Alexis de Tocqueville, while most famous for his Democracy in America, was also the author of another seminal work that is perhaps more relevant today than Democracy in America: L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.
In describing the condition of L’Ancien Régime in France, de Tocqueville points out that the centralization of the state associated with the French Revolution was actually extant in L’Ancien Régime. It was this centralization, and the atrophy of the local institutions, that allowed the Jacobins free reign to spread their insanity and terror. But is was a privileged elite, that could extract income and exercise special benefits that the common man could not, who became the target. In L’Ancien Régime is was the nobles who exercised special privileges and income without doing anything to earn it; in modern day America, it might turn out to be retired bureaucrats such as Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi who will receive $423,664 a year for life, who may play an analogous (abet non-violent) roll.
Today we see a growing concentration of power within the government, primarily at the higher levels (Federal and state levels primarily), or by unelected bureaucrats. What this has resulted in could be adequately described by the characterization that de Tocqueville gave L’Ancien Régime in France. He noted that “[f]or obvious reasons a system of relief operating from such a distance was bound to be capricious, sometimes misdirected, and always quite inadequate.” The sentiments of small business owners, property owners, or anyone touching upon things regulated by the government was echoed by the 18th century French: “The protest of a town thus treated figures in the records. ‘this measure has taken all of us, from the highest to the lowest, by surprise; we had absolutely no warning it was coming.'”
In L’Ancien Régime this also had a disastrous effect on what remained of elected bodies, where they “became less and less an administrative and more and more a demagogic body.” This can be clearly seen today, where Congress passed the sweeping Obamacare with grand speeches and accusations against the greedy companies, all while the bureaucrats passed the real law by administrative fiat.
The bureaucracy and centralization of power within the state bears a striking resemblance to the centralized regime of pre-Revolution:
“‘Everything passes through [the heads of departments] hands, they alone decide what is to be done, and when their knowledge is not as wide as their authority, they have to leave things to subordinate members of their staffs, with the result that the latter have become the true rulers of the country.'”
“Already characteristic of… the civil service was its intense dislike for all outsiders, whether of noble or of middle-class extraction, who showed a wish to take a hand, on their own initiative, in public affairs.”
Ironically it was in France, and not England, where Hobbes’ Leviathan truly took form. And a distorted form it was for “when the head becomes too swollen, the body develops apoplexy” — a condition that plagues America today. The bloated beast Levithan becomes incapable of doing anything well. It take more time and more money to do less than what we could before, especially when it comes to government projects.
The bureaucracy becomes unable to reform itself. Frank Herbert put it best when he wrote:
“Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys being inept?”
—A Guide to Trial and Error in Government (Heretics of Dune)
This paralysis plagues modern America just as it plagued L’Ancien Régime, where it “rarely undertook (or very soon abandoned) reforms which were a vital necessity but, if they were to succeed, called for a long-term effort; while, on the other hand, it was continually making changes in relatively trivial laws and regulations.”
With L’Ancien Régime, de Tocqueville summed up the condistions thus:
“There we have the old regime in a nutshell: rigid rules, but flexibility not to say laxity, in their application.”
The reach of the state became so great, that not only was local control by the people of their towns and provinces lost, but that individual initiative and entrepreneurship became dependant on the state. “It never occurred to anyone that any large-scale enterprise could be put through successfully without the intervention of the State” de Tocqueville wrote, as if he were writing today.
But the government does not limit itself to harassing businesses, but of paternalistic control of the people themselves. In L’Ancien Régime, the “government did not limit itself to coming to the rescue of the peasantry when times were hard; it aspired to teach them how to become rich and to help them… even if this meant using what was little short of compulsion.”
This parallel is certainly ominous, but it is the French Revolution itself that bears the most striking resemblance to day. The church and nobles were the target of the Revolution because they had exercised rights to income and privileges and control over the people, without providing kind help to the people purportedly in their care, or providing the leadership or administration that would earn them their income and privileges. While it is true that the bureaucrats do work, they gain benefits far in excess of what they have contributed, to the point of making themselves a privileged elite that continue to benefit long after retirement with often cushy pensions and gold-plated healthcare plans. It is they who are driving many cities and states into bankruptcy, such as in San Bernardino, where services are being cut to the bone because retired bureaucrats who currently contribute nothing, have a legal right to live off of the taxpayers, much as the nobles and the church did back during L’Ancien Régime.
It is getting to the point where this situation is no longer sustainable. Centralized control and the subsequent atrophy of both private and public spheres result in paralysis, with the consequence that the benefits the elite few enjoy become unsustainable. Already states like California and Illinois face crises; though they may avert it for a while, the structural problem remains.
De Tocqueville had the realization that the cause of the Revolution was the centralization of power, and a subsequent realignment of society to enshrine that power within the state, and not the actions of the Jacobins. However, perhaps most chilling is the realization is that the French Revolution was taken advantage of by the Jacobins and those who believed “…the function of the State was not merely one of the ruling the nation, but also that of recasting it in a given mold, of shaping the mentality of the population as a whole in accordance with a predetermined model and instilling the ideas and sentiments they though desirable in the minds of all.”
A parting question: Who is poised to take advantage of the situation in modern America today, which so aptly resembles the situation of L’Ancien Régime which brought forth a revolution?