Here’s something I didn’t know about Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of democracy, from Patrick Deneen’s weblog:
Many readers of Democracy in America—and doubtless more with only passing acquaintance—know that Tocqueville warns against the rise of a centralized, bureaucratic, “tutelary” government, the “soft despotism” of the centralized Nanny State. It is these passages of Tocqueville that have always been the most admired by conservatives. But most readers fail to see that Tocqueville understood the rise of the centralized tutelary State not to be result of a coup by centralizing despots, but rather, the consequence of our ever-greater tendency to embrace a Lockean form of individualism. Throughout Democracy in America he wrote of the ways in which associational life strengthen citizens, giving them the tools and capacities and talents for finding together the means of achieving the particular good within their communities, and providing for them a familiarity with, and love for, civic freedom. The tendency for democracies, over time, toward separation, solipsism, individualism—suspicious of groups and people that make claims upon individuals, more tempted by private than public concerns, increasingly understanding freedom to be doing as one wants—renders democratic people ripe for the rise of the tutelary State.
Tocqueville over and over describes such people as “weak,” shorn of the resources that provide an avenue toward a true form of freedom. And so, he writes toward the conclusion of Democracy in America that the individual freedom claiming to do what we want will lead to the most debased form of modern tyranny, willing subjects to a tutelary State.
This is what bothers me about the modern obsession with politics and political action, even by those who claim to be in favor of limited government. The reality is that government, both of the state and of the church, hardly intrudes into the everyday life of an average person, and not at all into the most important areas of that life. It would be easy enough for most people to treat such government with complete indifference, merely avoiding activity that is likely to bring about conflict with it, and getting on with the business of living. But instead we cultivate our sense of indignation over the difference between how things ought to be and how things actually are.
And, in doing so, we end up conveying huge amounts of power to governmental institutions, simply by putting our faith in them. A requirement for maintaining high levels of outrage about how things are being done at the moment is a fundamental confidence that, if only things were done right, then all would be well. But if we have little or no faith in the efficacy of governmental institutions—a lack of faith that has always and everywhere been borne out by the facts—then the only response required by the latest bit of state or church foolishness is to chuckle knowingly and move on.
Move on to what? Community life, where one can conduct nearly all one’s affairs without coming into contact with government; study the example of the Old Order plain people to see that this is true. Deneen ends his post with a painful illustration of how the modern idea of community has become an instrument of doublethink, a concept whose warm, fuzzy associations are used to encourage behavior that will in fact destroy community.
In perfect confirmation of Tocqueville’s fears, take a minute to watch this video, courtesy of the U.S. Government in its efforts to promote the Census:
The commercial – entitled “A March to the Mailbox” – portrays an ordinary Joe getting off his couch (in a bathrobe) and marching out of his house – picket-fenced – where suddenly the streets fill with neighbors and friends, the names of whom he knows entirely. He states that by filling out the Census form, he’s helping Pete’s school and roads for his neighbors car pool and Risa’s health-care and so that—I quote—“we can get our fair share of Federal Funding.”
As I watched it (in growing horror), I saw it as the perverse fulfillment of Tocqueville’s analysis—that the very community spirit being portrayed in that commercial would itself obviate the need for that sort of ad. The ad portrayed a vibrant community of people who know each other and genuinely wish each other’s good, but in fact the need for the commercial at all was born of the widespread absence of any such reality. Rather, the reality is that each person is to fill out this form in the privacy of their own home in order to be relieved of the obligation to do anything further to help fellow citizens that are increasingly unknown to them. Having won the Cold War, our government is now producing and airing commercials that portray what can’t be described in any other way other than our very own Potemkin village. [Emphasis added]