The Germ of Tyranny

Alexis de Tocqueville

The 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke once astutely observed: “The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.” The delusion offered by the Obama Administration is that you can get something (in this case contraceptives) for free, with no cost to yourself. In fact, the cost is very high: we are asked to surrender our freedoms. Yes, only a little bit at a time, but the direction is clear and alarming. It is for this reason that so many allies have come to the defense of the Catholic Church as the government seeks to bully the Church into paying for abortion drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures in its health plans.

The high-handed actions of the Obama Administration represent an egregious example of government overreaching its proper boundaries. Catholic teaching recognizes an important role for government in upholding the common good, but “excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes.

The Catholic Church has dealt with strong governments for centuries and out of this experience it has developed various principles, such as the principle of subsidiarity, which declares that organizations of a higher order (read the federal government) should not usurp the proper functions of organizations of a lower order. Government’s role is to assist and coordinate the activities of more local communities not to run roughshod over their traditions and beliefs.

The Catholic Church is not alone in seeing a value in checking the over-centralizing and tyrannical tendencies of powerful governments. People such as James Madison understood the need to protect individual freedom from even the tyranny of a misguided majority. That is why the U.S. Constitution offers so many checks and balances among the three branches of government. Even a 19th-century French Catholic aristocrat such as Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the value of multiple levels of government in America:

The townships, municipal bodies, and counties form so many concealed breakwaters, which check or part the tide of popular determination. If an oppressive law were passed, liberty would still be protected by the mode of executing that law; the majority cannot descend to the details and what may be called the puerilities of administrative tyranny.

Tocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835, and the nation has changed a bit since then. Now no one would dream that a county could resist the designs of the federal government.  But while people recognize how even state rights can be used to justify unjust situations, such as the Jim Crow laws of the Old South, few Americans are comfortable with a federal government that reaches into every crevice of social life and even tries to tell churches and people of faith that they must act against their beliefs.

Some so-called liberals harbor a very illiberal idea; they seek, by their lights, a more rational society in which there is more uniformity and everyone and every institution is made to act just as prescribed by government regulation no matter if such regulation furthers the common good. This is the “administrative tyranny” Tocqueville warns us against, or the “germ of tyranny,” as he puts it in another passage. We will let our French friend have the last word:

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power.

This article was featured in the April 2012 MCC Messenger, a quarterly insert into the diocesan newspapers.

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