The Corner

‘A Network of Small Complicated Rules, Minute and Uniform’

The federal government bans the incandescent light bulb. It bans street signs that have all capital letters and mandates what font they need to be in. Now, Congress has seen fit to focus its august attention on the volume of TV commercials.

The problem is not that these things create unnecessary costs or destroy jobs, which they do, or that lawmakers have more important things to do, which is also true. Rather, the federal government has no business doing any of these things. Yes, the entitlements trainwreck is a bigger issue, but if we, as a people, continue to shrug at this sort of thing, our unfitness for self-government will become undeniable.

It still amazes me that Tocqueville foresaw this soft despotism so long ago:

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.

Conservative politicians need to run on this issue, not just as a source of humorous and outrageous anecdotes but as a teachable moment, making clear what’s necessary for the maintenance of self-government. And if, over a sustained period, it’s clear that the bulk of the people don’t really mind the network of small complicated rules, well, then we’ll know we’re in the same situation Britannicus described to his father, the Emperor Claudius, in the mini-series:

I don’t believe in the Republic. No one believes in the Republic any more. No one does, except you.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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