It is evident that our associations, along with religion one of the two keys to the great success of the American experiment, are prime targets for the appetite of the state. In the seamless web created by the new tyranny, everything from the Boy Scouts to smoking clubs will be strictly regulated. It is no accident that the campaign to drive religion out of American public life began in the 1940s, when the government was consolidating its unprecedented expansion during the Depression and the Second World War, having asserted its control over a wide range of activities that had previously been entrusted to the judgment of private groups and individuals.
When we console ourselves with the thought that the government is, after all, doing it for a good reason and to accomplish a worthy objective, we unwittingly turn up the temperature under our lobster-pot. The road to the Faustian Deal is paved with the finest intentions, but the last stop is the ruin of our soul.
Permitting the central government to assume our proper responsibilities is not merely a transfer of power from us to them; it does grave damage to our spirit. It subverts our national character. In Tocqueville’s elegant construction, it “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.” Once we go over the edge toward the pursuit of material wealth, our energies uncoil, and we become meek, quiescent and flaccid in the defense of freedom.
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.
The devilish genius of this form of tyranny is that it looks and even acts democratic. We still elect our representatives, and they still ask us for our support. “…servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind…might be combined with some of the outward forms of freedom, and…might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.” Freedom is smothered without touching the institutions of political democracy. We act out democratic skits while submitting to an oppressive central power that we ourselves have chosen.
They devise a sole, tutelary and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people…this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.
There is a very old joke about the husband who announces that he has a perfect marriage: he makes all the big decisions, and lets his wife deal with the minor matters. He decides when the country should go to war, while she manages the family budget. He decides who should govern America, and she makes all the decisions about the upbringing of the children: where they go to school, what they wear, how much allowance they receive, and so on. That is precisely the sort of division of powers Tocqueville fears for us. We will be permitted to make the big decisions: who will be president, and who will sit in the legislature. But it will not matter, because the state will decide how our money will be spent, how our children will be raised, and how we will behave, down to the details of the language we are permitted to use.
We laugh at the joke because we realize that the husband’s “big decisions” are meaningless; the same eventually applies to a “democratic” state that makes all our little decisions for us. Tocqueville unerringly puts his finger on the absurdity: we give power to the state in matters that require only simple good sense, as if we were incapable of exercising it. But we elect the government itself, as if we were the very incarnation of wisdom. We are “alternately made the playthings of [our] ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men.”
We may chuckle, but it is the rueful laugh of the powerless, because such a government is far harder to resist than a traditional tyranny. “Nothing is so irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people,” Tocqueville intones, because it wields the awesome moral power of the majority and “acts…with the quickness and the persistence of a single man.”
As Tocqueville grimly predicted, modern totalitarians have thoroughly mastered this lesson. Nazis, Fascists and Communists have passionately preached sermons of equality, and constantly paid formal homage to the sovereignty of the people. Hitler proclaimed himself primus inter pares, the first among equals, while Mao and Stalin claimed their authority in the name of a classless society where everyone would be equal. And, while Communism was brought to power by violent coups or by military conquest, Fascism was not installed by violence. Hitler and Mussolini were popular leaders, their authority was sanctioned by great electoral victories and repeated demonstrations of mass public enthusiasm, and neither of them was ever challenged by a significant percentage of the population. The great Israeli historian Jacob Talmon coined the perfect name for this perversion of the Enlightenment dream, which enslaves all in the name of all: totalitarian democracy.
These extreme cases help us understand Tocqueville’s brilliant warning that equality is not a defense against tyranny, but an open invitation to ambitious and cunning leaders who enlist our support in depriving ourselves of freedom. He summarizes it in two sentences that should be memorized by every American who cherishes freedom:
The…sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it. Thus the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a single principle.
As I said last time, we’re in for a hell of a fight. Or so I hope.
UPDATE: Welcome Instapunditeers! Always good to see you here.
UPDATE: I’m trying to keep up with all those who have linked to this. Thanks all. Thanks Ecce Homo.
UPDATE: Thanks Dan Riehl! Great remarks, I’m going to steal some of them…
UPDATE: Welcome POLYSEMY: The Daily Goose
UPDATE: Welcome Oh Prune Juice (egad)