I am about to begin a moderate project on Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work Democracy in America (1835, 1840). You should find his insights into the damaging effects of centralized government and the advantages of decentralization for freedom inspiring. You will also find it enlightening to the degree he once observed the latter as a key feature of American freedom.
I provide the following not only as a prelude of more to come, but also because Tocqueville is so often too selectively cited. We hear him cited in a few places only in regard to religion in America, and quite often misquoted (or misunderstood) on American exceptionalism. We rarely hear much of the substance of his observations on the American social structures that arose from her greater qualities. As a nation badly in need of relearning truer forms of liberty, these are things we ought to seek. Tocqueville gives us keys from our past.
As a brief trailer to his production, here are few excerpts on the topic (all from Volume I, Chapter V):
The town and county are not constituted in the same way everywhere; but you can say that everywhere in the United States the organization of the town and county rests on the same idea: that each person is the best judge of what concerns himself alone, and the one most able to provide for his individual needs. So the town and county are charged with looking after their special interests. The state governs and does not administer. Exceptions to this principle are found, but not a contrary principle. . . .
Where this principle is neglected, and centralization is allowed to arise, a vast type of status quo nationalism captures the hearts and minds of men and renders them into unthinking automatons for the state—blind pledges to dictators and national idolatry:
Centralization easily manages, it is true, to subject the outward actions of men to a certain uniformity that is ultimately loved for itself, apart from the things to which it is applied; like the devout who worship the statue, forgetting the divinity it represents. Centralization succeeds without difficulty in imparting a steady appearance to everyday affairs; in skillfully dictating the details of social order; in suppressing slight disturbances and small transgressions; in maintaining society in a status quo which is not exactly either decadence or progress; in keeping a kind of administrative somnolence [sleep] in the social body that administrators customarily call good order and public tranquillity.
According to Tocqueville, the centralized state accomplishes this state of affairs “easily.” Beware! When you hear people calling “Wake up, America!,” you know the “administrative sleep” has already largely prevailed.
To avoid this, we need to begin with a proper mentality toward government. Paralleling sentiments often quoted from Franklin regarding liberty versus safety, Tocqueville acknowledges that safety can be preferred above freedom, and indeed often seems more safeguarded by a centralized system:
I will admit, moreover, if you want, that the villages and counties of the United States would be administered more profitably by a central authority that was located far from them and remained unknown to them, than by officials drawn from within. I will acknowledge, if you insist, that more security would reign in America, that wiser and more judicious use of social resources would be made there, if the administration of the entire country were concentrated in a single hand. The political advantages that the Americans gain from the system of decentralization would still make me prefer it to the opposite system.
He moves immediately to sound the wake-up call:
So what, after all, if there is an authority always at the ready, that makes sure that my pleasures are peaceful, that flies before my steps to turn all dangers aside without the need for me even to think about them; if this authority, at the same time that it removes the smallest thorn from my route, is absolute master of my liberty and life; if it monopolizes movement and existence to such a degree that everything around it must languish when it languishes, sleep when it sleeps, perish if it dies?
It is tempting to rest upon an assumption that among fallen masses and pessimistic Christians, such desire for safety will trump that for liberty—that to such a crowd, the freedoms sacrificed for numb tranquility seem trivial compared to the sacrifices needed to gain freedom. But Tocqueville was not at that time so glum, for he had a view of a way to exalt liberty to the fore of the discussion. It was a view that, in his experience, most people value: local control.
In America, I found men who secretly longed to destroy the democratic institutions of their country. In England, I found others who openly attacked the aristocracy; I did not meet a single one who did not view provincial liberty as a great good.
In these two countries, I saw the ills of the State imputed to an infinity of diverse causes, but never to town liberty. . . .
He concluded the chapter: “Only peoples who have only a few or no provincial institutions deny their utility; that is, only those who do not know the thing at all, speak ill of it.”
And that, my friend, is a call to education. Educate yourself, your family, your neighbor. Together we can begin Restoring America One County at a Time, one person at a time.