The debilitating effect of democracy

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]


12 thoughts on “The debilitating effect of democracy

  1. i gave up worrying about what government does a while back. I basically worry about it only while paying taxes. It’s so big now, that it has reached the point of not generally paying attention to small fry that stay out of sight. unfortunately, that means if you what to big big, rich and noticeable, well you might get noticed. I wish it were smaller, but it ain’t gonna happen. Too many people, corporations, politicians, and others, like dung beetles, get to live of the governments droppings. Must have been something like this during the last centuries of the Roman empire, or the Chinese Empire, Lots of stuff happening at the emperors court, and every where else, starting to care less and less. Almost feudal, in fact. By the time the empire fell, most people, other than the hangers on in Rome, or the Mandarins court, never cared, or noticed.

  2. I wish it were true that the government hardly intrudes upon my everyday life. That would make me most content! However, I recently had to pay my local government–and get permission from the “planning and building department”–so that I could build a patio in my back yard. I cannot burn wood–in my fireplace, in the firepit in my yard, anywhere–without checking a webiste which tells me whether or not my local authorities have decided that it is okay if I burn such things (this is under the guise of “air quality control”). I had to buy a larger car due to carseat laws–my SEVEN year old is still in a carseat due to his small stature. My school planning is done in light of my state’s requirements for private schools. I cannot shoot a BB-gun at the birds which attack my father’s peach tree every spring; I could be arrested. The type of animals I may own on my half-acre property is decided by a committee of men, most of whom I have never met and whom have never met me. I cannot bake a loaf of bread and sell it unless the local health department inspects my kitchen first. I have to be careful not to inadvertantly sell recalled children’s items at my yardsales or on local classifieds, or I can be reported to the authorities. The list goes on.

    My husband and I call this the People’s Republic of California somewhat earnestly these days, and we stay because my family has been here for generations and we love our “place” and the community to which we belong, but we increasingly feel the weight of the government upon our shoulders. I only hope that my state will, someday, not be able to afford to enforce the laws which I and so many others find burdensome.

  3. Cindy,

    I read and read and read your blog. I come back over and over again because I want to learn to truly think rightly not so that I think rightly, but so that I do right and enjoy God and life I have right now.

    Since I married and began having children 5 years ago, I became the protesting, write my congressman type. I hate the idea of Obama telling me to buy insurance when it works out better for our family not to. Etc. etc. etc. (just about what Brandy said above).

    But I have to admit that something has not seemed right about it all. And sitting in the back of my mind was Neil Postman and Deitrich Bonhoeffer. I think you just put it together for me.

    I think I suppose myself involved for the sake of my freedom, but I actually spend more time worrying about the government ensuring my freedom, than just going about living in freedom.

    I’ll have to think more about what you’ve said. It’s paradigm-shifting for me. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. sorry Brandy afterthoughts, to hear that the government of California is so much in your life. i live in the Ozarks of Missouri, a place that traditionally had modest government. If i had to put up with what you are going through, i would move. It sounds like putting in a garden would violate a dozen laws and ordinances in California.

  5. Rick,

    Thank you for this. I have been VERY bothered by the whole Census promotion blitz that the government has undertaken. I saw that TV ad a few days ago and couldn’t believe it. I think you have done a good job revealing the falacy behind the message. The whole census thing is just absolutely saturated in a “what’s in it for me” attitude that is what will ultimately undermine what is left of the foundation of this country. Put the message in contrast to JFK from only a half century ago, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

    I am curious about your statement “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”. I agree with the church part – but the government? Maybe you’ve just grown so used to these intrusions that you don’t notice them anymore? Maybe you’ve been in the middle of south central KY for too long? Would you elaborate a bit?

  6. Maybe you’ve just grown so used to these intrusions that you don’t notice them anymore? Maybe you’ve been in the middle of south central KY for too long? Would you elaborate a bit?


    I come into contact with government on an occasional basis, less so here in the country than used to happen in town. But I rarely see those contacts as intrusions. Most of them involve things that have to get done by someone in some fashion or other.

    I may not agree that, say, it is the government’s role to build the roads or decide where they are and aren’t built or how they will be paid for or how travel on them will be regulated. But I accept that it is legitimate for a community to want roads, and to have ways to get them built and paid for and regulated, and that it is also legitimate (if not wise) for a community to put that job off on government.

    Honestly, though, I can’t think of much I’ve done in the past month or so that has been influenced by the existence of government. But perhaps I’m missing your point. If you can give me some examples of how you see government intruding into everyday life, I’ll think about it some more.

  7. Brandy’s points are good one, but I’ll tell what we’ve been doing about that sort of thing the last few years — ignoring them.

    When we first moved out here we asked the county about having farm animals (we’re zoned agricultural, but we only have 3.3 acres, and the code was unclear whether it was permissible to have anything other than pets — which includes horses here). We were told yes we could by one person, and no we could not by another, and that it depended on our neighbors by someone else — as long as they aren’t bothered by what we’re doing there’s no problem, but if anyone complains then the code is just unclear enough that whether we were fined would depend on who heard the case.

    As our pastor says about this kind of thing, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” So as long as we believe what we’re doing is sensible and responsible and won’t bug our neighbors, we go ahead and do it.

  8. Kelly, if I lived in the country and under county (rather than city) rather than city zoning laws, I think I could ignore them quite contently. :) Unfortunately, the tendency of those in the city limits is to tattle, making knowing your neighbors very important yet hard to do within the culture here, and the tendency of city authorities is to check up on their citizens. I remember when we lived near Orange County, there had been some photos taken for arial maps, but the County used them to prosecute owners for nonpermitted activities on their property. I don’t know how that went in the courts, but it definitely gave us pause. A helicopter patrols our neighborhood twice daily, and though its defined purpose doesn’t worry me much, I always remember what happened in OC.

    It definitely depends on where you live. I actually lived in one city (La Mirada, CA) where one couldn’t not change the light fixtures inside their own home without city approval. In LA County, one can be prosecuted and/or cited for not recycling a certain percentage of their trash. We were so glad to leave the big city.

    State law requires my children to wear helmets when they ride their bikes and scooters–but we, naturally, NEVER require that on our own property.

    It is illegal for me to sell the excess from our garden or from our orchard (not that we have much yet, and we plan to fight that or ignore that when we do).

    I say all of this merely to illustrate–in this state, unless you live far out (where you can’t get water)–one feels the presence of the government daily. I feel it when I tell my five-year-old she can’t go with Daddy because we don’t want to move the carseats to his car. Etc.

    Enjoy your freedom, sir. Wish I were born in Kentucky, I guess. ;)

  9. What makes the difference between a situation that we should just ‘chuckle knowingly’ about, and one that we should be more watchful of? Having just read The Gulag Archipelago(because I saw it mentioned here a while ago), I wonder what keeps us from heading down the path that leads to more than just a little government intrusion. When do we say ,enough…because it seems to me that the direction that our country is going is similar, just not as far along the road. Or is there something fundamentally different that is going to protect us from the inevitable conclusion that destroyed so many lives under Communism? Maybe I am drawing conclusions that are not really there?

  10. Angela,

    What I would suggest is that none of us are or will ever be in a position to say “enough” politically, and the ones who try to convince us otherwise are intentionally keeping us distracted for their own purposes. But we could busy ourselves for the rest of our natural lives with the work of freeing ourselves individually and in our communities.

    One example: raw milk is heavily controlled by the government, in some locations prohibited. But that control affects almost no one—because very few people want raw milk. You could spend your efforts trying to get the raw milk laws changed, getting sucked into the political maelstrom, compromising your principles in order to come away with some small and partial victory. Or you could keep a cow, help others figure out how to keep a cow, feed your kids raw milk so your neighbors can see them grow up big and strong from it, tell your neighbors about the history of milk and why it is the way it is today, offer them some so they can discover that it won’t kill them, sell some to your neighbors in defiance of the authorities. I think that by taking the second route you will be a much greater blessing to your community and the world.

    One side note: in many states it is legal for dairies to sell raw milk in supermarkets. But just recently Whole Foods has decided to quit carrying it, taking with it about 15% of raw milk sales, without giving any clear reason. Whole Foods! So it’s not just government regulation that can significantly inhibit freedom of action.

  11. Rick,

    Thank you for sharing that “picture” of the alternative. That helped me think more thoroughly about what you are saying.

    It reminds me of when I started talking about how I loved raw milk, and a dear friend of our family looked at me like I was crazy because he had worked at an industrial dairy when he was in college. Last fall, we planned a fieldtrip for a small group of homeschoolers to McAfee’s Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno, and this friend was able to come along with his family. His opinion was completely changed by his exposure–he knows better than WE do how superior OP was to a typcial dairy–and he left that day with a 5# bag of raw cheese and a lot of admiration for McAfee’s operation! I think that changed the heart in a way that lobbying cannot.

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