Acton Institute Powerblog

Old Europe’s New Despotism

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Noting the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, Samuel Gregg analyzes the current situation in Europe. “Tocqueville’s vision of ‘soft-despotism’ is thus one of arrangements that mutually corrupt citizens and the democratic state,” and clear signs of this ‘soft-despotism’ are emerging, contends Gregg.

Read the full text here.

Jonathan Spalink


  • Evans Munyemesha

    I wonder if Dr. Gregg has noted that the despostism that he writes about actually exists in America. And it is growing. We are soon going to have a National ID, thanks to this ‘soft despotism’.

  • Phil Lundman

    Excellent summary of what we all should be concerned about for Europe, America, and the new democracies. The regulatory strangulation could be great opportunity for developing countries to entice western entrepreneurs with more favorable legal, regulatory and taxing systems.

  • Steve Daskal

    ** De Tocqueville’s concerns were echoed by most of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution. They were very much afraid of democracy and of the potential for a popularly elected legislature to legally disenfranchise minorities (whether they were minorities based upon wealth or upon religion or ethnicity) and plunder or otherwise exploit them. This is why the Constitution and the Bill of Rights focus heavily on specifically enumerating powers granted to the federal government, and explicitly stating that all powers not given to the federal government are retained by the states and the people (X Amendment) as well as asserting that there were other individual rights not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that were still protected (IX Amendment). The Constitution was deliberately designed to protect these limitations by ensuring that the President was independent of the legislature (unlike the situation in parliamentary democracies), that the high courts were independent of both the legislature and the executive once chosen (life terms), that the States retained an influence over the federal government (the Senate was elected by the State legislatures, not directly like the House of Representatives), and that the taxation abilities and creation of money were both explicitly limited (no federal income tax and no national bank). Unfortunately Progressive/New Deal "reformers" eliminated many of these protections, either legally by amendment or illegally by simply asserting broad powers not contained in the words of the Constitution by a deliberate and cynical reinterpretation of the clear meaning of key clauses as they were written (overthrowing "Original intent" and "strict interpretation" and replacing them with the false doctrine of the "living document" being reinterpretable by whomever can get a majority of Supreme Court justices to agree with them).
    ** With the notable exceptions of Switzerland and, to a much lesser degree, the Federal Republic of Germany, these sorts of checks and balances and divisions of power do not really exist in Europe. Thus, it was all too easy for Europe to exchange the hard despotism of absolute monarchy and entrenched nobility for the soft despotism of elected politicians and unelected and all but unremovable technocrats.

  • chris

    What the writer conveniently overlooks is that the political system of almost all European countries is more open, more democratic, and more participatory in amost every way, than that of the United States. Voters are not only presented with a much wider choice of political philosophies -there are Communist, Socialist, Greens, Labor, Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats, Conservatives, Libertarians (Liberals in Europe) and neo-Fascists on the ballot of almost any European Country. They are given plenty of air time and funding to seriously expound their views. When it comes to voting, Europeans turn out in numbers that put America to shame. That they choose the type of government that they do is their responsibilty, but if we consider that political freedom and democracy are virtues in and of themselves, and not a means of achieving some pre-determined outcome, then Europe is deserving of our respect, not our censure. We need to look at ourselves first. Can we really be proud of our political process, with its impediments to voting, its cramped ideological spectrum, its pathetic voter turnout? Or does the political commissar class that mr. Gregg represents fear a more open and inclusive process. After all, it is a process that demonstrably results in some sort of "Social Democracy", which is anathema to that class. The fear of popular democracy is also part of the American political scene, after all. The Founding Fathers were quite concerned with it, which explains a lot about the Contitution. After all, the first Chief Justice, John Jay, famously remarked: "The people who own the country should run it". That is the operative notion of American politics, and we need to put our own house in order before we lecture Europeans on how to run their countries.