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Old Europe’s New Despotism

Samuel Gregg

2005 marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of 19th century Europe’s most insightful political thinkers. Less well-known than Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville may have the last laugh when it comes to predicting accurately the course of history.

Alexis de Tocqueville

This is especially true when it comes to understanding some of “Old” Europe’s current economic and political malaises.

Tocqueville himself was a study in contrasts: a nobleman who embraced the ideals of 1789 despite the Revolution’s guillotining of members of his family; a self-proclaimed liberal who abhorred 19th century French liberalism’s rabid anti-clericalism; a practicing Catholic who admitted his faith was undermined by reading Enlightenment thinkers. Perhaps because of these tensions Tocqueville saw things that others of his time could not.

Tocqueville is best remembered for his Democracy in America, a book that sought to explain the free society that had taken root in North America to the Europe of his time. Tocqueville did not, however, write as a detached observer. He was anxious to help European societies transition to the democratic arrangements he considered inevitable, without experiencing the death and dictatorship endured by France during its Revolution.

All of Tocqueville’s writings repay careful reading. Yet it is his concerns about democracy’s future that are most relevant to Europe today — especially old Europe. This particularly concerns Tocqueville’s warnings regarding what he called “soft-despotism.”

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville suggested that democracy was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit one without the edges of Jacobin or Bonapartist dictatorship with which Europeans were all too familiar. The book spoke of “an immense protective power” which took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness — just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville wrote, 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.”

Such circumstances might arise, Tocqueville noted, if democracy’s progress was accompanied by demands for a leveling of social conditions. The danger was that an obsession with equality was very compatible with increasingly centralized state-power. Leveling social conditions, Tocqueville observed, usually involved using the state to subvert those intermediate associations that reflected social differences, but also limited government-power.

Tocqueville’s vision of “soft-despotism” is thus one of arrangements that mutually corrupt citizens and the democratic state. Citizens vote for those politicians who promise to use the state to give them whatever they want. The political-class delivers, so long as citizens do whatever it says is necessary to provide for everyone’s desires. The “softness” of this despotism consists of people’s voluntary surrender of their liberty and their tendency to look habitually to the state for their needs.

Tocqueville understood that it was a society’s culture that ultimately determined its destiny as free or servile. More than any other thinker, Tocqueville recognized that liberty’s future in Europe was highly dependent on Europeans’ moral-cultural habits.

Reflecting upon “old Europe” today, it seems to exhibit basic symptoms of soft-despotism. In Germany, Chancellor’s Schroeder’s relatively-modest reforms of an unsustainable welfare-system have encountered mass-resistance. Similar protests have occurred in Italy and Austria. In France, the political left now refers to the 35-hour week as an “inalienable right.” Tampering with the 35-hour week thus seems to loom in their minds as a potential human-rights violation. More recently, Jacques Chirac’s government caved into demands for public-sector pay-rises after just 3 days of marches by a million protestors.

The European Constitution also shows signs of a soft-despotism mentality. It does not limit itself — as any sound constitution should — to outlining the origins, divisions, and limitations of state-power. Instead, its 511 pages embrace a plethora of subjects ranging from fishing, humanitarian-aid, space policy, sport, tourism, to financial assistance to the former East Germany. In other words, the European Constitution provides the backing of fundamental law to EU officials wishing to meddle in almost anything.

By encouraging such tendencies, Europe’s constitution is unlikely to facilitate the growth of those intermediate associations that, in Tocqueville’s view, assist in preventing democracy from slipping into soft-despotism. These associations, Tocqueville believed, helped the young American republic to limit government precisely because of their unique ability to inculcate the virtues required by free people.

It follows that if political and economic reform in Old Europe is to be successful, it requires, from a Tocquevillian standpoint, more than extensive deregulation and the political will to deflate bloated welfare-states. It demands serious renewal of the moral and cultural preconditions required by any free society.

For in the end, Tocqueville understood that it was a society’s culture that ultimately determined its destiny as free or servile. More than any other thinker, Tocqueville recognized that liberty’s future in Europe was highly dependent on Europeans’ moral-cultural habits. To this extent, a 19th century French aristocrat may have understood contemporary Europe’s dilemmas better than 21st century Europeans understand them themselves.


Dr. Samuel Gregg. " Old Europe’s New Despotism." Acton Institute (May 11, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute..


Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute ( He is the author of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (University Press of America, 2001) and On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lexington Books, 2003).

Copyright © 2005 Acton Institute



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved