Tocqueville’s Prescience

I have added Joseph Epstein’s new book, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide, to my Amazon.com wish list. My urge to own the book arises from a review in The American Spectator. The reviewer (Larry Thornberry) observes that

Tocqueville understood the constant conflict in democracies between liberty and equality, and the threat too much emphasis on the latter poses to the former. He recognized the emotion of envy behind much of the high-minded talk about equality, which he once described as “generally the wish that no one should be better off than oneself.”

Tocqueville saw the soft tyranny of the smothering paternalism that democracies can impose, and the bureaucracies they can build. He understood that too much centralization of government is a one-way street to despotism.

So true. So prescient.

With respect to “soft tyranny” or “soft despotism,” as it is generally called, I can only repeat myself:

Soft despotism is “soft” only in that citizens aren’t dragged from their houses at night and executed for imaginary crimes against the state — though they are hauled into court for not wearing seatbelts, for smoking in bars, and for various other niggling offenses to the sensibilities of nanny-staters.

Despite the absence of arbitrary physical punishment, soft despotism is despotism, period. It can be nothing but despotism when the state holds sway over your paycheck, your retirement plan, your medical care, your choice of associates, and thousands of other details of your life — from the drugs you may not buy to the kind of car you can’t drive, from where you can build a house to the features that your house must include.

“Soft despotism,” in other words, is too soft a term for the regime under which we live. I therefore agree with Tom Smith: “Fascism” is a good descriptor of our present condition, so I’ll continue to use it.

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