Tocquevillean Resolution

Besides retrospectives and predictions, another common practice during this season is the making of New Year’s resolutions. Those of us with a classical liberal view of things ought naturally commit to persisting in the struggle to reduce the influence of government in our lives and society.

In undertaking this task, we will be more focused insofar as we are more clear about what exactly we are opposing. Few thinkers did a better job of drawing this out for us than Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French thinker whose visit to an emerging United States led to his writing of Democracy in America. Though it’s been 170 years since its publication, it’s still one of the most incisive explorations of the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic regime.  

Near the end of Volume 2 (Part 4, Ch. 6), Tocqueville explains that democracies are vulnerable to a historically unprecedented kind of despotism. Indeed, it is so new that terms like despotism and tyranny don’t really fit. Using our available vocabulary, it is best described as a soft tyranny that controls the populace not so much through brute force and fear, but through cajoling and seduction. Here is the key passage where Tocqueville lays it out:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.

I will leave it up to the reader to figure out for themselves to what extent Canada in 2010 manifests this condition. But for 2011, a good New Year’s resolution is to stand on guard against the full realization of this Tocquevillean vision.

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