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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

In the late 1830s when Tocqueville was getting the second volume of Democracy in America ready for publication (in 1840) his view of the kind of despotism which lay in wait for European and American societies changed. In correspondence with his friend Louis de Kergolay Tocqueville gradually shifted his view from seeing a form of military despotism being the major threat to liberty to thinking that a form of “democratic despotism” would be the way modern societies lost their liberties. His idea of military despotism came from his analysis of Julius Caesar and Napoléon Bonaparte whose depostism came about as a result of war. Following on from comments made by Kergolay, Tocqueville began to fear that a democracy might hand powers to a single person without the need for a crisis like a war providing the impetus. Equality and the demand for security would create a paternalistic “immense, protective power” which would take over running the lives of individuals, turning the nation into “a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.” It seems that Tocqueville did not imagine a case where bother factors could coexist at the same time.

Other quotes about Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots:

2 January, 2012

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Tocqueville on the “New Despotism” (1837)

Read the full quote in context here.

For volume 2 of Democracy in America (1840) Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) drew up several drafts of his thoughts on the nature of what he called the “new despotism” which he predicted would gradually emerge and turn the nation into “a flock of timid and hardworking animals”. This draft is quoted at length in James Schleifer’s book on Tocqueville:

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial.

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped men to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

[According to James T. Schliefer] What he now foresaw more clearly was the possibility of the dictatorship of the centralized and bureaucratic state. “The social power is constantly increasing its prerogatives; it is becoming more centralized, more enterprising, more absolute, and more widespread. The citizens are perpetually falling under the control of the public administration. They are led insensibly, and perhaps against their will, daily to give up fresh portions of their individual independence to the government, and those same men who from time to time have upset a throne and trampled kings beneath their feet bend without resistance to the slightest wishes of some clerk.”

His readers would be offered several elaborate descriptions of this New Despotism, including the following chilling portrait:

“I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.

Over this kind of man stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial.

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped men to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

The omnipresence and apparent gentleness of this new tyranny were two of its most significant features. Unlike despotisms of old, it avoided violence and obvious brutality. But even though mild and benign, it, too, labored incessantly to render entire populations docile; it, too, enervated first individuals and then the entire nation.

Tocqueville described another important characteristic of the possible new despotism on an extra sheet in his working manuscript dated May 1838. “Show clearly that the administrative despotism which I am talking about is independent of representative, liberal, or revolutionary institutions, in a word of political power; whether the political world is led by an absolute king, by one or several assemblies, whether it is contested in the name of liberty or of order, whether it even falls into anarchy, whether it grows weaker and splits apart, the action of the administrative power will be neither less restrained, nor less strong, nor less overwhelming. It is a true distinction…. The man or the power [?] which puts the administrative machine in motion can change without the machine changing.”

So the dictatorship of the state was different from and immune to most political changes, even seemingly fundamental ones. In the face of political upheavals the public bureaucracy would quietly continue to gather power and subjugate the nation.

[More works by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) and on 19th Century French Liberalism]