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Tocqueville warns how administrative despotism might come to a democracy like America (1840)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) predicted that above the “crowd of similar and equal men” in a democracy will emerge “an immense and tutelary power” which will create a new kind of despotism:

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

So I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; (the thing that I want to speak about is new, and men have not yet created the expression which must portray it.) the old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it. (Endnote: The despotism that I fear for the generations to come has no precedent in the world and lacks a name. I will call it administrative despotism for lack of anything better. I would call it paternal if it aimed at making men free and if it set a limit for itself like paternity.)

I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.f Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?

This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself.m Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; [<≠in certain moments of great passions and great dangers, the sovereign power becomes suddenly violent and arbitrary. Habitually it is moderate, benevolent, regular and humane≠>] it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

About this Quotation:

In the second last chapter of his book on Democracy in America (1840) Tocqueville gathers his thoughts in order to make some predictions about how “despotism” might come to a democratic nation like America. In the first volume (1835) there is much discussion of the relationship between “those who govern” and “the governed”, the dangers of “the despotism (or the tyranny) of the majority,” and the different problems posed by “governmental centralization” and “administrative centralization”, but he always counters with arguments about how the particular circumstances and the character of Americans might overcome these challenges. Five years later he seems not to be so sure that this will be possible in the long run. He confesses that he has struggled to find a name for this new kind of despotism he thinks democracies are prone to - “The despotism that I fear for the generations to come has no precedent in the world and lacks a name. I will call it administrative despotism for lack of anything better.” He predicts that this newer, gentler form of servitude will emerge from within the democratic legislature itself and will envelop the entire country. Nevertheless, he concludes that “the true friends of liberty” still have an obligation to “constantly, stand up and be ready to prevent the social power from sacrificing lightly the particular rights of some individuals to the general execution of its designs.”

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