Thursday, June 11, 2009

De Tocqueville on 'Soft' Despotism

In a New Criterion article discussion of a book by Professor Paul Rahe, Mark Steyn quotes de Tocqueville on 'soft' despotism:
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Sound familiar?

Prof. Rahe goes on to say, "Human dignity is bound up with taking responsibility for conducting one's own affairs.
“We can be what once we were, or we can settle for a gradual, gentle descent into servitude."

What can one add but "Bravo, Dr. Rahe." Well, perhaps one could add this:

'Soft' despotism is perhaps the hardest kind because it's the hardest kind to stop and eradicate. When people are treated with extreme harshness, ala the Soviet Union, rebellion will constantly bubble beneath the surface because it's obvious that one could do no worse. When despotism comes with the smiling face of the gently scolding nanny, it's too easy to delude oneself into thinking that little is to be gained by rebellion.

The fear of loss of small comforts keeps many a man glued to his couch. But even apart from the fact that a lightly smothering slavery invariably evolves into the harsher kind before long, the fact is that the loss of liberty leads immediately to a loss of every other value, the material ones being only the first and least important to go.

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