Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville, who died this week (April 16) in 1859, is best known for his seminal work Democracy in America, which is not only the best book ever written about democracy, it is arguably the best book ever written about America.  Having traveled throughout America as a young man, de Tocqueville describes in his book his impressions of America’s unique governmental system — our democratic republic — but also his impressions of the profound influence America’s social, cultural and political institutions have on its citizens.

Both good and bad.  De Tocqueville was particularly wary of America’s inexorable movement toward “equality,” largely because the “equality” he observed mostly involved the weak — the less equal (but the more numerous) — attempting to drag down the strong rather than seek to rise to their level.   The result, he writes, is “men preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”

That preference, de Tocqueville believed, can easily result in democracy becoming despotic.  To de Tocqueville, any political arrangement in which the majority prefers “equality in servitude” is an open invitation for the government to step in to guarantee that equality — and servitude.  De Tocqueville thought that this would inevitably lead to despotism, but of an especially dangerous type — one in which despotic government disguised itself as a caring, protective force.

He writes:  “After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power (government) 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 stupefies, 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 other words, government becomes “Big Brother.”  It takes care of us, but it also makes decisions about our lives that we used to make.  Seemingly benignly, it engulfs us in a web of laws and regulations from which we can never break free. We gain security and lose liberty, all in the cause of “equality” (and “fairness”).

Interestingly, de Tocqueville is now mostly remembered for his prescient observation that Russia and America would eventually become the world’s two super powers.  These days, I think his other prescient observation, outlined above, is the far more important one.