Introduction: Democratic Despotism Comes of Age

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Democratic Despotism Comes of Age


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

--C. S. Lewis, 1953

This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in afar distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them for ourselves.

--Ronald Reagan, 1964

Although we have lately seen a sudden upsurge in statist sentiment in this country and in Europe, it is important to understand that statism and the blandishments of socialism are not novelties but perennial temptations. Were they novelties they would be less dangerous. The late Irving Kristol, who died last year at 89, was exquisitely sensitive to the role of intellectuals in the metabolism of this debate, and I'd like to start by quoting from a speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute in 1973. "For two centuries," Mr. Kristol noted,

    the very important people who managed the
   affairs of this society could not believe in the
   importance of ideas--until one day they were
   shocked to discover that their children, having
   been captured and shaped by certain ideas,
   were either rebelling against their authority or
   seceding from their society. The truth is that
   ideas are all
-important. The massive and
   seemingly solid institutions of any society--the
   economic institutions, the political institutions,
   the religious institutions--are always
   at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of
   the people who populate these institutions.
   The leverage of ideas is so immense that a
   slight change in the intellectual climate can
   and will--perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably--twist
   a familiar institution into an
   unrecognizable shape. 

The ideas that are percolating down from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and Brussels these days are not new. That, indeed, is one of the depressing things about the new statism: it inspires a sense of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called "deja-vu all over again," We've been down this road before. We know where it leads. It is that forlorn byway that Friedrich von Hayek called the Road to Serfdom. Do we really have to travel down it again?

Perhaps the best anatomy of the sorts of statist initiatives we see popping up all around us these days was given nearly two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in his dissection of what he called "Democratic Despotism." In a justly famous passage from Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes this "tutelary despotism" that "does not tyrannize" but rather infantilizes.

Democratic despotism, Tocqueville points out, is unlike despotisms of old. It prefers the carrot to the stick. The goal of the operation is the same--the achievement of conformity and the consolidation of power--but the means of choice is not terror but dependence. Accordingly, Tocqueville writes, democratic despotism is despotic at one remove. It does not, unless stymied, terrorize. Rather, it "hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

For decades, the United States has been drifting towards the shoals of that enslavement. With the ascension of our current President and his plans to inspan us all in his "spread-the-wealth-around" socialism, we are nearing the point of shipwreck. "The devilish genius of this form of tyranny," as the commentator Michael Ledeen has pointed out, "is that it looks and even acts democratic. …

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