Friday, July 03, 2009

Welcome to America, 2009 or What a Dead Frenchman Observed that Living Americans Refuse To Notice or Maybe Just Do Not Care

"I see," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterpiece of political philosophy, Democracy in America, "an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls."

As Mark Steyn wryly observes of this passage in June 2009's edition of The New Criterion, "He didn't foresee 'Dancing with the Stars' or 'American Idol' but, details aside, that's pretty much on the money."

Alexis de Tocqueville, having observed and commented upon all aspects of the American experiment as during his 1830's tour, began to meditate and prognosticate about the ramifications of unbridled democracy, the "soft despotism" that occurs when "Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." Under such a situation, de Tocqueville reasons that the American Republic cannot stand.

De Tocqueville continues: Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man's life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

The entire chapter, "Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear," is full of such prescience:

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. . . .

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men's will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much from being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

I have always thought that this brand of orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery which I have just described could be combined, more easily than is generally supposed, with some of the external forms of freedom, and that there is a possibility of its getting itself established even under the shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.

On this approaching Fourth of July weekend, one thought keeps repeating in my mind: I miss America.

2 comments:

Robert J. Moeller said...

Hey, I randomly found your blog today and I'm glad that I did. Very interesting stuff. I'm a conservative blogger and seminary student in Chicago (rjmoeller.com). Keep up the good work!

Arielle said...

Very astute observations. There is nothing new under the sun though. What's that quote? Most men do not desire freedom, merely a just master?