How Tocqueville Anticipated Our Culture Of Dependency
Paul David Miller
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This is part three of a three-part series on renewing self-government. Read parts one and two.

Our concern over the size of government goes deeper than tax policy or the federal budget deficit. .  Size flows from the problems with representation:  representatives have an incentive to grow government because it enlarges the realm of their own power and gives them more resources from which to reward supporters. Ironically, Madison explicitly lobbied for largeness of population and landmass because he believed that largeness would protect America against the dangers of democracy.  With hindsight, we can see America’s largeness would call forth a large and powerful government to govern it.

Additionally, because of the disconnect between citizens and their government, it is easier to see that bigness is itself a more basic threat to self-government than any specific policy or tool.  The growth of government is a danger to self-government not because the state is on the verge of abrogating the constitution and installing a socialist junta, but because the raw size of the government crowds out private initiative and supplants opportunities for individual participation–and once individuals stop taking initiative, they will actually need a larger government to shore up an increasingly brittle civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville described this reciprocal cause-and-effect with remarkable and prophetic insight.  “The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help.  That is a vicious circle of cause and effect.”  Tocqueville believed the growth of government, even if for benign purposes, was threatening to liberty because it subtly undermined the cultural underpinnings of a healthy democracy.  “The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations.”  Taking over retirement insurance, health care, the banking system or the auto industry isn’t just bad economics:  it teaches people an unhealthy dependence on the public doll, which may then force the government to continue running private industry as people forget the skill of doing it themselves.

But government cannot recreate by fiat the culture of democracy that its own programs undermine.  “A government, by itself, is equally incapable of refreshing the circulation of feelings and ideas among a great people, as it is of controlling every industrial undertaking.”  The effort itself takes government beyond its rightful sphere.  “Once it leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track, it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny.  For a government can only dictate precise rules.  It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands.”Once the government arrogates to itself the responsibility to nudge citizens into good behavior and foster good habits, it is acting less like a democratic government and more like a church—a church with armed police, tax collectors, and an army.

This is, Tocqueville believed, a new kind of oppression, different from the cruel tyrants of the ancient world.  Despotism in America “would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them.” American tyranny will not rob and kill people.  It would be “absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle.”  It appears benign, but has the subtly dangerous effect of engendering a culture of dependency.  “It would resemble parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tried to keep them in perpetual childhood.”  It grows so large and powerful that it does not just push out the private sector; it pushes out individual agency.  “It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances.  Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?  Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.”  It does not kill men, but it does kill their spirits.

The all-powerful nanny state does not stop at engendering a culture of dependency among individuals.  It seeks complete control over society through “administrative despotism.”

The all-powerful nanny state does not stop at engendering a culture of dependency among individuals.  It seeks complete control over society through “administrative despotism.”   Tocqueville feared the potential of the regulatory state to smother innovation and energy.  “It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd.  It does not break men’s wills, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”  Big government undermines public-mindedness.  “Administrative centralization only serves to enervate the peoples that submit to it, because it constantly tends to diminish their civic spirit,” as Tocqueville put it.

The struggle for lasting change

The American government’s size and apparent unaccountability are therefore rooted not in the budget or the makeup of its elected officials, but in its very structure and in the theory underpinning it: the budget and gerrymandered elections are the results, not causes, of what ails American democracy.  That being the case, much of the conservative agenda is beside the point.  Conservatives policymakers have understandably focused on taxes and the budget because they are the most visible and concrete areas in which the growth and unresponsiveness of the government is apparent, but those battles are inherently shallow and ephemeral.  Victories can be undone in the next budget cycle or by the next Congress.

The solution is not simply to cut taxes and spending, shrink the state, and repeal Obamacare.  Nor is the answer simply to ban abortion and gay marriage.  Legislating healthy cultural practices, like Prohibition, treats the symptoms, not the causes, of social breakdown.  More importantly, laws like Prohibition have a tendency to not work and, in the course of failing, discredit their advocates.  “Laws are always unsteady when unsupported by mores,”—that is, habits and beliefs—“mores are the only tough and durable power in a nation.” Passing a law that the people don’t believe in and are not habituated to obey—like Prohibition amongst hard-drinking Americans, or a ban on abortion is our sexually promiscuous culture—is unlikely to work.  Using government to enforce good culture is like a parent moving into his kid’s college dorm room to ensure he doesn’t drink or have unsafe sex.  If you haven’t inculcated good habits in your kid before they move away, you’ve already failed; trying to catch up by moving to college with them is not good parenting; it is overbearing and kind of creepy.

The effort to renew self-government is too broad and deep for any of these policy proposals to have much of a lasting impact.  The effort is fundamentally a cultural and spiritual one.  “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another.”  Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the way to sustain and renew democratic civilization, was to encourage face-to-face human relationships.  It is trite and clichéd but true:  the first step in saving democracy in America is to go to school, get and stay married, spend time with your children, and go to church.  Investing in relationships with the people immediately around you—in your family, at work, in church, in your neighborhood—is the single most important thing you can do because those relationships will renew your ideas, develop your understanding, and enlarge your heart.  Relationships make you smarter, wiser, and more loving.

And forming relationships is a political act.  Relationships are the strong bulwark against the encroaching state.  Relationships take place outside the government’s writ, create a society beyond the government’s reach, and foster ideas and activities government cannot direct.  And this is especially true when we go beyond our immediate household and neighborhood.  Tocqueville wanted to see men and women engaged continuously in relationships with other citizens, perfect strangers, to discuss and decide upon common problems.

Tocqueville called this the skill of association.  For Tocqueville, association was the act of gathering with other citizens—not just family members, friends, and neighbors, but also perfect strangers—for a public purpose.  Association is nothing less than the practice of self-government at ground level.  Tocqueville believed self-government didn’t simply mean voting (he hardly mentions elections at all in his entire work).  Self-government means actually participating in the decision-making process.  A true democratic republic puts the power of government into the hands of the people.  City council meetings, town halls, the school board, your neighborhood watch are the most real institutions of democracy with which citizens will actually come into contact.  Participating in them is more important than voting in elections for the U.S. Congress.  “The most powerful way…in which to interest men in their country’s fate is to make them take a share in its government,” Tocqueville argued, “The civic spirit is inseparable from the exercise of political rights.”[iv]  The face-to-face relationships we need to form are with our fellow citizens, even our political opponents.  “If men are to remain civilized or become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads.”

The challenge of opportunity

Here is where political advocacy can make a difference.  Government can either allow or usurp people’s opportunities to engage with other citizens on public matters.  A highly centralized government gives me no incentive to talk to my neighbor about our common problems or to form an association to solve them.  A highly decentralized one depends on my associating with others.  The more opportunities to participate, the better.  “[The Founders] thought it right to give to each part of the land its own political life so that there should be an infinite number of occasions for the citizens to act together and so that every day they should feel that they depended on one another,” Tocqueville wrote, “Local liberties, then, which induce a great number of citizens to value the affection of their kindred and neighbors, bring men constantly into contact, despite the instincts which separate them, and force them to help one another.”

If this description of our present situation is accurate, the most important initiative for restoring American democracy is the repeal the 17th Amendment.  The 17th Amendment to the Constitution establishes the direct election of Senators by the people of each state, cutting out the state legislatures.  The Founders intended the various branches of government to check and balance one another.  But it is almost entirely forgotten that the Founders intended the checks and balances also to operate between the levels of government.  Hamilton and Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments [Federal and state], and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments [branches]. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

In Federalist 28, they wrote, “Power being almost always the rival of power, the General Government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments; and those will have the same disposition towards the General Government.  The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate.  If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other, as the instrument of redress…It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the state governments will in all possible contingencies afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”  The states were supposed to help control Washington, D.C.

According to the original Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, state legislatures were to elect Senators to represent the state’s interests in Washington.

The states were given a powerful tool with which to exercise this power: the United States Senate.  According to the original Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, state legislatures were to elect Senators to represent the state’s interests in Washington.  For a century they did so, and states remained the preeminent polities in America.  Even after the Civil War and the great centralization effected by the 14th Amendment, states remained considerably more powerful than they are today.

That ended in 1913.  Well-meaning Progressives believed the Senate was an undemocratic institution (an accurate description the Founders would have taken as a compliment), and successfully fought to overthrow it.  The states lost their check on the federal government.  This is no arcane bit of procedural minutiae.  The Founders set up the checks because they knew “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”  Federal officeholders and bureaucrats in Washington are ambitious.  They have legitimate powers and responsibilities.  But unless someone else’s ambition is made to counter their own, they will go beyond their legitimate powers.  This is as certain as a law of nature.

History bears out the verdict.  The history of federal policy since 1913 includes the New Deal, the Great Society, the departments of labor, education, health and human services, housing and urban development, energy, transportation, and homeland security, the FDA, SEC, EPA, FCC, NEA, NEH, NIH, TVA, AID, DEA, ATF, NASA, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Amtrak, Fannie Mae, Sallie Mae, Freddie Mac, and scores of other agencies, boards, commissions, and corporations.  Some are good programs, some are not.  The point is that their existence as federal programs dates after the 17th Amendment.  Virtually everything the federal government does today, outside of taxation, trade, and national defense, started after 1913.  The federal budget in 1913 was roughly around $20 billion in today’s dollars.  It has grown 20,000 percent since then.

The 17th Amendment not only handed the federal government unprecedented power to centralize lawmaking and administration in the United States.  As a consequence, it also deprived citizens of the opportunity to engage meaningfully in self-government.  Self-government is not voting:  it is participation.  Three hundred million citizens cannot meaningfully participate in a deliberation about anything.  Meaningful democracy is impossible at the federal level.  Biennial voting is not democracy.  “It does little good to summon those very citizens who have been made so dependent on the central power to choose the representatives of that power from time to time.  However important, this brief and occasional exercise of free will will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves,” wrote Tocqueville.  The more centralized the decision-making, the less citizens are involved, the less informed they will be.  The right to vote is important and we should not disparage it.  But under a centralized government the simple act of casting a vote between two, and only two, parties means very little.

Participatory democracy is not a romantic ideal or a utopian vision.  The goal is not the direct democracy of ancient Athens (which horrified the Founders).  The goal is something closer to deliberative representative democracy instead of sound-bite mass media democracy.  The goal is to lower the ratio of citizens to representatives.  That increases the likelihood that citizens will actually know who is making decisions that affect their lives, call their representative, attend a town hall, vote in elections, give money to a candidate, talk to their neighbors about public problems, and even run for office.  (It may also diffuse the impact of money in politics.  The hundreds of millions of dollars of political money that is generated every two or four years is currently highly targeted on influencing campaigns for 536 federal elective offices.  As power shifts to state legislatures, some of that money would follow and be spread over the 7,382 state legislative seats in the United States).

The solution is not to increase the number of representatives in Congress.  In 1788 there were 30,000 citizens for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  A similar ratio today would require a Congress of some 10,000 members.  Because that is obviously impractical, Congress capped its membership in 1929 and the ratio has simply climbed higher and higher.  Today it is close to 700,000 citizens per representative.  But there are, on average, about 40,000 citizens for every state legislator in America.  It is impractical to maintain a meaningful ratio for the federal government, but it is practical to move policy to the states where something closer to the original ideal of representative democracy can be revived.

“Local liberties” are the answer.  The solution is to devolve power away from the federal government, diffuse it among states, individuals, civil society, and the market, but also to strengthen its exercise through our participation.  This should be the unifying theme of American conservatism.  It reflects an agenda based on the bare essentials, the common philosophical convictions of different strands of political thought:  diffusing power among individuals (libertarian), civil society (social conservatives), and the market (entrepreneurs).  Decentralized government disperses power among fifty states, six territories, three thousand counties, ten thousand cities, millions of associations, and one-third of a billion citizens. It compels citizens to stand up, take part in self-government, associate with one another, and form real human relationships.  The solution is not to cut government, but relocate it.  The solution is not to shrink government, but rebalance it from Washington to the states and localities.  The solution is not to attack government as the enemy, but take it over as our right.

Repealing the 17th Amendment will restore a fundamental check on the federal government.  Senators representing states’ interests will be far more conscious of the 10th Amendment—“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  They will be far more resistant to the federal government’s tendency to pass laws and create programs but delegate implementation to the states.  They will never pass another unfunded mandate.  States will start to assert their authority to pass the laws that they are in charge of enforcing and funding.  These are good goals and worthy to be at the heart of a new conservatism.  But even most states are too big to afford much of an opportunity for meaningful participatory and representative democracy.  Repealing the 17th Amendment will begin to move power away from Washington and back to the states, but it is only the beginning of the revival of American democracy.

Photo Alexis de Tocqueville
Paul D. Miller is the Associate Director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas at Austin and a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He received his PhD in international relations from Georgetown University. He is also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
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