Democracy in America is arguably the most erudite observation of American life that has ever been written. Further, as you read it you are constantly amazed at the prophetic power that Tocqueville posseses. It is hard to believe it was first published in 1835 – before the Civil War. There is a chapter in this book titled “What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear” that I think should be read by every American living in this day and age. It is the most profound vision of America today that I have found.

Consider the ever-expanding list of intrusions government has made into our lives: smoking laws, helmet laws, seatbelt laws, restrictions on trans-fats, restrictions on what we say or where we can say it… I could continue. Consider also the vision of government as held by California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez for an example of what we think of government today:

“All Californians deserve access to good schools, quality healthcare and a government concerned about and responsive to their needs.”

I can’t think of a more disgusting vision of government. Instead of a necessary entity put in place to preserve our freedoms, Nunez envisions a vast mother figure designed to protect and ward our well-being. We shouldn’t be suspicious of government for the taxing, regulating and intrusive beast that it is. Rather, we should look to the government to provide for us. This is precisely Tocqueville’s warning come to pass.

I quote selectively here due to space, relevance and readability but of course, the full text is readily available probably elsewhere on the Internet as well as in the book itself:

“It would seem that, if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them … When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.

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 it 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 inumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasure with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is 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 kindred still remain to him, he may be said at 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 pleasure, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The pirnciple of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

After having then 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 coves 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 be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always though that the servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itsellf under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutleary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; that gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by reflecting that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons but the people at large, who hold the end of his chain.

By this system, the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the poeple; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”