Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soft Despotism, or How Tyranny Creeps Into a Democracy

As students of history know, 150 years ago the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville spent a great deal of time traveling our young and vibrant nation. Among the many insights de Tocqueville had into this country was the recognition that, for all its grittiness and promise, America was not immune from the same follies that have plagued nations since the dawn of time. Among the problems he foresaw was the emergence of a form of "soft despotism" in which a paternalistic government would take control of society from an enfeebled people that was sapped of its own vitality and self-confidence. And all that stood between America and the voluntary surrender of liberty to a state eager to enhance power over an increasingly dependent population was the invigorating "habits of the heart" he saw in our 19th Century ancestors.

Unfortunately, our modern educational system doesn't seem to teach history very well. And among the insights most students of today never read is de Tocqueville's warning about what happens to a society in which citizens look to their government, rather than to themselves, to satisfy their needs and wants:

"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

No comments: