Tempering tyranny

“What did Tocqueville fear more than tyrants and majorities? Democratic despotism”

Open Season


Alexis de Tocqueville, 1850, by Theodore Chasseriau

These days, we’re reckoning with the seeming naturalness and apparent precariousness of democracy. It seems as if democracy is here to stay, but a handful of populist strongmen and a few misjudged votes appear to throw us off. In such times, I suggest we turn to the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who noted the precariousness of liberty within democracies. Democracy is probably here to stay, but is it in crisis?

Before we lose hope for free democracies, I question whether Tocqueville would consider a populist wave to be such a great threat. He was more concerned with how a gentle tutelary power threatened free and flourishing democracies.

Tocqueville popularised the notion of the tyranny of the majority and worried that it threatened free democracies. According to Tocqueville, “if liberty is ever lost”, the tyranny of the majority will be the culprit, having “brought minorities to despair”. This “tyranny” may resonate with our concern for the position of Scotland and Northern Ireland following the Brexit referendum, or the position of American manufacturers following Trump’s trade renegotiations. This is the component of populism, rather than populists, or “men of violent character”, that really worried Tocqueville.

However, as a democrat, Tocqueville believed that “however annoying the law” we submit because there is “a kind of personal interest” in knowing “the one who is not part of the majority today will perhaps be among its ranks tomorrow”. Tocqueville believed democracies could temper the tyranny of the majority through associations and the absence of administrative centralisation. Free associations are “a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority”. As long as active groups of minorities can amplify their opposition through associations, this form of tyranny can be kept at bay while popular sovereignty is maintained. Additionally, if the scope of the administrative state is restricted, the power of the majority can be circumscribed. The majority cannot wield a stranglehold on every aspect of our lives if procedural administrative means are not readily available.

What did Tocqueville fear more than tyrants and majorities? Democratic despotism is the greatest threat to free and flourishing democracies. Administrative centralisation is a component of this. Though he worried about the effects of a majority married to an overbearing administrative state, he most feared a mediocre, apathetic population that turns to the centralised state to resolve all its choices and woes. Tocqueville thought that sensibilities are generally mild in democracies, and “this universal moderation” limits even opportunistic tyrants. The most pressing danger is not “tyrants, but rather tutors”.

This “tutelary power”, a gentle despotism known only to democracies, “is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild”. It is similar to “paternal power”, but it does not raise children, it keeps them “irrevocably in childhood”. This tutor “attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?” Such despotism leaves us no room to exercise our liberties.

Tocqueville’s anxiety about administrative centralisation is why I imagine he would consider Brexit as slightly different from other populist movements today. For Tocqueville, there were two types of centralisation. Governmental centralisation is the concentration “in the same place or in the same hands” of control over “interests common to all parts of the nation”. It has to do with a single body directing “general laws” or foreign policy. Administrative centralisation has to do with control over policies that are “special to certain parts of the nation”, or a particular locality. Local concerns are treated by a central power in the same way as general concerns. Rather than the centralisation of things like foreign policy or general rights, administrative centralisation entails control over local matters like schools, roads and parks.

He didn’t think a country could “prosper without strong governmental centralisation”, but he argued “that administrative centralisation is suitable only to enervate the peoples who submit to it”. Tocqueville would have been astonished by the far-reaching bureaucracy of the EU, despite its admirable demonstrations of goodwill. He would have warned against its consolidation of power over aspects of social, economic and political life that are unsuited to centralisation. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Tocqueville would have dis-agreed with the free movement of goods, services and people, since this is a general rule. Though Tocqueville might have advocated Britain’s withdrawal, he would have little in common with the single-issue xenophobic voter.

Alternatively, Tocqueville might have found the EU masterful in terms of “governmental centralisation”, that is, general rules: trade, individual rights, and a consolidated position regarding outside threats and opportunities. Either way, he would certainly advise EU reform because of his concern about democratic despotism and the stultifying effect of administrative centralisation.

Tocqueville would say we ought to err on the side of “provincial liberties”. By bolstering localism, democratic society saves itself from losing political habits to desuetude, from democratic despotism, and from the legislative “tutor”. Democratic peoples must stave off democracy’s susceptibility to “the yoke of administrative centralisation”. While men of violent character and powerful majorities are worrying, far more worrying for Tocqueville was a power that “covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules”. This insidious, gentle despotism “rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannise, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.

When it comes to the present populist wave and its “violent character”, I agree with Tocqueville that democracies can weather “violent and even cruel” governments because “these crises will be rare and passing”. The true worry is a well-meaning tutelary power that speaks to our democratic passion for popular sovereignty and indulges our apathetic indolence. There is something more worrying than the loudmouths and the majorities that remain subject to debate and criticism. It is the multitude willing to “compromise between administrative despotism and sovereignty of the people, and who think they have guaranteed the liberty of individuals when it is to the national power that they deliver that liberty”. As Tocqueville said: “That is not enough for me.”