Is America getting soft? President Obama seems to think so:
The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track.
Obama says he wants to remedy our softness and restore our competitive edge, yet the regulatory state that he constantly expands is actually the source of the problem. Our growingly intrusive government is beginning to resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the insightful work Democracy in America, called “soft despotism,” in which a coddling government creates soft citizens.
Soft despotism consists of the government gradually consuming its citizens’ liberty by promising to provide for all their needs, wants, and desires. In order to become the provider, the government must also become the decision maker. In effect, the citizens trade decision-making power (self-government) for comfort produced by the government. Tocqueville speaks of the effects of this coddling government: “it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them.”
Our government seems to have a hand in all of our affairs, from determining health care needs with Obamacare to promoting certain diets and proclaiming which light bulbs we may use. Steven Chu, President Obama’s Energy Secretary, illustrates the nanny state’s mentality in his comments on the regulation of light bulbs: “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.” Why burden the people with making their own decisions when the government knows best?
Eventually, we must pose Tocqueville’s famous question to our own government: “can it not take away from [us] entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?”
The coddling administrative state is paternalistic—but unlike a father, who wants his children to grow into adults, the government “seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood.” The dangerous outcome of the nanny state is soft citizens with a childlike sense of entitlement. This reality is evident in an interview of a Wall Street protester who was recently asked, “Why should anyone pay for your college tuition?” The interviewee could not produce an articulate response beyond “it’s what I want.”
This particular protester’s attitude is hardly the norm, but it should be considered a warning. America remains a strong nation with industrious citizens, but we must remain vigilant and not tolerate attempts to stamp out self-government.
Edward Walton is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm