The Corner

Mitt de Tocqueville

“Not elegantly stated.” That’s how the Republican party’s presidential candidate described some of his words captured in the covertly-taped video in which he claimed that 47 percent of voters were in the bag for President Obama because they are “dependent on the government.” Amidst the hype and feigned outrage, however, it’s worth noting that a not-dissimilar analysis may be found (and much more elegantly stated) in a book published 172 years ago by the (still) greatest commentator on American political culture: the very refined and very astute French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.

I doubt that thick books are in vogue at MSNBC these days, but if the liberal commentariat deigned to pick up a copy of the second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and read the chapter entitled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” they’d find the link between creating tame citizens and a state that generously volunteers to do everything on their behalf spelt out quite gracefully. Thinking about possible threats to freedom in a democratic age, Tocqueville wrote:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Sound familiar? More than one commentator has observed that Tocqueville’s words seem to foreshadow some of the cultural and political effects of the regulatory and welfare state in the conditions of modern democracy. Many people find themselves lulled into a type of dependency upon the government. The “softness” of this despotism consists of people voluntarily yielding up their freedom in return for the comforts provided by their oh-so-kind masters.

#more#Ever since the modern welfare state was founded (by none other than that great “champion” of freedom Otto von Bismarck as he sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade industrial workers to stop voting for the German Social Democrats), Western politicians have discovered that welfare programs and subsidies more generally are a marvelous way of creating constituencies of people who are likely to keep voting for you as long as you keep delivering the goods. In terms of electoral dynamics, it sometimes reduces elections to contests about which party can give you more — at other people’s expense.

For several decades now, it’s been a playbook successfully used by European parties of left and right, most Democrats, and plenty of country-club Republicans to help develop and maintain electoral support. As Tocqueville predicted, “Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.” In such an atmosphere, politicians who seek to reduce welfare expenditures find themselves at a profound electoral disadvantage — which seems to have been Mr. Romney’s awkwardly phrased point.

Of course, it all ends in insolvency, as we are seeing played out in fiscal disasters such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, the city of Philadelphia, the city of Detroit, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois. In case you’re wondering, there’s a pattern here concerning who has been in power for most of the time in these places. And if you want empirical evidence of the resultant economic, cultural, and moral wreckage, then read Nicholas Eberstadt’s new book, A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.

Sadly for the rest of us, one can safely presume our political welfare-enablers aren’t that interested in how Tocqueville saw the Americans of the 1830s resolve their problems: i.e., through the habit of free association in which they banded together (especially in churches) to address issues and take care of those in genuine need. The same Americans didn’t see any need for federal departments of this or state departments of that to get involved, let alone to create such behemoths in the first place.

So while Mr. Romney’s choice of words was indeed infelicitous (much like “spread the wealth around,” “cling to their guns or religion,” or “you didn’t build that”), it’s not as if he didn’t have a point. The welfare state does have its own political dynamic, and the Left (with the notable exception of Bill Clinton in 1996) has never hesitated to promote it. The sooner conservatives and free marketers come up with more attractive ways of explaining to voters that having large numbers of people unduly dependent on the state isn’t just economically unsustainable but morally debilitating, the better. Democracy was never meant to be a system that gave 51 percent of the citizenry free rein to progressively loot the other 49 percent.

— Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can Avoid a European Future.

Samuel Gregg — Mr. Gregg is the research director of the Acton Institute.

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