Lessons from Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in the 1830s to analyze the progress in the New World. A political thinker, he grasped several important facts of nascent America, offering some valuable observations of democracy and how it functions. He posits many fundamental truths that democracy brings as well as warnings to the dangers of democracy.


“All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish that”

We can never know if some of our presidents intentionally meant to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation, but we can see that it is in response to war that liberties experience their greatest destruction. During the Civil War, Lincoln did not hesitate to throw political dissidents in jail, or intimidate politicians that opposed his war policy. Wilson during WWI saw it fit that government could control “strategic” private industries that had to support the production of war products. FDR had no qualms throwing approximately 120,000 Japanese in internment camps during WWII, 70,000 of which were American citizens, and none of which were found guilty sabotage or espionage.

This trend continues today. George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act in 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This effectively blacked out any sense of 4th amendment protections, which protects citizens from unwarranted searches and seizures. It legally legitimized the surveillance state. This isn’t a partisan issue, either. President Barack Obama signed a 4-year extension of key provisions of the Patriot Act in 2011. This clearly wasn’t enough for him so it was also necessary to enable the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012, which allows indefinite detention of American citizens without any charges, without any probable cause, and without due process.

Politicians wish to keep us in war to solidify their power through the coercive powers of the state. Under times of war, the citizens are more likely to make personal concessions if they think it is necessary for the survival of the country.


“I am persuaded that anarchy is not the principal evil which democratic ages have to fear, but the least. For the principle of equality begets two tendencies: the one leads men straight to independence, and may suddenly drive them into anarchy; the other conducts them by a longer, more secret, but more certain road, to servitude.”

I wouldn’t place Tocqueville as an an-cap, but he certainly feared servitude to the state more than a nonexistent one under democracy. He correctly recognized that democracy could be just as oppressive as a single dictator rule. The majority could dictate terms to the minority, regardless of what the minority thought or how much it harms the minority. Tyranny of the majority is still tyranny.

It is not the lack of laws that citizens under democracy have to fear the most; it is too many laws. There is nothing in a democracy to prevent the masses from falling into servitude that it once fought so hard to escape.


“The foremost, or indeed the sole condition, which is required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community, is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it”

There is no more noble cause in humanity than equality. In a democracy, officials are elected, but in order to be elected, one must campaign on the noblest and most universal of causes: equality. Most of purported actions of politicians are to make things more equal, such as minimum wage laws, equal pay laws, tariffs, progressive taxes, distributive programs, welfare, subsidies, etc.

Of course politicians, in order to make things equal, must have the power to confiscate from the richer in order to redistribute to the poorer. As long as this is done in the name of equality, the masses are less likely to dissent. This has been the trend in the U.S. and expedited since the progressive era in the early 20th century.


“The press is the chief democratic instrument of freedom”

It is ideas that shape history, not the other way around. The press is necessary for freedom because it allows the free circulation of ideas among the people. If there was no freedom of the press, the citizens must rely more on the word of government in shaping opinions. Public opinion is what shapes legislation in a democracy. It is better to have the free press shaping opinions than the coercive body of the state.


“After having thus successively 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 restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

This is the most poignant observation of all. The government doesn’t wish to tyrannize us, but rather it only wants to control us. In Florida, a woman was recently forced to connect her home to city water and power. We can’t live without the government’s help because it is now illegal. Al Capone, the notorious gangster, was not pegged for his bootlegging; he was pegged for tax evasion in 1931. The United States tax code is so complicated; they can peg anyone for tax evasion if they so chose. This isn’t to mention the other laws and regulations ranging from environmental to criminal codes.

We’ve evolved into a country where the laws from government constantly restrain us from acting by corralling our actions to the will of the supreme power. Our will isn’t shattered, but softened, bent, and guided.

You make a certain income? The government lets you keep what it sees fit.

You have a job? You must contribute to social security.

You want to buy a house? You must pay the government a tax or it will take it away.

You want to drive a car? You must buy insurance under threat of penalty.

You want to live? You must buy health insurance under threat of penalty.

With each any every addition to the rule of law, the sphere of human action is reduced. Our decisions are not being “forced”, but rather we have the restriction of choosing. We as citizens are not being destroyed, but we are slowly being prevented of an existence outside of the will of the government. This isn’t tyranny, because that would render us unproductive, and the government would command fewer resources. The goal is as stated by Tocqueville, to reduce us to timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.


The lessons from Tocqueville

  1. We must prevent our elected officials from perpetual war
  2. We must protect 1st amendment rights and freedom of the press
  3. We must prevent the majority from legislating our rights away
  4. We must promote equality of rights, not actual equality
  5. We must reduce the yoke of government that prevents humans from acting