America’s sneaky despotism

(The PanAm Post, where I found this interesting piece, describes the writer, José Azel, as a “scholar and author.” It’s about Democratic Despotism, a phrase that I like and which I think applies not only to the United States now but to most of Western Europe.

(Azel makes the point that in Democratic Despotisms one finds “armed forces, securities agencies or administrative agencies [that evolve] beyond the effective control of the civilian political leadership.” Of these three, I believe it’s administrative agencies that are the biggest peril today to individual freedom in the United States. They constantly grow and spit out endless rules to keep themselves in business and you hog-tied.)

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The idea of democratic despotism appears to be an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. But, in “Democracy in America” (1835-1840) Alexis de Tocqueville offered a powerful description of democratic despotism as “a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.”

Under Tocqueville’s democratic or soft despotism, “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.”

Democratic despotism “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 flow of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Soft despotism is not as obvious as hard despotism. It gives us the illusion of being in control; it degrades us rather than persecutes us. It often takes the form of a state within a state (imperium in imperio) where an internal organization, such as the armed forces, securities agencies or administrative agencies, evolves beyond the effective control of the civilian political leadership.

Regulatory policy should be viewed with extraordinary suspicion and used frugally.

For example, historically, efforts to separate Church and State were anchored on the perception that the Church could turn into an imperium in imperio undermining civilian leadership. In other examples, in the Soviet Union, the secret police (KGB) was considered a State within a State. The same is true of its successor, The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).  And, in the United States, the government’s bureaucracy is often portrayed as a modern-day example of an imperium in imperio.

The modern definition of bureaucracies comes from German sociologist Max Weber who, in the 1920s, defined bureaucracies as any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules. And, although Weber considered bureaucracies necessary in a modern world, he also warned that bureaucratization was a threat to individual freedoms where individuals would be trapped in a soulless “iron cage” of rule-based controls.

Bureaucracies are also characterized by unrelenting growth. In the United States, the original bureaucracy of the federal government consisted of only the employees of three small departments; State, Treasury, and War. Today the federal branch employs nearly 3 million people. The old Soviet KGB employed one officer for every 428 citizens. In today’s “freer” Russia the FSB employs one officer for every 297 citizens.

Tocqueville forewarned, back in 1835, of a degrading despotic democracy of “small complicated rules.” Imagine what he would say today. During the last few years of the George W. Bush administration regulations increased dramatically, and in the first seven years of the Obama Administration over 20,600 new regulations were added for an estimated regulatory cost burden in excess of $100 billion annually.

Conceptually, government regulations represent a way for people to give up managing their own affairs and turn those affairs over to a government agency.

According to Tocqueville, a byproduct of turning over the management of our affairs to a government institution is that we become incompetent to choose good leaders. Thus, government regulations would ruin the American experiment by combining the vices of those who govern with the weaknesses of the governed.

This regulatory paternalism embodies the philosophy that people cannot be trusted to make good decisions, requiring government to impose its judgment over the voluntary decisions that represent our needs and preferences. Yes, some regulations are necessary and inherent to the rule of law. Regulations to protect children and those unable to make reasonable judgments are essential. But regulatory policy should be viewed with extraordinary suspicion and used frugally.

Fortunately, we seem to have finally understood that the soft despotism of regulations undermines the very concept of personal responsibility.

New ImageIn January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order requiring government agencies to slash two regulations for every new regulation put in place. The President has now reported a success ratio of 22 regulations eliminated for every new one enacted.

The measure is being touted as an economic success. It is much more than that. It is a restoration of personal freedoms.

22 thoughts on “America’s sneaky despotism

  1. There are some good points here. But I tend to view the problem more as one that economists call diminishing marginal returns. What this means is that the first dollar you spend combating a problem has a far greater impact on the problem than the last dollar you spend. So, for a non-regulatory example, say you buy a boombox to listen to music, and that boombox costs you $100. Well that $100 gets you from no music to music. From there, you can buy a $500 stereo. That gets you stereo, and probably a better sound. After that you could spend $1,000, and so on. But the more you spend, the less incremental benefit you get.

    In my view, this is what has happened with regulatory agencies. The EPA is a good idea and has done a lot of good work. But then you take the idea to a logical extreme and that gets you California trying to regulate cow farts. I’d have to guess that the marginal benefit there far outweighs the marginal cost, for a net negative. (Never mind that no one knows how to actually do it.) And I’d imagine that you could find that across regulatory agencies.

    Just as another example, most Mexican houses and apartments have fewer than 5 circuit breakers, and things seem to be fine. But regulations in Massachusetts required that I had a good dozen for the kitchen alone. This seems like regulatory overkill, born of a permanent regulatory body which must continue to justify its existence. And it’s an existence I’d note that justifies itself by looking at millions of cases of whatever, and saying “Well, if we just did ‘X’ then we’d prevent a few dozen of ‘Y’ every year” where “Y” is fires, electrocutions, spills, whatever. Yes, they’d be prevented, but at what cost?

    That in my view is the problem of regulation as viewed through a more economic lens.


    Kim G
    Redding, CA
    Where the state is probably the most regulated place on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t kid yourself. A lot of these regulations are nationwide. But yes, MA and CA are the bleeding edge of much of this nonsense. But having lived in both, I’d say that MA is much better, e.g. more reasonable, than CA. By a country mile at that.


  2. We recently had news of a family dying in Mexico, likely from carbon monoxide poisoning. In the US, we’d have regulations about that. Obviously not totally effective, but undoubtedly preventing numerous deaths not least by making so that responsible parties know they can be held legally responsible.

    On another blog, people wanting to buy a house in Mexico were wondering about home inspections. I recommended getting a book called “Code Check: An Illustrated Guide to Building a Safe House.” Basically, a book of regulations. It’s not that people can’t make good judgments, but they aren’t experts in wiring and plumbing either.


    1. Creigh: It appears the family died due to a defective water heater. It was in a vacation condo. I’ve never seen a water heater here that was inside a home, but people tell me they exist. And yes, you’d have — and do have — regulations up the kazoo in the U.S. on this and scads of other matters. As you likely know, we Mexicans accept that risk is part of life, and we don’t try to legislate it and regulate it out of existence. Were we to do that, would some people live longer? Sure, but we don’t. I favor the Mexican approach. Here in my home, we have three portable propane heaters inside, two downstairs and one upstairs. Could a connection fail in the middle of the night and kill us both? Yes. Do I worry about it? No. Would this be legal in the United States? Not likely in most places.

      Yes, I see people going on about “home inspections” before buying a house down here. It always gives me a chuckle.


    2. But even in highly regulated places like MA, people still die every year of carbon monoxide poisoning. Is this a good thing? Clearly not. Would a relatively cheap detector have prevented the problem? Likely. But there’s still clearly a point where the returns to more regulation start swinging negative, e.g., they cost more than they provide in benefits.


  3. Certainly, Trump’s war on bureaucratic red tape and regulations is a significant victory in the battle. However, I continue to believe he will eventually lose the war. I say this with a heavy heart as I admire his attempt to right the ship.

    However, this ship is akin to the Titanic, slow, cumbersome, and too big to avoid the coming wave of bureaucratic tyranny.

    Trump will be taken down, and historians eventually will correctly portray it as a modern-day coup d’etat. It is a sad thing to witness. However, the odds are against this valiant leader of our country.

    At the very least, he has forestalled the inevitable and precipitous decline of our once great nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark: As glad I was that Trump won the presidency, I have never thought the victory was much more than a temporary delay in the overall cultural collapse of America. Whereas his foes are a minority of the population, they are a great majority in those places that count: media, education, Silicon Valley, Big Business, areas that wield far more power than their numbers deserve.

      Just a matter of time. Glad I live down here even though the blowback will be felt here too.


  4. Most of the regulations that appear are the result of lobbyists. When I worked in engineering, a manufacturer would develop a product that was useful in some situations. They would then lobby to have it a requirement, so they could sell more. Then, someone who lived in an area where the soil was porous and well-draining, had to install drainage systems and sump pumps that were absolutely unnecessary. Someone invented a plastic stand to keep a 20-pound propane tank from falling over in the trunk of your car. Everybody had to buy one.

    It goes on and on, but the fact remains; a lobbyist bribes a politician into regulating something, his friends support his regulation so that they can get his support for their regulation, and the cycle continues. Those 22 regulations will be back in another spin-off from the cycle. The swamp is not being drained, it is just getting fuller so it doesn’t seem as watery. In truth, my description of it, dating back to the 1970s, is that it’s not a swamp. It’s a feeding trough for pigs, and it’s not being drained. There’s more pigs, and they’re getting bigger and fatter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kris: that’s a great point, regulatory capture. As part of my economics degree, I took a course on regulation. We learned about the “iron triangle” between producers, legislators, and lobbyists. As you note, the rules aren’t for the benefit of consumers, even though they are sold that way. Sadly, this is something that few are aware of. And those who are aware are mostly incented to keep it hush hush.


      1. Felipe: When I started using the phrase, I was working for an engineering consultant, designing an irrigation dam and the appurtenances that went with it. The influx of “experts” from another of our offices, who came and charged time to the job, staying in hotels and racking up expense accounts was brutal. I took a rubber eraser, and carved a rubber stamp of a pigs from the rear, with his curly tail, and used it liberally on memos, reports and engineering drawings. Only a select few knew the story of the pigs at the trough, and when the stamped paperwork appeared in meetings, there was some laughter. Eventually, they lost their jobs due to another greed decision. Funnily, one of the insiders went on in management, redirected the company and went on to become President and CEO.


  5. The deep state exists!

    The Peter Principle is the heart and sole of government. Eventually, all positions are occupied by incompetents. People are paid not by the amount or quality of work produced, but by who they supervise. This leads to some very strange organizational charts.

    Government regulations are our rice bowl. Government is scared shitless of big business, so they pretty much get a pass. But the small-business man is treated like a criminal. The answer to all problems is another law and a plethora of regulations to back it up. Employment possibilities are endless.

    As soon as some fool says “There aught to be a law,” the process begins.

    In the past, government had two saving graces: incompetence and greed. You could always hope for clerical error or a greedy official. Nowadays, computers seem to have closed this loophole.

    I am so glad I am retired.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Byzantine Empire existed for nearly 1,125 years, yet many people know little about it, other than the word “Byzantine.” Finally, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.

    The term, Byzantine government, resembles the government or politics of the Byzantine Empire in structure, characterized by complexity, deviousness, intrigue, etc. Without action, the American Empire may share a similar fate.


      1. United States of America will go down as a democratic experiment gone awry. Was a great concept but the system is flawed.


        1. Mark: Since the Soviet Union collapsed about 30 years ago — one generation plus — Americans have experienced no existential threat, giving them plenty of time to focus on themselves, and not in a good way. It coincided with the effects, none positive, of the Hippie Generation. The end result is a self-absorbed, ignorant population spoiled to the rim, not everyone but way too many. Sad.


    1. Ricardo: It’s not that deep, sir. Here it is in a nutshell: Your liberty is being restrained up there above the Rio Bravo, little by little, by a growing mountain of rules and regulations. There you have it!

      The good thing is that President Trump is moving it in the other direction. Will it be enough? Likely not. Sad.


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