The 60 Second Update

with Dr. Paul Rahe

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1. What is "soft despotism" and why should it worry us?

The term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville to describe what he took to be a new species of despotism made possible by the emergence of modern democratic society in the wake of the American and the French Revolutions. What one might call hard despotism had long existed, and it had been described in detail in The Spirit of Laws by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. It was, as all could see, rooted in terror. Soft despotism was, however – so Tocqueville argued – more insidious. Its ground was what he called inquiétude – the uneasiness and anxiety that tended to be the disposition dominant in human beings liberated from the confines of hierarchy and rank, left free to construct lives of their own choosing, and afforded all of the opportunities and challenges that typify commercial societies. Freedom was for them at the same time a spur to ambition and a burden – for there was no one to tell them who they were, how they should behave, and what path would be best. They had to make their own way, and they had to take full responsibility for their own well-being. Tocqueville feared that, in times of crisis, men would look to the only power left standing after the disappearance of aristocracy: the all-encompassing state. He worried that, in accepting its help, men would gradually subject themselves to its supervision – which is, I believe, precisely what has happened.

Question 2. How does a society become susceptible to the
temptations of a welfare state?

Paul Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in Western Heritage at Hillsdale College

More from Paul Rahe

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A fresh look at Tocqueville
A fresh look at Tocqueville's legacy and the state of
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In this remarkable book, Paul Rahe shows how the great thinkers anticipated the modern Left's propensity to pull us in the direction of Soft Despotism


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The 60 Second Video Update with Paul Rahe

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