Hard Data and Soft Despotism

Benjamin Radcliff of the University of Notre Dame appeared in The Washington Post this week to discuss his recent book The Political Economy of Human Happiness, which looks interesting except that Tocqueville already wrote it. Radcliff’s thesis, backed, he says, by hard data gathered from stable democracies, is that bigger governments lead to happier people. His conclusion is that bigger governments are therefore advisable. QED, the purpose of government is to make people happy. For the sake of argument, grant him step one. Steps two and three need work.

In fairness, Tocqueville did not write this book. But he did forecast its ending, noting the propensity of democracies to do precisely what Radcliff advises. It leads to the phenomenon known as soft despotism. Tocqueville forecasts:

Above those [democratic] men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?

Tocqueville might not deny what Radcliff asserts, which is that large-scale welfare states succeed in inducing happiness thus understood. The problem arises in defining both the proper function of the state and a deeper, classical meaning of happiness. The leap Tocqueville would decline to take is that the purpose of politics is the promotion of happiness understood in terms of, as Radcliff writes in the book, “the extent to which the individual enjoys life.” True happiness for Tocqueville partakes of the full range of human experiences and emotions, of which pleasure can be only one. Moreover, it is closely linked with his concept of “manhood,” which includes not merely experiencing pleasure but being responsible for it.

This is not at all incompatible with a proper space for government in insuring against the harsh edges of unpredictable economic life, as well as helping to supply those goods the market fails to deliver. A society in which individuals are merely exposed to and battered by market forces would lack minimal conditions of happiness. But one in which individuals’ needs are simply sated would be lacking too. Tocqueville’s teaching about public responsibility for happiness is that it deprives us of a deeper satisfaction. The soft despotism that results is also, he warns, uniquely conducive to the hard kind.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. His book American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be published by University Press of Kansas in early 2015.

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