Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Did Tocqueville Exaggerate the Danger of Soft Despotism?

Mr. Postmodern Conservative reminds people that that’s what I think for now.

Discussions - 11 Comments

No...but the idea is easily exaggerated...the perfect moderation of the idea is beyond partisan human beings. To one extent or the other you have to be aligned with Hayek or with Obama?

I guess we have different ideas as to what "soft despotism" looks like, because I think we're there now. Modern liberalism IS soft despotism.

To one extent or the other you have to be aligned with Hayek or with Obama?


Hayek is pretty much in the "third way" camp these days. The two dominant poles are Obama and Rand. Obama representing Americas academics, Rand its businessmen. Both groups are monists, where Hayek was pluralist.

The guy notes "hypermobilization," and from that segues to big government. Without explaining the link that exists between the two. That was a rather odd piece. It's one thing to throw something out there when commenting on somebody else's post, somebody else's blog, but it's altogether different when it's the lead post, when it's your own blog, and the blog at least ostensibly intends a certain seriousness.

I concur with John's ruling though, that modern liberalism "IS" the soft despotism warned of earlier. The despotism will only become the more pronounced by the way, unless we return to that sane and sound robust individualism that characterized America in days gone by.

Peter and James, if you want to say that Tocqueville has now been proven "wrong" about mild despotism, then you get to join the illustrious company of Robert Dahl (see his consistently annoying How Democratic is the U.S. Constitution? ) I'll have more on this later, I think, but three errors to avoid: 1) MD was not presented by Toc as a prediction, but as a thought experiment. The fact that full MD entails outright dehumanization is an indication of this, but there is gobs of other evidence. As for "pretty close" realization of MD, well yes, that is a prediction, although getting close to MD usually would result in a hard despot attaining power. (But see #3.) 2) getting within hailing range of MD was not a prediction about America exclusively...indeed the account of MD comes toward the end of the fourth part of the second volume, many of whose chapters explicitly indicate they are about democracy universal, or even about what are predictably more European trends, at least for the short term. 3) Never underestimate how gradualist the Toc who speaks glibly in the mere 1830s of "democratic centuries" really is. The scenario for moving within range of full MD is VERY long-term and gradualist, IMO.

Now, if you want to say that conservatives, good ole' Hayek included, have for too long emphasized the regulation/economic/centralization aspects of MD above all others, and turned the spectre of THAT into enemey number one (after commmunism) well, then I agree. And I agree that the idea of big government, with the Toc window dressing added or not, often does block productive conservative thinking.


Anomie is perfectly compatible with soft despotism. The existence of the one is no argument against the existence of the other.

Comment #1 is the work of a true idiot. Moderation is exactly what drives soft despotism. The choice between Hayek and Obama is a choice between two soft despots. As comment #3 points out Hayek is in the "third way" camp. Obama and McCain are also in this camp. Both political parties conspire to feed us a steady diet of despotism. Dan is right and brilliant as always. The problem is moderation and prudence because as Alex de Toqueville points out these are characteristics of aristocracy that might be lacking in democracy if it were not for lawyers, and in the modern day economists. Carl Scott shows us that economists have came to dictate what is conservative. Sure listening to the economists and lawyers might be prudent and moderate in the short run but these groups have been gradually leading us to ruin. Sometimes I think Toqueville himself was trying to give instructions on how to best tyrannize the people, stripping them of the sane and robust individualism that Dan talks about.

Yes, but exactly how does a populace "return to robust individualism"? I'll call for that as much as anyone, but it's shouting into the wind.

Democracy and democratic self-interest leads to the populace demanding of government surcease from care and want. Isn't that the essence of what Tocqueville says on the topic? The people tyrannize themselves, looking for a more comfortable life. There are some few things that we can not do for ourselves and need to have "government" to do for us, national defense being one of those, traditionally. The list of what people choose to see as being too big to manage as an individual grows longer all the time. The way to put that these days is to say that government has moral obligations to its citizenry. I'd like to think that government has a moral obligation to allow people to be "rugged individuals", as Herbert Hoover put it.

People don't like to be told that they are selling themselves for comfort. I have just been listening (I love Librivox) to Tocqueville delighting in the wonders of American local government. Maybe America is just too big to have lovely local government anymore? The little city I live next to made the news for refusing federal money as relief for a slightly rougher than average snowstorm last winter. That storm had been handled as usual and we didn't need federal millions, so our dear city manager refused the funds. This makes the news. A councilman was loudly upset because the city could have used the money for his pet pork project. I wonder how this will play at election time.

Did you guys read this today? "Strategic terminology" means The Department of Homeland Security thinks it's a bad idea to use the word "liberty" when describing America's foreign policy goals. We have all sorts of problems with the idea of liberty these days.

One thing more to note is the shifting spectrum of what constitutes "soft despotism."

50 years ago if you spoke before an American audience and promised them that the government would control their thermostat, -------- what would their reaction have been? Shock, outrage.

But today, Obama does it, and is applauded by many for it, for having the "courage and the vision" to promise as much. What conclusion are we to draw from that, but that the American people's understanding of what is the proper sphere for their government has dramatically altered.

The most pernicious aspect of the modern despotism is the loss of awareness in its subject. It's akin to a fighter pilot blacking out, where his vision narrows as the G forces intensify, until such time as he loses his vision entirely, as well as his consciousness. But whereas the F-16 is able to sense when the pilot has blacked out and automatically correct, no such automatic correction exists for the Demos.

Speech codes on campus are prima facie evidence of modern despotism. The very idea is outrageous. But instead of being rejected by the students, the students feel that such codes are "protecting" them. From what are they being "protected," perhaps an unpleasant collision with an idea they might not agree with.

But where the despotism is really expanding is in the federal agencies and within departmental rulings, beyond the purview and the audit of the American electorate.

The precise ruling was not "endangered," but "threatened," which will prove in this case to be a distinction without any difference. Of course being in a stupor myself I was inclined to let the matter go without subsequent specification. But some would have found therein a cause for mirth, besides validation of their own cleverness.

Then again I could have simply allowed them to continue to appear oh so clever in their own eyes, knowing all the while that their conclusions were groundless.

Ah, it seems I was in a stupor, because I corrected a point that was never made.

How stupid of me.

It would be best if I were to return to my stupor.

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