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

Alexis de Tocqueville

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.

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.”