Lessons from Old Europe

The U.S. government is not currently well-disposed to take political lessons from what Donald Rumsfeld has memorably dubbed Old Europe, least of all from France. And the recent vote of the French National Assembly to ban the wearing of headscarves by Moslem girls in public schools has hardly helped to mitigate American suspicions about the political wisdom of the current French establishment.
May 1 st 2004

The U.S. government is not currently well-disposed to take political lessons from what Donald Rumsfeld has memorably dubbed Old Europe, least of all from France. And the recent vote of the French National Assembly to ban the wearing of headscarves by Moslem girls in public schools has hardly helped to mitigate American suspicions about the political wisdom of the current French establishment. This absurd, mean-spirited, and palpably illiberal policy seems to epitomize the worst statist instincts of the French republican tradition. It also stands in stark contrast to the pluralistic and multicultural aspirations of Canadian society.

Yet even though most Canadians would denounce this particular French policy as emphatically as would Americans, Canadians have always been more receptive to European insights, and for obvious reasons: Canada was formed out of the engagement between two old European cultures, and many new Canadians continue to deepen their European ties.

But there is at least one source of insight from which both Americans and Canadians should be equally willing to learn. I have in mind the profound and influential political writings of the nineteenth-century French liberal aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. His major work Democracy in America, first published in the late 1830s after a year-long visit to the United States and Canada, is a classic of modern political thought. While American politics has changed vastly since he wrote, his book contains abidingly valid insights that any liberal democracy neglects at its peril.

De Tocqueville's thought is currently experiencing a significant revival among Americans of varying political stripes who are anxious about the current health and future prospects of their democratic system. Canadian commentators have also been noticing the pertinence of his thought for the rather different version of democracy existing north of the border. The political theorist John Von Heyking, for example, suggests that De Tocqueville's notion of a mutually supportive relationship between religion and politics is a better model for the Canadian experience than is the dogmatic insistence by U.S. courts on a strict separation between church and state (see John Von Heyking, "Harmonization of Heaven and Earth: Religion, Law and Politics in Canada," University of British Columbia Law Review 33/3, 2000).

I want to reflect on the relevance for Canadian politics of another crucial theme in De Tocqueville's writings: his warnings against centralization and his championing of local democracy and voluntary associations. I'll summarize some of his central insights and then pose a question about how they might orient us politically today.

De Tocqueville's central concern was to identify the conditions under which liberty might be safeguarded in an egalitarian democracy. He was persuaded that European society of the 1830s was moving inexorably toward the condition of social equality which had already been widely realized in America. But he perceived in an egalitarian society serious and unavoidable threats to the preservation of individual liberty, making counter-measures urgently necessary.

Foremost among these was the establishment of robust centres of social power quite distinct from and independent of central government. Far from lamenting the passing of an unequal, aristocratic society, he sought to identify those features of it that had historically served to limit royal tyranny. And he then explored how to re-embody them in a democratic context.

The principal feature constraining European tyranny, he concluded, was the existence of powerful intermediate bodies, "secondary powers," whose traditional privileges established a sphere of right, immune to state intervention, which constituted natural checks on the exercise of government power. In a democracy, however, no such natural checks existed. There was a serious risk that a huge chasm might open up between a mass of isolated and equalized individuals and the institutions of central government. It was necessary, therefore, to establish artificial checks to replace the secondary powers of an aristocratic society.

Contrary to liberal expectations, the establishment of democracy would not be sufficient to restrain governments from intruding into people's liberty. On the contrary, the natural tendencies of a democratic society would positively encourage such intrusions. These tendencies were rooted deeply in the attitudes and mores of a democratic society, which De Tocqueville sums up as individualism. In modern Western societies, individualism is often thought to be a consequence or perhaps a precondition of liberty: for De Tocqueville, it was also a possible threat to liberty. By individualism he meant not simple selfishness but rather self-interest, a constriction of social horizons. Democratic individualists displayed a tendency to be oriented primarily toward their own immediate concerns, to be preoccupied with the pursuit of their personal advantage. In an egalitarian society, people were not obliged to fulfil the assigned social duties characteristic of an aristocratic society. Having no such responsibility thrust on them by inherited social rank, people would be reluctant to participate in public affairs. The result of such a stepping back from public engagement would not be greater scope to manifest a diversity of attitudes and lifestyles but rather a depressing social conformism.

These democratic vulnerabilities would make it very likely that governments would be able, gradually and imperceptibly, to extend their influence over more and more aspects of people's lives. The absence of participation in public affairs would mean that central governments would be expected, even pressed, to manage an increasing range of public concerns and to maintain a condition of public order in which individuals could pursue their own interests undisturbed. And the presence of a spirit of conformism would mean that, so long as these regulations applied equally to everyone, few would raise any objections. For in a democratic society, people would come to love equality more than liberty.

The consequence of such a process would be the increasing centralization of public decision-making—a development that individuals jealous of equal treatment by government would welcome with alacrity. De Tocqueville drew a distinction between centralized government and centralized administration. A strong central government was necessary to coordinate public affairs in a large and complex society. But centralized administration—the micro managing of society by government—was much more ominous. The result would be a slide toward democratic despotism.

De Tocqueville's rhetorical and obviously hyperbolic characterization of this state of affairs should not blind us to the truth lurking in his forebodings ( Democracy in America, 2/4, ch. 6):

Above this race of [separated, equalized individualists] stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. . . . It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform. . . . 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 government is the shepherd.

Yet in spite of the forces in its favour, centralized administration was avoidable—but only so long as people retained their desire for the free exercise of social responsibility. Strong central government was quite compatible with extensive areas of local administrative autonomy and associational independence. Robust local government and vigorous voluntary associations would need to stand in for the secondary powers of a democratic society, establishing independent centres of responsibility outside the intrusive administrative reach of central government.

Whereas administrative centralization in France had sapped local initiative and engendered a spirit of dependence on central government, in America, healthy local government had proved crucial to the healthy functioning of democracy. Local government performed two principal functions: it served as a means whereby citizens could be educated in the principles of self-government, the rule of law, and social responsibility on which democracy was based—local governments were the primary schools of liberty—and it acted as a brake on the interference of centralized bureaucracy. It did this both by establishing a locally elected power base, which could defend the right of a community to manage its own affairs, and by administering central government laws with a sensitivity to local circumstances.

Alongside local government, a wide variety of voluntary associations, both political and civil, would also be necessary to protect liberty and sustain social responsibility. The right of association had been seriously curtailed in early nineteenth-century France, but, in America, it was virtually unlimited. The continual and spontaneous formation of voluntary associations were a vital indicator of the vigour of American democracy and a guarantee of liberty within it. Although voluntary associations in a democracy possessed no legal privileges of the kind enjoyed by the secondary powers of the ancien regime, they represented concentrations of moral and political influence which central government simply had to reckon with. While the state could do little directly to stimulate the creation of voluntary associations, it could play an indirect role in fostering conditions favourable to their growth. In particular, it could protect the free circulation of ideas on which associations depended and sustain strong units of local government which would educate people in the art of participatory democracy.

It's not difficult with hindsight to point out the limitations of De Tocqueville's analysis. Some of his warnings were exaggerated, and few of his prescriptions can be applied without modification today. He could hardly have foreseen how voluntary associations—business corporations or trades unions, for example—could over time morph into huge bureaucratic organizations which themselves could pose threats to liberty and would need to come under government regulation in the interests of liberty and justice. Nor did he envisage a situation in which individual or associational freedom could be put at risk by what we might call the tyranny of the local majority. There was also no way he could have anticipated the extent to which associations acting as pressure groups could fragment the legislative process to the extent that has occurred in the twentieth-century U.S. Congress and, to a lesser degree, in parliamentary systems such as the Canadian and British.

Yet the warnings he posed about the seemingly inexorable trend toward centralized administration should not be complacently waved away today. We now know, in fact, that such an enlargement of administrative centralization has occurred as a result of an enormous expansion of the scope of centralized government—not only of the national executive but also the legislative branch and, most controversially, the judiciary. For example, anyone seeking to found a new voluntary association—whether a child-care centre or a business—will very quickly meet central government regulation head-on. An educational charity I was recently involved with was required, in order to retain its charitable status, to accept a definition of acceptable social science research methodology drawn up by Revenue Canada! (and a hopelessly outdated one at that).

Let me make clear that this is not leading up to an argument for a generalized program of deregulation or privatization—the twin instruments by which Margaret Thatcher, among other heralds of the New Right, famously hoped to "roll back the frontiers of the state." Government, at all levels, has a clear duty to promote the public good, and in a society characterized by a highly complex public space, minimal government is simply not an option. So we should not read De Tocqueville today to find grist for the mill of the classical liberal view according to which "that government governs best which governs least."

We can appreciate more clearly today than De Tocqueville did nearly two centuries ago that the real threat to liberty and participatory democracy is not so much the horizontal extent of government as its vertical depth. Government may quite legitimately be extensive—it may in principle touch on any sector of social life, including education, business, marriage, or culture. There are no areas of social life which are in principle devoid of public consequences and so immune from the claims of public justice.

But government should not be intensive—it should not govern all the way down, reaching deep into the irreducible responsibilities rooted in our unique personal or associational identities. If it does, it will not only breed resentment and alienation—as the French headscarf law is bound to generate—but it will also, as De Tocqueville forcefully warns us, sap our desire and capacity for the exercise of personal and associational responsibility and for democratic resistance to bureaucratic impositions.

The political experience of the two centuries since De Tocqueville wrote have taught us that what we need is not micro-managerial government but enabling government: government that recognizes that a crucial dimension of its task is actively and imaginatively to facilitate social self-governance, for the public good. And this will be good not only for persons and associations but for government itself, a point cogently made by another profound, though now neglected, thinker almost exactly a century after the publication of Democracy in America:

Things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed "individualism" that, following the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the state. This is to great harm of the state itself; for with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the state has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.

The thinker was Pope Pius XI, and he wrote this in an intriguing social encyclical entitled Quadragesimo Anno (1931). This was the document in which the famous principle of subsidiarity was first explicitly stated: "it is an injustice and . . . a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do."

I conclude simply by posing this question: what might a truly enabling Canadian government—one respecting the principle of subsidiarity—start doing or stop doing today? There obviously won't be any simple or unanimous answers to that question. But if politicians and citizens would commit themselves to ask it rigorously when debating any item of legislation or public policy, they will at least enhance the kind of debate we need over the proper distribution of our diverse societal and governmental responsibilities, and so over the shape of the public good.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.