Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton
Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of Economic
Thinking for the Theologically Minded (University Press
of America, 2001) and On
Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lexington
Europe’s New Despotism
Tocqueville got it right...
[Samuel Gregg] 5/17/05
the bicentenary of the birth of one of 19th century Europe’s
most insightful political thinkers. Less well-known than Marx,
Alexis de Tocqueville may have the last laugh when it comes
to predicting accurately the course of history. This is especially
true when it comes to understanding some of “Old” Europe’s
current economic and political malaises.
himself was a study in contrasts: a nobleman who embraced the
ideals of 1789 despite the Revolution’s guillotining of members
of his family; a self-proclaimed liberal who abhorred 19th
century French liberalism’s rabid anti-clericalism; a practicing
Catholic who admitted his faith was undermined by reading Enlightenment
thinkers. Perhaps because of these tensions Tocqueville saw
things that others of his time could not.
is best remembered for his Democracy in America, a book
that sought to explain the free society that had taken root
in North America to the Europe of his time. Tocqueville did
not, however, write as a detached observer. He was anxious
to help European societies transition to the democratic arrangements
he considered inevitable, without experiencing the death and
dictatorship endured by France during its Revolution.
All of Tocqueville’s
writings repay careful reading. Yet it is his concerns about
democracy’s future that are most relevant to Europe today-especially
old Europe. This particularly concerns Tocqueville’s warnings
regarding what he called “soft-despotism.”
in America, Tocqueville suggested that democracy was
capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit one
without the edges of Jacobin or Bonapartist dictatorship
with which Europeans were all too familiar. The book spoke
of “an immense protective power” which took all responsibility
for everyone’s happiness-just so long as this power remained “sole
agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville wrote, would “resemble
parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual
childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking
and all the cares of living. ”
might arise, Tocqueville noted, if democracy’s progress was
accompanied by demands for a leveling of social conditions.
The danger was that an obsession with equality was very compatible
with increasingly centralized state-power. Leveling social
conditions, Tocqueville observed, usually involved using the
state to subvert those intermediate associations that reflected
social differences, but also limited government-power.
vision of “soft-despotism” is thus one of arrangements that
mutually corrupt citizens and the democratic state. Citizens
vote for those politicians who promise to use the state to
give them whatever they want. The political-class delivers,
so long as citizens do whatever it says is necessary to provide
for everyone’s desires. The “softness” of this despotism consists
of people’s voluntary surrender of their liberty and their
tendency to look habitually to the state for their needs.
upon “old Europe” today, it seems to exhibit basic symptoms
of soft-despotism. In Germany, Chancellor’s Schroeder’s relatively-modest
reforms of an unsustainable welfare-system have encountered
mass-resistance. Similar protests have occurred in Italy and
Austria. In France, the political left now refers to the 35-hour
week as an “inalienable right.” Tampering with the 35-hour
week thus seems to loom in their minds as a potential human-rights
violation. More recently, Jacques Chirac’s government caved
into demands for public-sector pay-rises after just 3 days
of marches by a million protestors.
Constitution also shows signs of a soft-despotism mentality.
It does not limit itself-as any sound constitution should-to
outlining the origins, divisions, and limitations of state-power.
Instead, its 511 pages embrace a plethora of subjects ranging
from fishing, humanitarian-aid, space policy, sport, tourism,
to financial assistance to the former East Germany. In other
words, the European Constitution provides the backing of fundamental
law to EU officials wishing to meddle in almost anything.
such tendencies, Europe’s constitution is unlikely to facilitate
the growth of those intermediate associations that, in Tocqueville’s
view, assist in preventing democracy from slipping into soft-despotism.
These associations, Tocqueville believed, helped the young
American republic to limit government precisely because of
their unique ability to inculcate the virtues required by free
that if political and economic reform in Old Europe is to be
successful, it requires, from a Tocquevillian standpoint, more
than extensive deregulation and the political will to deflate
bloated welfare-states. It demands serious renewal of the moral
and cultural preconditions required by any free society.
For in the
end, Tocqueville understood that it was a society’s culture
that ultimately determined its destiny as free or servile.
More than any other thinker, Tocqueville recognized that liberty’s
future in Europe was highly dependent on Europeans’ moral-cultural
habits. To this extent, a 19th century French aristocrat may
have understood contemporary Europe’s dilemmas better than
21st century Europeans understand them themselves. tOR
2005 Acton Institute