, services, contracts, franchises, and licenses. In the US and Canada, government spending at all levels now accounts for approximately 50 percent of national income. Over half of the Canadian population receives more money in benefits than it pays in taxes. In addition to directly employing approximately 20 million American civilians, the US government allots half of its spending to social welfare. For the banditry of expropriating and then redistributing some people’s wealth, citizens reward governments with the power to continue doing the same in perpetuity.
American rugged individualism is indeed in retreat. A survey conducted for the First Amendment Center in NY revealed that the Amendment is facing a veritable onslaught from the American public, a majority of whom would happily restrict the kind of public speech certain groups find offensive. Those surveyed applauded government involvement in rating TV shows, as did they feel that while campaign contributions are a form of free speech, they should be restricted. Fully 51 percent of the sizeable sample surveyed felt the press has too much freedom, and 20 percent feel government should be able to veto what newspapers publish.
Decades after de Tocqueville, Lenin declared that freedom was no more than a “bourgeois prejudice”. Canadians have lived by this credo. They have always donned their penchant for government as a sign of civility, and they take pride in a Constitution that expressly promotes limits to freedoms. Americans, on the other hand, are guilty of betraying their very souls. By relinquishing their proud radical libertarian roots, Americans have confirmed the worst of Alexis de Tocqueville’s fears.
©2000 By Ilana Mercer
A version of this column appeared in The Calgary Herald