Tocqueville’s Fear With Democracy: Soft Despotism

Dave Rubin, Brandon Turner,

Release Date
June 19, 2017



Alexis de Tocqueville feared that Americans would willingly give up freedom for a “soft despotism.” Full interview here

    1. 4 Ways Economists Think We’re All Wrong – Econ Chronicles – Learn Liberty (video): Professor Bryan Caplan explains the biases that lead democracies to so often choose bad policies.
    2. The Walking Dead, Tocqueville, and Voluntary Cooperation – Learn Liberty (video): Professor Daniel D’Amico talks about the popular television show, “The Walking Dead,” and it’s metaphorical significance in regards to Alexis de Tocqueville’s investigations into the 19th century American penitentiary system. 
    3. Resist the pressure to conform: Tocqueville’s warning (blog): Professor William Reddinger discusses how Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights on the “tyranny of the majority” are still relevant in today’s world. 

Dave Rubin: Do you think that if he was here today, he might think that America has actually started to do it wrong? Because when you talk about it, liberty and things of that nature, it does seem like we might be going more of the French route in certain respects.
Brandon Turner: In the second book in particular, he has a lot of talk about what he calls soft despotism. Soft despotism is something that worried him, that he thought would be a kind of, something that was uniquely well suited to a democratic country. The basic idea of soft despotism is like listen, is a democracy going to accept a tyrant who comes in and makes them work long hours and does all this kind of stuff? No. They’re not going to accept that. They’re not going to accept a traditional form of tyrant who just enriches themselves at the public expense and all this kind of stuff.
What they’re going to accept is a soft despot, a despot who comes in and says listen, you don’t need to build your own bridges, for example. You don’t need to provide for the poor in your own communities. I’ll do all this stuff for you. We can just centralize this sort of thing. I’ll take care if it. It’s much more efficient if I do it anyway. I’ll take a lot of this responsibility off your hands.
For Tocqueville, he worried that this would have a kind of enervating effect on people, that instead of going out and building that bridge or building that church or whatever it happens to be, instead of going out and interacting with each other in communities, building up trust, solving problems together in a local way, that we would instead, if we wanted to build a bridge, we might come together long enough to fill out an application for a federal grant and then send it off.
Dave Rubin: Basically, we’d outsource the very things that make us a community, sort of.
Brandon Turner: That’s a really good way of putting it, actually. That I think is his fear, is that we’ve abdicated basically these powers, the powers of self government. We’ve said listen, we’re tired to governing ourselves in some sense. Some of these decisions, these are great responsibilities. Some of these decisions, we don’t particularly like anyway, we don’t like making. We’ll just hand them over and live in a softer and more comfortable way.
Dave Rubin: For the people watching, I would say well, what’s the problem with that? Why is that a problem? What’s the problem?
Brandon Turner: It’s an active questions. That is an open question, I think. It’s an open question in terms of today, we’ve got these amazing TVs and we’ve got these amazing video games and we’ve got these amazing everything. There is a certain sense in which listen, if what we’re building in the future is this kind of, in philosophy we’d call a hedon machine. We just plug ourselves into a pleasure machine. What’s wrong with the pleasure machine?
What’s wrong with just being happy all the time, particularly if these more rugged individualist kind of decision, if these responsibilities are in some sense unhappy responsibilities. I don’t want to have to build this bridge. I got other things I want to do. I’ve got a job. I got kids. I’ve got video games. I want to watch the NBA, whatever it is I want to do. I don’t want to go out and build this bridge. In other words, what’s wrong with just being as happy as we can be? If happiness means, in the way you phrased it, outsourcing these responsibilities, then what’s wrong with that?