Alexis de Tocqueville is a timely read now more than ever before. Tocqueville's most famous writing is probably Democracy in America, although his The Old Regime and the Revolution is as insightful — in some ways, a helpful and profound compliment to his analysis of American democracy.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville marvels at the near anarchic reality of American life: "[n]othing is more striking to an European traveller in the United States than the absence of what we term the Government, or the Administration." Tocqueville went on to explain that this didn't mean the absence of legal authority, but the method that predominated in America was diminutive authority placed in the hands of localities and their associates as extensively as possible. "The second manner of diminishing the influence of authority does not consist in stripping society of any of its rights, nor in paralyzing its efforts [as is the first manner], but in distributing the exercise of its privileges in various hands, and in multiplying functionaries, to each of whom the degree of power necessary for him to perform his duty is entrusted."
The constitutional order that had been erected in America was a confederated union and not a unipolar or unitary nation-state of the like that began construction in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Great Depression. As Tocqueville noted, the rule of the federal government "is ... the exception; the Government of the States is the rule." The energy and spirit of American democracy and public life were centered on the townships, counties, and the state governments.
The diffused and diminutive form of governance that Tocqueville experienced in America was vastly different from the centralized apparatus he was accustomed to back in Europe. Europe, Tocqueville reminds us, was centralized not because of the conquest of the revolution and spread of the Napoleonic Empire, but from the old monarchies and the old regime itself.
*I once heard an orator, in the days when we had political assemblies, call administrative centralization 'that noble conquest of the Revolution which Europe envies us.' I am willing to admit that centralization was a noble conquest, and that Europe envies us its possession; but I deny that it was a conquest of the Revolution. It was, on the contrary, a feature of the old regime, and, I may add, the only one which outlived the Revolution, because it was the only one that was suited to the new condition of society created by the Revolution.
According to Tocqueville, the authoritarian and centralizing pivot of the French Revolution shouldn't have been a surprise. The DNA of depending on central power for guidance and structure in life was what the French were always accustomed to. The difference between the revolutionaries and the old regime was how the revolutionaries used force and murder to displace the central institutions of the old regime and quickly replace them with their own.
*I reply that centralization was not abolished by the Revolution, because it was, in fact, its preliminary and precursor; and I may add, that when a nation abolishes aristocracy, centralization follows as a matter of course. It is much harder to prevent its establishment than to hasten it. Every thing tends toward unity of power, and it requires no small contrivance to maintain divisions of authority.
Although there was, at first glance, a sharp difference between the diffused and diminutive spirit of democracy in America and the centralizing and militant spirit of democracy in France, Tocqueville also saw the seeds of centralizing "royal prerogatives" in the American system.
First and foremost, while it is true that "[t]he attributes of the Federal Government were therefore carefully enumerated and all that was not included amongst them was declared to constitute a part of the privileges of the several Governments of the States," Tocqueville nevertheless saw the few enumerated and delegated powers given to the federal government as totalizing and supreme when, and if, enforced. Moreover, as he noted about the presidency, "[i]f the existence of the Union were perpetually threatened, and if the chief interests were in daily connection with those of other powerful nations, the executive government would assume an increased importance in proportion to the measures expected of it, and those which it would carry into effect." How prophetic, all things considered.
With the coronavirus pandemic upon us, we are now repeatedly told "we are at war." Not only have a litany of journalists and commentators said as much, but the president himself declared it so. The panic of the coronavirus has startled people into searching for the Caesar who will preside over the Leviathan to provide comfort, peace, and security. The Union itself, we are constantly nagged, is threatened. Here it is important to remember the prescient foresight of Michael Oakeshott: "the real spring of collectivism is not a love of liberty, but war. The anticipation of war is the great incentive, and the conduct of war is the great collectivizing process."
Thomas Hobbes, the great political theorist of the modern state, said the movement toward a centralized government is the result of fear. "Fear of oppression, disposes a man to anticipate, or to seek aid by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty." Even John Locke agreed with this sentiment in the Second Treatise: "[t]his [fear] makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers." Beyond there now being flagrant violations of basic constitutional rights, which are suspended in the name of a public health crisis, we ought to be reminded of the wisdom of Tocqueville: "when a nation abolishes aristocracy, centralization follows as a matter of course. It is much harder to prevent its establishment than to hasten it. Every thing tends toward unity of power, and it requires no small contrivance to maintain divisions of authority."
In the American case, we might substitute "aristocracy" with civil society. In abolishing civil society, or at least what is left of it after nearly a century of assault and encroachment, absolute "centralization follows as a matter of course." Civil society, in the United States, is the great buttress against the forces of collectivism.
We do not live in a failed state as some have suggested in response to America's handling of the virus. We live in a rare country where the remnant of civil society still exerts some power, and because of this, the collectivists — whatever veil they wear — call for the ascendency and supremacy of a centralized administrative state to crush it once and for all. What the American experience has shown is that we have not yet achieved the manifestation of this totalizing centralized administrative state despite nearly a century of slow growth toward this reality. We lose the joy of civil society, the first and foremost manifestation of a free society, at our peril and submissive docility.
This centralized and administrative state now dreamt of is tasked with management and distribution of all goods and services. The constitutional order and the rule of law are abrogated for the collectivist bureaucracy providing comfort, peace, and security in perpetuity for a now idle and hedonistic people. The ultimate manifestation of such a state is, as Michael Oakeshott said, "a state [that is] a rationally regulated co-operative engagement, perhaps a solidarité commune of some sort, not devoid of law, but ruled by a sumptuary policy devised and enforced by administrators, agencies and regulatory commissions." In other words, it is a bureaucratic and managerial — socialist — state.
The spirit of civil society and reliant township communitarianism and individualism still stand to avert the centralizing administration, which feeds and feeds and feeds on the energy of civil society and individual labor. The "intermediate associations" that constitute the real heart of community and the American — indeed, human — spirit would be buried by the totalizing control of centralism, which always comes in the wake of collectivism. If the Second World War or the Cold War, even the War on Terror, didn't reveal the spirit of collectivism, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting panic irrevocably have. Americans have much soul-searching if this is what they truly want and forever break themselves off from the spirit of their forebears.