“It may happen that an excessive taste for material possessions leads men to put themselves in the hands of the first master who presents himself. In fact, in the life of every democratic people, there comes a very dangerous step. When the taste for material well-being grows more rapidly than the habit of civilization and freedom, there comes a time when men are swept away and almost lose their heads at the sight of the goods that are available to them. Concerned only with making their fortune, they fail to grasp the close link between the welfare of each and the prosperity of all. In such cases, you will not even have to tear from them the rights they enjoy: they will give them away themselves voluntarily”...
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1830)
Has equality increased our freedom?
The antinomy between freedom and equality is an age-old question. For the first time, after the birth of modern states and the fall of the aristocratic ancien regime, the French noble from Normandy Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of this with great clarity and awareness, in his famous study of American democracy, a republic which was unique, according to the author, in having antibodies against democratic despotism. A valid teaching, more than ever, if transposed to an Italian democracy that seems stifled in the deadly embrace of bureaucracy and centralism.
But what did De Tocqueville mean by democratic despotism? He alludes to the dictatorship of the majority, which legitimised by parliaments becomes absolute – and therefore making the power of the central government despotic. A kind of despotism tempered by democratic validation. But for this none the less dangerous.
As noted in his journey, in America there are tools of control that can neutralize the unchallenged power of the central administration: from the capillary federalism – which he called “grassroots democracy” from its proximity to the decision-making power of the people and its representatives – to the fervent associationism that constitutes a formidable counterweight in terms of public opinion and influence.
The lack of these institutions and control mechanisms is an old fault indeed in the history of the newer European democracies, especially the continental ones, whose endemic bureaucratic centralism goes, unfortunately, hand in hand with a poor network of citizen associations..
In today’s Italy we can discern an unbridgeable distance between the citizen and their parliamentary representatives; we suffer from a bloated bureaucratic organisation of public services; free associationism is rather modest, merely folkloric when not actually suborned (think of the dark chapter of the Mafia and Freemasonry).
Will we ever escape the paralysis in our representative democracy?
Recommended listening. Freedom, George Michael