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Tocqueville on centralization as the natural form of government for democracies (1835)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) believed that the natural form of government for a democratic people was one which was centralized, uniform and strong:

I have shown that equality suggested to men the thought of a unique, uniform and strong government. I have just shown that it gives them the taste for it; so today nations are tending toward a government of this type. The natural inclination of their mind and heart leads them to it, and it is enough for them not to hold themselves back in order to reach it.

I think that, in the democratic centuries that are going to open up, individual independence and local liberties will always be a product of art. Centralization will be the natural government.

Every central power that follows these natural instincts loves equality and favors it; for equality [(of conditions)] singularly facilitates the action of such a power, extends it and assures it.

You can say equally that every central government adores [legislative] uniformity; uniformity spares it from the examination of an infinity of details with which it would have to be concerned, if the rule had to be made for men, rather than making all men indiscriminately come under the same rule. Thus, the government loves what the citizens love, and it naturally hates what they hate. This community of sentiments, which, among democratic nations, continually unites in the same thought each individual and the sovereign power, establishes between them a secret and permanent sympathy. You pardon the government its faults in favor of its tastes; public confidence abandons the government only with difficulty amid its excesses and its errors, and returns as soon as it is called back. Democratic peoples often hate the agents of the central power; but they always love this power itself. [Because they consider it as the most powerful instrument that they could use as needed to help them make everyone who escapes from the common rule come back to it.

I said that in times of equality the idea of intermediary powers set between simple individuals and the government did not naturally present itself to the human mind. I add that men who live in these centuries envisage such powers only with distrust and submit to them only with difficulty.]

Thus, I have come by two different roads to the same end. I have shown that equality suggested to men the thought of a unique, uniform and strong government. I have just shown that it gives them the taste for it; so today nations are tending toward a government of this type. The natural inclination of their mind and heart leads them to it, and it is enough for them not to hold themselves back in order to reach it.

I think that, in the democratic centuries that are going to open up, individual independence and local liberties will always be a product of art. Centralization will be the natural government.

About this Quotation:

It is significant that Tocqueville did not call his book “Liberty in America” but “Democracy in America”. [The economist Michel Chevalier did however write a short book called just this in 1849.] He believed that centralized government with uniformity of legislation was the “natural” form of government for a democracy. To protect liberty, whether individual or local, required a careful separation and balancing of political powers which was a difficult task to achieve and which had to be learned. He called it “a product of art” as it did not come naturally to a democratic people. Tocqueville also noted that a democratic people were also very forgiving of the leaders they elected to office because there is “a secret and permanent sympathy” between them. They may end up “hat(ing) the agents of the central power; but they always love this power itself” because ultimately they believe it comes from them.

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