How We Learned to Love Leviathan

Tocqueville wants us to have a “salutary fear” of the new forms despotism threatens to take in modern times.

Fear is a response to evil. Once we see how tyranny deprives us of essential goods, it becomes evident that it is something to be avoided, even at considerable cost.

Free will being an essential part of our nature, the innate desire for self-perfection demands that we love liberty and defend it at least as vigorously as we would defend our very lives.

Why then does Tocqueville consider it likely—if not inevitable—that modern man will be persuaded to submit to a choking network of nitpicky rules, imposed upon him by his administrative masters in the name of a false enlightenment?

Though it takes a book to explore the nuances of his account, allow me to highlight several factors that enabled Tocqueville to make such uncannily accurate predictions about the future course of modern liberal democracies.

Government is a sacrificial burden. In a democratic republic, the people themselves possess the final say in matters of governance. To exercise this authority meaningfully requires regular and active participation in political affairs.

In democratic society, however, each citizen is required to make his own way in the world. Time devoted to attaining political knowledge and skills is time taken away from one’s personal advancement in the world.

Over time, the temptation to leave government to the “experts” becomes harder to resist.

Commercial growth drives bureaucratic centralization. As efficiencies of scale shift economic power away from family businesses into the hands of large industrial enterprises, people become increasingly dependent on “big business,” and habituated to exercising their own will within the framework of options presented by a system of mass production and consumption.

When problems arise with this system, individuals, families, local governments, and civic associations prove too small to tackle the titans of commerce. Turning to “big government” as our only viable protection, we become ever more tightly bound by the whims of a network of distant, and difficult to scrutinize, elites.

False ideals drive economic and governmental centralization. Whether we measure progress in terms of economic prosperity, or equality as an abstract ideal, modern philosophy prompts us to ignore the role that virtue plays in our personal and political lives.

As Thomas More noted, “everything will not be done well” in the world “until all men are good.” But virtue cannot be mass manufactured or imposed by regulatory fiat.

Miseducated ideologues, disappointed by the failure of their commercial and legislative utopias, respond by doubling down on the same defective formulas.

How are we to escape the vicious circles these factors portend?

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