Posts tagged with: soft despotism

becomingeuropeBecoming Europe, the latest book from Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg, has been reviewed by Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, a research professor at Yale University’s Center for Faith & Culture, begins his review with a series of question, including, “Will entrepreneurship vanish in America, as it has, more or less, in Europe? And what will be the moral and political costs of what Gregg describes as ‘reduced freedoms’?”

Malloch notes how Gregg walks the reader through most of Europe’s long-standing desire to provide full employment and “to preserve the market from its own inherent instabilities“: (more…)

In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg turns to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to show how democratic systems can be used to strike a Faustian bargain. “Citizens use their votes to prop up the political class, in return for which the state uses its power to try and provide the citizens with perpetual economic security,” Gregg explains. This, of course, speaks to the current catastrophe that is the European welfare state. French workers, for example, “clearly expect the government to protect them from the economic consequences of their curious work habits,” he adds.

Some 180 years ago, Tocqueville predicted in his magnum opus “Democracy in America” that something similar would be one of democracy’s long-term challenges. Though Tocqueville never used the expression “welfare state,” he worried about the potentially corrosive effects of democratically elected governments that tried to use their powers to guarantee economic security for as many people as possible.

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit of the “soft” variety. He spoke of “an immense protective power” that took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness—just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville projected, would “resemble parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

But here’s the catch. Many people today forget that Tocqueville wasn’t writing for an American audience. His book was for French readers and therefore, by extension, much of Europe’s 19th-century political elite. What would some of those elites today—such as a career-politician and confirmed statist like Arnaud Montebourg—make of his compatriot’s warnings?

Read “What Tocqueville Knew” in the Wall Street Journal.

And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, August 27, 2010

Spy

Can you explain why you are not recycling, tovarich?

In “Recycling Bins Go Big Brother on Cleveland Residents,” FastCompany.com writer Ariel Schwartz reported that the city is introducing a $2.5 million “Big Brother-like system next year to make sure residents are recycling.”

Chips embedded in recycling carts will keep track of how often residents take the carts to the curb for recycling. If a bin hasn’t been taken to the curb in a long time, city workers will go rummaging through the trash to find recyclables. And if workers find that over 10% of the trash is made up of recyclable materials, residents could face a $100 fine.

The system isn’t entirely new. Cleveland began a pilot program with the carts in 2007, according to Cleveland.com … Alexandria, Virginia has a similar system, and cities in England have been using high-tech trash systems for years. But if the chip system works in a city as big as Cleveland, other small to medium sized cities will probably take note.

The program makes sense as long as cities don’t go too far. San Francisco, for example, has threatened to fine residents who don’t compost their waste. A chip system installed in San Francisco compost bins could probably make the city a lot of cash–and cost residents dearly.

Well, yes, there is a certain bureaucratic logic to it. It’s just the off-hand concern about going “too far” that leaves me a little uneasy.

Mark Steyn took it to the next logical step. He’s skeptical, as you can discern from the title of his blog post, “Gullible eager-beaver planet savers”:

In 2006, to comply with the “European Landfill Directive,” various municipal councils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced “smart” trash cans—“wheelie bins” with a penny-sized electronic chip embedded within that helpfully monitors and records your garbage as it’s tossed into the truck. Once upon a time, you had to be a double-0 agent with Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be able to install that level of high-tech spy gadgetry. But now any old low-level apparatchik from the municipal council can do it, all in the cause of a sustainable planet. So where’s the harm?

And once Big Brother’s in your trash can, why stop there? Our wheelie-bin sensors are detecting an awful lot of junk-food packaging in your garbage. Maybe you should be eating healthier. In Tokyo, Matsushita engineers have created a “smart toilet”: you sit down, and the seat sends a mild electric charge through your bottom that calculates your body/fat ratio, and then transmits the information to your doctors. Japan has a fast-aging population imposing unsustainable costs on its health system, so the state has an interest in tracking your looming health problems, and nipping them in the butt. In England, meanwhile, Twyford’s, whose founder invented the modern ceramic toilet in the 19th century, has developed an advanced model—the VIP (Versatile Interactive Pan)—that examines your urine and stools for medical problems and dietary content: if you’re not getting enough roughage, it automatically sends a signal to the nearest supermarket requesting a delivery of beans. All you have to do is sit there as your VIP toilet orders à la carte and prescribes your medication.

In “The New Despotism of Bureaucracy” on NRO, the Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding wrote:

The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.

And not just just at the federal level, of course. Now, the distant disembodied “administrative state” may be more and more personified in your neighbor in town and township. And when he strolls up your driveway to talk to you, it won’t be about your interest in coaching Little League or to borrow a weed whacker but to ask: Why did you put those old newspapers in the trash?

I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….

Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.

Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.

Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.