Every problem seems to require a government solution in modern America. This is a clear departure from our nation’s early history, as described by French historian and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville. In his famous work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville marvels at the American tendency to embrace voluntary associations in order to solve our problems.
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. …Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. …Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.” - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pg. 489, the Mansfield/Winthrop edition published in 2000.
Tocqueville considered the American propensity to tackle problems through our own efforts and through our communities absolutely integral to our national character.
This morning, I came across an unfortunate story that brought Tocqueville’s wisdom to mind. In Chester, Pennsylvania, local township officials are threatening to fine a woman who gives free lunches to local poor children $600 per day. Why? Since she lives in a residential area, she is required to submit a request to the township zoning board in order to receive a variance to continue her charitable work.
Until she does that, she isn’t allowed to distribute the food, which is provided by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. As the reporter indicates, the administrative fees to obtain the variance may cost her up to $1,000 annually. The woman, Angela Prattis, is already required by the Archdiocese to file extensive paperwork detailing the operation of the program, and she’s even visited by a state government official every two weeks.
This is the kind of story that will frustrate all Americans, regardless of their political philosophy. After all, hardly anyone likes bureaucracy. Even technocratic progressives who envision a government and society run by experts usually don’t enjoy interacting with real-life bureaucracies. After all, in their vision, they believe that they’ll be the experts running things, so they won’t have to deal with it. So, I don’t expect the township officials to garner much support compared to Ms. Prattis.
How did this obvious example of bureaucratic overreach come to pass? As we’ve abandoned responsibility and initiative on a personal and local level, we’ve asked government at all levels to step in for us. When a natural disaster strikes, we don’t take responsibility for building our homes and businesses in areas prone to tornadoes or floods. We haven’t taken it upon ourselves to save and to prepare for a “rainy day.” We barely reach out to our family, friends, church, or community.
We ask the government for help. We petition the federal government to declare our town a disaster area. We plead for disaster relief aid from the state and federal government. We demand to know the whereabouts of Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel. Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes, natural disasters or other crises are too large for a community or even a state to handle without some help. I’m not against all federal disaster relief aid by any means.
However, I do oppose the modern American proclivity to ask the government to help us whenever we have a problem. We even reflexively turn to government to regulate or outlaw something when we don’t like it. Or if we do like it, we’ll want it to receive a big subsidy. Think of the National Endowment for the Arts, for example. Tocqueville warned against growing increasingly reliant on the government in this manner.
“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.” - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pg. 491.
With the story of Ms. Prattis, we encounter an example of what Tocqueville referred to as “administrative despotism,” or soft despotism. By continually asking the government instead of voluntary associations to solve our problems, we have entrusted far too many powers and responsibilities to the government. To fulfill those responsibilities, the government employs a massive, all-encompassing bureaucracy.
Tocqueville did not fear that democratic societies would fall under the rule of overt tyrants. However, he did believe that we’re vulnerable to the rule of “schoolmasters” who would “degrade men without tormenting them” (pg. 662). I would argue that the case of Ms. Prattis is an excellent example of voluntary associations withering in the face of this soft despotism. Unless she submits to the rules, regulations, and sizable fees of the administrative state, her generous work with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will come to an end.
The bureaucratic township officials who would punish Angela Prattis for her personal initiative and charity aren’t cruel. They’ve relented on their initial demand that she stop feeding the children immediately, and they’re now allowing her to continue the program through the end of summer without a variance. However, they’ve made their power over her perfectly clear. After all, bureaucrats need to exercise power in order to justify their own existence.
Unfortunately, the poor children fed by Ms. Prattis are merely the latest victims of bureaucratic soft despotism in America.
“…After taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules…
…It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” (spacing and emphasis added) – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pg. 663.