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 pleasures, 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 principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successfully 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 covers 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 constrained 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 nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Prophetic, or what?
These are the astute words of Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in “Democracy in America” two centuries ago, while observing the young United States and reflecting on its potential pitfalls down the line. He was projecting the worst case scenario, and — let’s be honest — it has come to pass. (By the way, thanks to Thomas J. Malone for calling this quote to my attention via his excellent book, “A Defense of American Ideals,” which I’m currently reading.)
De Tocqueville’s book has long been a cautionary tale of what might happen to America, if its citizens permitted it. It’s no longer a cautionary tale, but a description of what has actually happened.
With brilliant and coherent logical tenacity, de Tocqueville describes the psychology of the modern Entitlement State. Whether it’s a Daddy Obama, Mommy Clinton or Daddy Bush entitlement state no longer matters. A trillion dollars’ difference here or there is not the point. The reality of what such states do to people is.
As de Tocqueville clearly saw, such a state does more than bankrupt the government; it kills man’s soul. It kills creativity, it kills the requirement to think for oneself and it eliminates the need to worry about anything basic, or essential. It suffocates motivation. It’s all rationalized in the name of compassion and humanity. How compassionate is it to take away people’s initiative, productivity and sense of self-preservation?
When we lose the capacity for failing or falling, we lose our sense of purpose. Achievement and success mean nothing where the basics are always guaranteed. The motivation to achieve and succeed disappears when you know you’ll survive, no matter what. Life with a guaranteed safety net (particularly on the scale of the modern Entitlement State) takes away the motivation to create or maintain that safety net, in most people. You find this in families or relationships all the time, particularly in my line of work.
On a social level, it’s even worse. Some people choose to accept the bare minimum and stop trying to succeed and achieve at all. Others keep working, because they can’t imagine not doing so, even if they’re not required to do so in order to survive. Yet, no matter how much they’re lectured to feel otherwise, they cannot help but feel resentment or bitterness at watching those who don’t lift a finger take advantage of the freebies the productive are legislatively required to provide. Whatever develops in society, it’s something quite different from the benevolence of “progress” and even utopia the manufacturers of compassion at gunpoint promised.
Society, in an Entitlement State, becomes saturated with neurotic anxiety. Why? Because it cannot sustain itself. The whole purpose of such a state is to provide security. But security can only exist so long as some are willing to work extra hard for others who presumably cannot, or will not. This fuels anxiety in those forced to provide the benefits, as well as in those who succumb and accept them. On some level, even among the stupefied majority, they sense it isn’t right and it cannot work indefinitely. Hence the anxiety and all the things required to medicate the anxiety — the drug addiction, the alcohol addiction, the overeating and the obesity. Yes, there are other causes for these sorts of problems, but the Entitlement State surely fosters, worsens and even sanctions them.
The Entitlement State recreates the destructive and unjust illusion of an old fashioned marriage, where women had limited or no rights, and all they had to do was marry a man and be taken care of, for life. What could be wrong with that, right? Of course, women eventually rebelled against this state of affairs, particularly the brightest and the most motivated women who suffered the most under such a system. It was an ideological, psychological change that never would have been possible without transformations brought about by the industrial, inventive and technological eras (fueled by capitalism). How ironic that after the liberation of women–afforded by capitalism and technical progress–that both men and women would be systematically delivered into the extinguishing and stupefying arms of America’s benevolent, invisible dictatorship.
There are different kinds of dictatorship. There’s the obvious kind, as in the concentration camps, gulags and prisons of the most visible dictatorships throughout history. But there’s a more subtle form of abuse, as well. It’s the kind which says, “Come to me. Let me help you. You can’t be expected to fend for yourself. I’ll take care of you. All will be well.” It’s sad, sick or dysfunctional when done on the level of a marital or family relationship. But marriages can end, and even family ties can be broken. The phenomenon of millions of Americans, progressively and with such gradualism, slipping into the quiet dictatorship anticipated by de Tocqueville, represents something far more sinister, and much more tragic. Particularly in America, where there was so much to lose.
The only hopeful thing left to say is that America is a society without precedent. It was the first society in human history to cherish and legitimize the value of the individual at his or her thinking, self-reliant best. It threw off slavery, and over time it decimated sexism and racism thanks primarily to the material advancement its economic and intellectual freedom enabled. America was the first to foster human potential on anything close to this scale. Will America be the first to reverse course on the rotten road to self-imposed serfdom de Tocqueville describes? I honestly don’t know. But that’s the only basis for hope, and that’s still the thing to watch.
Human beings have free will. That’s both the good news and the bad news. To paraphrase and update Ben Franklin’s famous words, we were given a republic and — the last generation or two particularly — lost it. The same free will that led most of us to let it go can be the same free will to get it back. Really, it can happen at any time and it’s never too late. It won’t be easy, but watching our nation continue to (slowly) turn to ruins will be even harder. Hopefully, at some point enough people will realize that a complete course reversal is not only necessary, but desirable. It happens with individuals regarding their own lives and psychological states. I have seen it many times. Nations are merely a large number of individuals. It can happen with nations, too.
Whether it will happen is ultimately up to the people, and whose ideas they choose to accept or reject, at any given point in time. Free will matters.
The “ideal” of effortless security envisioned by those who created and foster the Entitlement State is no ideal at all. It’s actually bad for all of us. That includes the 51 percent or so who think it’s a benefit, and the 49 percent or so who resent or despise it. The Entitlement State is all toxic, and it leads to the precise opposite of everything we were promised.
Any civilization filled with people who can get this through their heads stands a chance of surviving, and deserves to do so.
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