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De Tocqueville on Democracy’s Oppression

September 3, 2009

When eloquence sets fire to reason and prophecy–I recently reread this passage from Democracy in America–it is so haunting, so insightful, and so relevant to much in current debate (healthcare?), I can’t help but quote it. The brilliant Frenchman, from 1840:

I think the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and , since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it…

What might this quiet and gentle democratic oppression look like?

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes it 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 a perpetual state of childhood: it is well content that 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. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them as benefits.

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 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.

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2 Comments
  1. Eelco Hoogendoorn permalink
    September 4, 2009 9:58 am

    Yeah, agreed, that really captures what is wrong with society as i know it. Given the pace at which things have been moving in the direction described since these words were written, one can only guess at his horror if he were projected 170 years into the future.

  2. January 22, 2014 11:15 pm

    “let freedom ring” ?

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