It seems if despotism came to be established in the democratic nations of our day…it would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them….I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated…..It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….The sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules….it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevent things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

While we have not yet become all that Tocqueville feared, it’s hard to work through the arcane and ridiculous tax process without feeling the numbing effects of a “network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules.” Why do we tolerate this? Why do we tolerate legislators who tolerate it? Again, Tocqueville:

Now it is in the nature of all government to wish to enlarge its sphere continuously. It is therefore very difficult for it not to succeed in the long term, since it acts with a fixed thought and a continuous will on men whose position, ideas, and desires vary every day. Often it happens that citizens work for [the central power] without wanting to. Democratic centuries are times of attempts, innovations, and adventures. There is always a multitude of men engaged in a difficult or new undertaking….They do indeed accept for a general principle that the public power ought not to intervene in private affairs, but each of them desires that it aid him as an exception in the special affair that preoccupies him, and he seeks to attract the attention of the government to his side, all the while wanting to shrink it for everyone else. Since a multitude of people have this particular view of a host of different objects all at once, the sphere of the central power spreads insensibly on all sides even though each of them wishes to restrict it. A democratic government therefore increases its prerogatives by the sole fact that it endures….One can say that it becomes all the more centralized as the democratic society gets older.—Democracy in America—

If this is true (and experience suggests that it might be), the problem of decentralizing power in a well-established democracy is a vexing one indeed. However, power might  become so cumbersome and expensive that decentralization will eventually become a necessity.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm.


  1. The thousands of pages of the Federal Tax Code should disabuse any cogent person of the notion that the Federal government is anything much beyond a rather large Bunko Operation. Boosters will assert this statement is “anti-government”. I suppose it might be construed as such except for the nasty little fact that we do not live now under a government so much as we live under a cynical and debt junkie syndicate. Larger interests have supplanted the more immediate social life which Tocqueville found so engaging.

    The current generation can’t drive a standard transmission, let alone a limited and prudently efficient form of government.

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