Tocqueville’s Dystopias: The Bad And The Very Bad

Daniel B. Klein
September 6, 2021

[A version of this piece appeared originally at City Journal.]



Alexis de Tocqueville


“The entire book that you are going to read,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume One (1835), “was written under the pressure of a sort of religious terror in the author’s soul, produced by the sight of this irresistible revolution” (6, Mansfield & Winthrop ed., U. Chicago Press, 2000).

The religious terror haunts the two volumes of Democracy in America. What is the object of that terror? Does the object of terror change between 1835 and 1840, when Volume Two appeared?

The object of terror is not “this irresistible revolution” itself. The “irresistible revolution” is the “equality of conditions” in one of the meanings of that expression, namely, equal subjection of the individual under the sovereign, in the territorial polity (62, 559, 646). The equality of subjection arose when the sovereign was represented by a Caesar (420) or the crown(5) and it continued into Tocqueville’s present. The trappings of the sovereign changed, but equality of subjection persisted. This “revolution,” he wrote in 1835, “for so many centuries has marched over all obstacles” (6).

Tocqueville does not oppose the equality of subjection. Nor does he propose resistance to its newfangled democratic trappings. He accepts democracy (7, 228, 235, 482). He fears what the modern democratic nation-state may produce-indeed, was producing, especially in France.

Tocqueville warns of the dreaded objects, to arouse us to prevent or mitigate them. America demonstrated, to a degree, some of the preventatives. Tocqueville wanted the French to learn about those preventatives. But by no means was Tocqueville confident that America would stave off those dreaded objects. In some respects America was farther along in arriving to them. In the chief aspects, however, namely, in the instinct and mores of centricity and the vast governmentalization of social affairs, France was far ahead of America. In The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (1856) Tocqueville showed that centralized governmental administration developed under the ancien régime and was carried over by the French Republic.

Ominous warnings suffuse Democracy in America and culminate in the final Part of Volume Two. There, “in concluding,” he begins with prefatory remarks. He shall retrace some of his steps, yet bring the reader “to some new truth” (639). The Part itself culminates in the book’s most famous chapter, “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” There he intimates a progression of authorial sentiments: “A more detailed examination of the subject and five years of new meditations have not diminished my fears, but they have changed their object” (661).

Does Tocqueville mean that the object has changed, like a building that has been renovated, or that a new object has loomed in his consciousness? I propose to speak of two different objects, the Bad and the Very Bad.

The Bad might be summed up as a suffocating but mild despotism of the “tyranny of the majority” (183, 239, 246, 250). The Bad is a tyranny not only because opinion is dominated by shallow, simplistic dogmas but because that opinion calls government into constant expansion and dominance of social affairs. Tocqueville calls it tyranny even if the citizen does not regard it as such, because expansive, “irresistible” government is not in the citizen’s interest (241-2).

Here is “an authority always on its feet, keeping watch that my pleasures are tranquil, flying ahead of my steps to turn away every danger, without my needing to think about it”; this authority is “absolute master of my freedom and my life”, it “monopolizes movement and existence” (88). “The nature of absolute power in democratic centuries is neither cruel nor savage, but it is minute and vexatious… [D]espotism of this kind does not ride roughshod over humanity” (515).

In the chapter where Tocqueville speaks of the changed object, he first elaborates the earlier object of his fears: “It seems that if despotism came to be established in the democratic nations of our day, … it would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them” (662). Tocqueville speaks of “an immense tutelary power” looming over the citizenry, like a great “schoolmaster,” seeking to keep citizens “fixed irrevocably in childhood.” It pretends to relieve them of “the trouble of thinking and the pain of living” (663). The sovereign covers the surface of society “with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules”. The sovereign “does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd” (663).

At that point Tocqueville returns to narrating the progression of authorial sentiment: “I had always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom”, including that the sovereign is “closely overseen by a really elected and independent legislature” (663-4).

But Tocqueville turns to “the worst” possible object, when the concentrated lawmaking and administrative powers are deposited “in the hands of an irresponsible man or body” (664). Tocqueville then paints what I term the Very Bad: Citizens “renounce the use of their wills”; they lose “little by little the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting by themselves” (665).

The Very Bad is the breakdown of the rule of law and the undoing of the equality of subjection. Whereas the Bad maintains a suffocating tutelary governmental power that subjects individuals universally and equally, according to officially posted rules, the Very Bad is a corrupt, rogue regime in which equality of subjection has disappeared. A despotic faction exercises government power unequally and unfaithfully, as far as official laws and procedures go.

Tocqueville ends the famous chapter with the following paragraph, which features an “ephemeral monster” (the Bad) but alludes to a possible subsequent monster (the Very Bad):

A constitution that was republican at the head and ultramonarchical in all other parts [that is, government administration being centralized] has always seemed to me to be an ephemeral monster. The vices of those who govern and imbecility of the governed would not be slow to bring it to ruin; and the people, tired of their representatives and of themselves, would create freer institutions or soon return to lying at the feet of a single master. (665)

Notice the phrase “has always seemed to me.” Tocqueville thus acknowledges that the authorial device he has used-telling of a progression of authorial sentiment since publishing Volume One – is just that, a rhetorical and pedagogical device. Tocqueville saw the Very Bad when writing Volume One.

The Very Bad: More from Volume Two

First, I draw more from Volume Two, to elaborate the Very Bad.

“In democratic societies,” Tocqueville writes, “minorities can sometimes make [revolutions]… Democratic peoples…are only carried along toward revolutions without their knowing it; they sometimes undergo them but they do not make them” (611). “Those who want to make a revolution [might] take possession of the machinery of government, all set up, which can be executed by a coup” (635).

Speaking of “[t]he despotism of factions,” Tocqueville writes of “a few men” who “alone speak in the name of an absent and inattentive crowd…; they change laws and tyrannize at will over mores; and one is astonished at seeing the small number of weak and unworthy hands into which a great people can fall” (516).

Ambitious people seeking to usurp constitutional government “have great trouble” doing so “if extraordinary events do not come to their aid” (609). Most of the public fall into line: “[N]othing is more familiar to man than to recognize superior wisdom in whoever oppresses him” (409).

Tocqueville writes about the loss of concern, religious or otherwise, for the future state: “When [persons] are once accustomed to no longer being occupied with what will happen after their lives, one sees them fall back easily into a complete brutish indifference to the future, [an indifference] that conforms only too well to certain instincts of the human species…[T]he present grows large; it hides the future that is being effaced, and men want to think only of the next day” (523).

Each becomes accustomed to having only confused and changing notions of matters that most interest those like him and himself; one defends one’s opinions badly or abandons them, and as one despairs of being able to resolve by oneself the greatest problems that human destiny presents, one is reduced, like a coward, to not thinking about them at all.[418]

Such a state cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the springs of the will and prepares citizens for servitude.[418]

Not only does it then happen that they allow their freedom to be taken away, but often they give it over.[418]

The sovereign “therefore has a singular power among democratic peoples, the very idea of which aristocratic nations could not conceive. It does not persuade [one] of its beliefs, it imposes them and makes them penetrate souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on the intellect of each” (409).

The Very Bad Is Foreshadowed in Volume One

Already in Volume One, Tocqueville clearly warned that “a great people can be oppressed with impunity by a handful of factious people” (184). The road is paved by the vast governmentalization of social affairs: “a sovereign power, that of the people… destroys [institutions and customs] or modifies them at its will” (165). People come to prefer “equality in servitude to inequality in freedom” (52). The crushed citizen “enjoys these goods as a tenant, without a spirit of ownership” (88). Any “miserable person” can understand “robbing the public treasury or selling favors of the state for money…and can flatter himself with doing as much in his turn” (212).

Can honest elections be maintained? “The dangers of the elective system therefore grow in direct proportion to the influence exerted by the executive power on affairs of state” (120). “[T]o wish…that the representative of the state remain armed with a vast power and be elected is to express, according to me, two contradictory wills” (121).

Tocqueville speaks of the sovereign in America as the people’s “master”: “in sacrificing their opinions to him, they prostitute themselves” (247). The master himself “sees himself as a foreigner in his country, and he treats his subjects as having been defeated” (300).

[I]n the United States, the majority…still lacks the most perfect instruments of tyranny… If ever freedom is lost in America, one will have to blame the omnipotence of the majority… One will then see anarchy, but it will come as a consequence of despotism.[250, 249]

[F]or the time approaches, when power is going to pass from hand to hand, when political theories will succeed one another, when men, laws, and constitutions themselves will disappear or be modified daily – and this lasting not only for a time, but constantly.[285]

I foresee that if one does not in time succeed in founding the peaceful empire of the greatest number among us, we shall arrive sooner or later at the unlimited power of one alone.[302]

Tocqueville uses “liberal” in a signal way in “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” (661, 665). He wrote Democracy in America in hope of preventing the death of liberal civilization. For Tocqueville, liberal civilization was a somewhere, to be defended by its sons and daughters. Throughout the work he expresses hope (7, 83, 161, 302, 643, 672, 676). Heeding his warning enhances our prospects.

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.