What Sort of Despotism Democracies Have to Fear

“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.” — Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter 6, What Sort of Despotism Democracies Have to Fear.

It would be convenient if tyrants would announce their presence with snarly demeanors, black hats, or curly dark mustaches. Unfortunately, tyranny insinuates itself in democracies sweetly wrapped in kindness and genuine good intentions. In order to institute plans for the good of all, certain actions must be circumscribed and other duties compelled for the good of all. De Tocqueville recognized this inherent weakness in democracies. It is just as easy to find oneself ruled by a single tyrant or the tyranny of the majority. Our Founding Fathers hoped that in large democracies it might be less likely that a permanent majority could maintain itself and that competing“factions” would check each other.

One of the most recent examples of this danger of soft despotism came when Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards’s explained his proposed national medical plan. We can thank Edwards for carrying through the logic of his advocacy for socialized medicine. In an effort to keep the cost of his plan lower, Edwards is going to demand preventive care. His program “requires hat everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care .. .You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK.” Besides requiring that everyone get regular check ups, all woman would require regular mammograms.”

Now such actions may appropriate for reasonable people to decide to do, requiring them under the threat of penalty is intrusive. If one carries out Edwards’s logic to its ultimate conclusion, government could leverage medical care to controls over a larger variety of heretofore personal activities. Controlling diet, exercise routines, risky behavior such as certain sports, some sort of sexual behavior, or decisions when to have children, could all fall into activities liable to regulation by a government desperately trying to hold down costs. Government programs are notoriously inefficient and the more government controls medical care the more greater the need to institute cost controls.

The internal logic of personal liberty is that individuals are free to do whatever they want as long as their actions are private, not affecting others. As soon as we socialize the costs of medicine, there are no private actions. Virtually any activity can affect health costs and are thus legitimate avenues for regulations. As the scope of private action shrinks so does freedom.

What is worse, as De Tocqueville recognized, as individuals cede personal decisions to other authorities, they fall out of the habits of individual autonomy. They begin to look for guidance and direction, rather than chafe against supervision. They transform from robust individuals to a herd of sheep deferential to their shepherd government.

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