Soft Despotism

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.

Excellent.  Not only have they all but banned smoking in your own home, but they’re also encouraging people to inform on their neighbors.  I wonder if this poster served as an inspiration to the County Council:

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.


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Dante alighieri


  1. Petty tyranny is like being gummed to death by a pack of aged poodles: lethal over time, incredibly tedious and profoundly silly.

    Alexis de Toqueville, the Frenchman who knew us better than we have ever known ourselves:

    “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”


  2. Paul, I don’t like the part about ratting on your neighbors but I strongly support anti-smoking laws. It’s good public policy. My right to breathe clean air supersedes the other person’s right to blow smoke in my face.

  3. I am a life long non-smoker Joe, and for the life of me I cannot see why the private market place cannot handle whether restaurants, etc, allow smoking or not. Long before there were anti-smoking laws I patronized only establishments that did not allow smoking and dining to be mixed. From the number of young people who I observe smoking, which to my mind is stupidity on stilts, I wonder just how successful this second attempt at slow motion Prohibition is.

  4. Don, the comparison with Prohibition does not work. Smoking has been scientifically linked to more than 400,000 deaths a year. Tobacco is a legal product, yes, but it’s a clear detriment to the ‘general welfare,’ which our Constitution vows to promote. Alcohol, on the other hand, in moderation is not a detriment. A sip now and then does the body good. Did not Jesus turn the water into wine at the wedding feast?

    Here in WI, as you know, the anti-smoking law has been in effect for just over a year. At first, Gov. Walker took your position: Let individual businesses decide. He actually campaigned to repeal it. However, in hindsight even Walker admits it has worked well and he no longer supports repeal.

    In a compromise, however, the powerful Wisconsin Tavern League managed to squeeze in a provision that allows smoking in some outdoor areas that are well ventilated.

    So, I say, Smoke em if you got em…but do it so it does not harm others.

    Excerpt from The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story July 4:

    “Although I did not support the original smoking ban, after listening to people across the state, it is clear to me that it works. Therefore I will not support a repeal,” Walker said in a statement.

    The SmokeFree survey shows the smoking ban enjoys support across partisan lines, with 66% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats and 80% of independents saying they favored the law.

    More than 90% of the 500 likely voters polled in mid-June say they go out to eat and drink the same or more often now that the state is smoke-free. The poll was conducted by a nonpartisan national polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.

    “The ban hasn’t hurt business at all,” said Derek Stamates, a manager at Tracks Tavern and Grille in Riverwest. “We’ve seen more families with kids coming in. It didn’t drive anyone away.”

    Here is a link to the full story:

  5. I’m ok with banning smoking in common areas of an enclosed space. I think the same thing could be accomplished through the private sector, so maybe it’s an overreach, but not much of one. (I know, the point of this article is that soft tyrannies are made of small overreaches…but even so.)

    But parks? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

  6. “Don, the comparison with Prohibition does not work. Smoking has been scientifically linked to more than 400,000 deaths a year.”

    It certainly does work Joe. Alcohol has an enormous negative impact on the US with an estimated 17.6 million alcoholics in this country. Of course we have carnage on our roads due to addiction to drink, and all the health related consequences of alcohol. I am both a non-drinker and a non-smoker, but I have always thought that a much stronger case can be had in favor of a government war against alcohol than tobacco.

  7. In early 1990 I was eating lunch in our law firm dining room when one of my partners approached me with a sheet of paper in his hand and a snarky grin on his face. He handed me the paper, and I read that effective next month our law offices would be non-smoking. No debate; no partner vote; just a managing partner edict. My partner just snickered, “That’s right; freedom breaks out in Eastern Europe, and the clamp-down begins at home.” He nailed it.

  8. It is tyranny. but i think the people want government tyranny. the idea of being an adult is scary to the offspring of the greatest generation and consequently to their offspring. There are no grown ups left in the United States except the remaining WWll Generation.
    This is why neither Democracy nor Libertarianism will work.

  9. Don, it’s possible to consume alcohol without harming oneself or others. But smoking is altogether different. Even minimal use is harmful. The carnage that stems from alcohol is from excessive use not moderate use.

    Further, the point that conservatives miss when they rail against government interference with private business is that some regulation is necessary for the good of the general public. Taverns must be licensed by local and state authorities to make sure they comply with sanitary regs, insurance, fire laws, etc., all to protect the public. By adopting anti-smoking laws, the state is simply saying that it is one more requirement to be licensed to do business. If there is a “right” to smoke, then there ought to be a “right” to prostitute oneself, a “right” to gamble, a “right” to engage in any other vice. Freedom is not what one can do but what one ought to do. I think it was Bishop Sheen who said that.

    Moreover, there are countless laws on the books in a wider realm that one could make comparisons to, such as traffic laws. Why not let everyone drive at whatever speed they wish? After all, isn’t this an unwarranted intrusion by government on the “personal freedom” to drive as fast as we want. Clearly, traffic laws must be enforced. Does this mean that there are no accidents? Of course not. But there would be more without laws. Why not legalize all drugs, legalize all harmful activity and leave it up to everyone to decide for his or herself what is “right” and “wrong,” what is “good” and “bad.” Is this what Christians mean by free will?

    Does not Paul in Romans Chapter 13 tell us to “governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Should we decide which laws to obey and which to flout unless the laws of men conflict with the laws of God, as Peter said?

    Freedom is a word that everyone bandies about, but many seem to forget that freedom is not absolute and with it goes responsibility and duty.

  10. fixing previous post to insert omitted word:

    Does not Paul in Romans Chapter 13 tell us to OBEY “governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

  11. “Don, it’s possible to consume alcohol without harming oneself or others. But smoking is altogether different. Even minimal use is harmful. The carnage that stems from alcohol is from excessive use not moderate use.”

    Actually Joe I disagree with that. Most of the DUIs where I have represented individuals have not involved alcoholics. Alcohol not infrequently plays a role in many of the dissolution cases that I have handled and, once again, usually do not rise to the level of alcoholism. Compare and contrast that with someone who dies at 75 from a cancer that may be smoking related. I think the ill effects of alcohol are often far more immediate than the ill effects of tobacco.

    The trouble with a nanny state is that it diminishes freedom and treats us all like children. If I do not want to smell cigarette smoke when I eat I am quite able to give my patronage to businesses that do not allow smoking without the government having to intervene. Acting as nanny necessitates a large, bullying and expensive government. The modern nanny state in this country reminds me of this line from the Declaration of Independence:

    “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”

    We have gone well beyond common sense in this area, and I think time is overripe for the pendulumn to swing back from this madness.

    As for Saint Paul:

    “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil.”

    That particular passage has been cited by worthless tyrant after worthless tyrant down through the centuries. What Saint Paul was obviously trying to counteract were people who were attempting to claim that being a Christian freed one from secular authority. Saint Paul was not giving a blank check to every idiot idea emanating from government as the Church makes clear in the Catechism:

    “2238 Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gifts:”Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution. . . . Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.”Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.”

    “2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”

    When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.”

  12. Then I suppose it boils down to one man’s vice being another man’s virtue. I’m not enamored of the Nanny State either. Certainly, there are limits on what government should regulate and salt use (see NYC) is not one of them.

    But if government is We the People, then let the people decide. And in the case of smoking, a vast majority want it controlled in some fashion. Let me ask you, Don, should I be allowed to blast my stereo with my windows open at 3 in the morning? Shoot fireworks off anywhere? Discharge my gun within city limits, the 2nd amendment notwithstanding. Ad infinitum.

    Of course, this is argument and not proof so further discussion is pointless. Example:

    1. a) You should not smoke (individual action, individual decision)
    b) because smoking is harmful (generally accepted wisdom that health is good). The argument is neither a) advice nor b) moral or economical judgment, but the connection between the two. An argument uses always the connective because. An argument is not an explanation. It does not connect two events, cause and effect, who already took place, but a possible individual action and it’s beneficial outcome. An argument is not a proof. A proof is logical and cognitive concept; an argument is a praxeologic concept. A proof changes our knowledge ; an argument determines us to act.

  13. “But if government is We the People, then let the people decide.”

    In regard to the Nanny State, I think We the People have little say. It is rather politicians seeking votes from particular pressure groups, and, as an added bonus, swelling the rolls of government employment and revenue from fines and taxes.

    “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”

    It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the worst of this type of rubbish comes from blue states and blue cities. Government has more than enough essential tasks to do, many of which government is failing to do adequately at the present time, without treating adults as if they are unruly first graders who must be micromanaged.

  14. Don, seems like we can’t keep Ben Franklin’s Republic. Maybe what we need is a good king with a sharp axe. 😀

  15. Oh, one last point (maybe): Since there are apparent limits to the universe but none to human stupidity, I have little faith of heaven on earth. It is indeed disheartening to find that most citizens do not know the difference between a YIELD and STOP sign. 😛

  16. “Freedom’s just another word for “nothin’ left to lose.” Janis Joplin.

    “All attempts to create Heaven on Earth result in Hell on Earth.” Camus

  17. George Washington, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

  18. Long as we’re dropping quotes, here’s one my Catholic friends may like:

    Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought. — Pope John Paul II

  19. “The advice you give us does not spring from a full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved, but not the other half. You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too.”


  20. “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or SPIRITUAL [emphasis added]. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” John Stuart Mill

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