Alexis de Tocqueville and the Tyranny of Benevolence

Alexis de Tocqueville and the Tyranny of Benevolence

French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville described what I call the Tyranny of Benevolence in Book IV of his brilliant analysis of America’s society and government.

Tocqueville published Democracy in America fifty years after Thomas Jefferson and James Madison launched their party revolution (1790–1796) and forty years after Jefferson won his so-called Revolution of 1800. I expect Tocqueville was reflecting on these seminal events as he contemplated what America would become. Having synthesized what he had learned about America with what he knew about autocratic France, Tocqueville predicted that the politically independent and industrious enterprisers of America would eventually come under the control of bureaucrats who would transform them into a “timid flock” that they would manage. This transformation was completed during the Roosevelt Revolution, which began in the 1930s and continued for fifty years.

In the four books of this series, I show that this seemingly impossible transformation was produced by America’s majoritarian political system. That is to say, the American people, by exercising their right to consent the laws by which they are governed, in a few great steps, transferred their sovereignty to a governing class that had no particular insight in the common good and no special interest in the well-being of the people they managed. Instead, they doled out benefits that made their flock more secure.

Tocqueville summarized this tyrannical benevolence in these words:
“I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure thepetty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest, – his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindness still remains to him, he may be said any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of their property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.

. . . 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 form 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 be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Democracy in America
Part II: Book IV – What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear
Richard D. Heffner, Editor
New York
Mentor Books. 1984 . 302–304

A graphite drawing of Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville
By Théodore Chassériau
The Natiuonal Gallery of Art, Washington, DC