The idea of democratic despotism appears to be an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. But, in “Democracy in America” (1835-1840) Alexis de Tocqueville offered a powerful description of democratic despotism as “…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.”
Under Tocqueville’s democratic or soft despotism, “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.”
Democratic despotism “…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 nothing better than a flow of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Soft despotism is not as obvious as hard despotism. It gives us the illusion of being in control; it degrades us rather than persecutes us. It often takes the form of a state within a state (imperium in imperio) where an internal organization, such as the armed forces, securities agencies or administrative agencies, evolves beyond the effective control of the civilian political leadership.
For example, historically efforts to separate Church and State were anchored on the perception that the Church could turn into an imperium in imperio undermining civilian leadership. In other examples, in the Soviet Union, the secret policy (KGB) was considered a State within a State. The same is true of its successor, The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). And, in the United States, the government’s bureaucracy is often portrayed as a modern day example of an imperium in imperio.
The modern definition of bureaucracies comes from German sociologist Max Weber who, in the 1920’s, defined bureaucracies as any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules. And, although Weber considered bureaucracies necessary in a modern world, he also warned that bureaucratization was a threat to individual freedoms where individuals would be trapped in a soulless “iron cage” of rule-based controls.
Bureaucracies are also characterized by unrelenting growth. In the United States, the original bureaucracy of the Federal Government consisted of only the employees of three small departments; State, Treasury, and War. Today the Federal Branch employs nearly 3 million people. The old Soviet KGB employed one officer for every 428 citizens. In today’s “freer” Russia the FSB employs one officer for every 297 citizens.
Tocqueville forewarned, back in 1835, of a degrading despotic democracy of “small complicated rules”; imagine what he would say today. During the last few years of the George W. Bush administration regulations increased dramatically, and in the first seven years of the Obama Administration over 20,600 new regulations were added for an estimated regulatory cost burden in excess of $100 billion annually.
Conceptually, government regulations represent a way for people to give up managing their own affairs and turn those affairs over to a government agency.
According to Tocqueville, a byproduct of turning over the management of our affairs to a government institution is that we become incompetent to choose good leaders. Thus, government regulations would ruin the American experiment by combining the vices of those who govern with the weaknesses of the governed.
This regulatory paternalism embodies the philosophy that people cannot be trusted to make good decisions, requiring government to impose its judgment over the voluntary decisions that represent our needs and preferences. Yes, some regulations are necessary and inherent to the rule of law. Regulations to protect children and those unable to make reasonable judgments are essential. But regulatory policy should be viewed with extraordinary suspicion and used frugally.
Fortunately, we seem to have finally understood that the soft despotism of regulations undermines the very concept of personal responsibility. In January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order requiring government agencies to slash two regulations for every new regulation put in place. The President has now reported a success ratio of 22 regulations eliminated for every new one enacted.
The measure is being touted as an economic success. It is much more than that. It is a restoration of personal freedoms.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”