In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville,Yale University Press announces the publication of Paul A. Rahe’s new book: Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.
In the course of the last century, the administrative state has grown by leaps and bounds. The foundation was laid in 1913 with the ratification of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution, which legalized the federal income tax and provided for the direct election of United States Senators, putting the federal government in a position to secure for itself unlimited funding, and denying to the state legislatures, which had once chosen the Senators, the capacity to defend state and local governments against federal encroachment. Since that time, without a respite, the defenders of local autonomy and civic agency have been beating a retreat, and the advocates of centralized administration have extended their tentacles into nearly every corner of public and private life. The only real difference between Republicans and Democrats has been the pace. Even under Ronald Reagan, the only President who made a concerted attempt to limits its growth, the federal government of the United States extended its reach.
Of course, the localities and the states still exist, just as they did in Tocqueville’s day. Elections take place. There are school boards; town, city, county, and state governments; and they still matter—even if, on a great and growing variety of subjects, they take their orders from a national government that offers them vast sums in funding in return for strict compliance with its every whim. Our regime is a hodge-podge, but with every passing year the burden of regulation becomes more intolerable and the number of mandates with increasing rapidity grows. Moreover, nearly all of the regulations imposed are devised by unelected civil servants and political appointees to whom Congress, undeniably in breach of the Constitution’s separation of powers, has delegated both legislative and executive responsibilities, and next to nothing with regard to these is examined and voted on by elected officials who can be held responsible by the voting public for the consequences of what has been done. Moreover, what remains undecided within the administrative agencies is generally dealt with in courts unresponsive to the electorate. We may still take pride in being a self-governing people, but to an ever-increasing degree that pretense is unsustainable.
If we are ever to bring this process to a halt, if we are to put a stop to the advance of the administrative state and even roll it back, if we are to recover the liberty that once was ours, if we are to refuse to be subjects and reassert ourselves as citizens, we must first come to understand what it is that has occasioned centralized administration’s inexorable march. To achieve such an understanding, Paul A. Rahe, argues in his new book—Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect—we must re-examine the character of modern, commercial republicanism. We must consider with care Montesquieu’s celebrated account of the English constitution. We must ponder why he thought this “republic disguised as a monarchy” superior to the republics of classical antiquity and the monarchies of his own day; we must ruminate on his account of the political psychology dominant within it; and we must assess his judgment regarding that polity’s fragility. Then, we must consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s searing critique of bourgeois society, explore its foundations, and do justice to its force. And, finally, in this light, we must digest the argument advanced in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, assess the effectiveness of his response to the warnings issued by Montesquieu and Rousseau, examine his fears regarding the trajectory of France, and reconsider the grounds for his positive assessment of the role played by local self-government, civic associations, an unfettered press, Biblical religion, and marital solidarity in Jacksonian America. Only when we have done this, Rahe argues, only when we have fully grasped the psychological foundations of modern democracy’s seemingly inexorable drift in the direction of soft despotism, will we be in a position to devise policies consistent with a genuine reversal of course.
If we do not do something of the sort, Rahe contends, Tocqueville’s forecast of the probable future of France will turn out to be a description of the United States:
I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world. I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose in order to procure for themselves petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn apart, is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of the others: his children and his particular friends form for him the entirety of the human race; as for his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he sees them not; he touches them and senses them not; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and, if he still has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood; it loves the fact that the citizens enjoy themselves provided that they dream solely of their own enjoyment. It works willingly for their happiness, but it wishes to be the only agent and the sole arbiter of that happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in the principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their testaments, divides their inheritances. Can it not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and of the effort associated with living?
In this fashion, every day, it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will within a smaller space, and bit by bit it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own. Equality has prepared men for all of these things: it has disposed them to put up with them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, the sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own; it does not destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
In the last century, in Europe and in the United States, soft despotism has been democracy’s drift. But what has been, Rahe argues, and what will be need not be the same. If we come to a proper understanding of the causes of the present discontents, we can set a new course.
Paul A. Rahe is The Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College and the author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution(1992), and of Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (2008). His new book, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, was released on 16 April 2009, the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville's death.