Alexis de Toqueville wasn’t always right, but he was almost always right. From Book One of Democracy in America:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, and here they are always fashioning new ways to live up to de Tocqueville’s prophecy.
The Montgomery County Council approved a smoking ban at playgrounds and indoor common spaces on Tuesday, asking neighbors to report offenders.
The ban restricts smoking within 25 feet of playgrounds and in the shared spaces of multifamily residential buildings, such as apartment hallways or lobbies.
Two witnesses can file a complaint identifying the smoker, as well as the time and place of the violation, to start an investigation. Otherwise, a county Health and Human Services Department employee must catch a violator lighting up.
And of course, the federal government is determined to tell you what kind of light bulbs you should and should not be allowed to buy.
The legislation to repeal the ban on incandescent light bulbs failed in the House on Tuesday 233 -193. While a majority voted for the repeal of the Republican pushed legislation that would make Thomas Edison’s invention okay to buy, sell, and own in the United States, nevertheless, the bill needed at least a 2/3 majority which it fell short of, since the vote happened under suspension.
Neither the incandescent light bulb ban nor the ban on smoking in playgrounds and indoor common spaces is an egregious affront to civil liberties, even if the latter bill has creepy spying provisions. At least the smoking ban is somewhat understandable. It’s certainly reasonable to protect children from smoking, but this seems like a bridge too far, and it’s disturbing to note that there are members of the city council who wanted the bill to go further. That’s right, there are those who want to introduce language to protect individuals living in single family homes from their next-door neighbor’s smoking. Lucky for me my neighbor likes cigars, infrequent as I light them nowadays.
The light bulb ban is just silly, and is leading people to hoard incandescent light bulbs. Pretty soon we’ll be witnessing people meeting in dark alleyways not to buy drugs, but to get their light bulb fix. Of course three strikes and you’ll be thrown in prison for life, with nothing but the dim light of an LED to keep you company.
I’m not arguing one way or the other about the efficiency of using LEDs and other new light bulb technology over traditional incandescent bulbs. In the long run LEDs might be a better investment. But you see there’s this thing called the marketplace, and if people prefer one form of a light bulb over another, then they should be allowed to do so.
Another outrageous aspect of the light bulb ban is the sheer hypocrisy of the green movement. Just this very day I heard someone from the Environmental Defense Fund extolling the virtues of choice in the age of smart grid and energy efficiency, and yet these are the very same people who supported this idiotic ban. Choice for me, but not for thee I guess.
As I said, these actions are not the most awful violations of our freedom that one can imagine, but that’s just the point and it gets to the heart of de Tocqueville’s description of a soft despotism or tyranny. The threat we face in this country is not necessarily jackbooted thugs rounding us up in the middle of the night, but rather clowns in Congress dictating our energy choices. Indeed it is like a parent controlling a child and dictating his choices “for his own good.” That is what the government has become: a meddling nanny state that steps in the minute a child might hurt himself.
Of course it is almost obligatory to point out that this attitude is not confined to one side of the aisle, even if it most pernicious on the left. After all, it was George W. Bush who once said “When somebody is hurt, government has got to move.” That is one of the most paternalistic attitudes ever expressed by a politician, and it is a motto for our times.
Let me close with more de Tocqueville:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.