Over the weekend, I was on the exercise bike reading the March Madness issue of Sports Illustrated when I was surprised by a full page ad placed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Written in an average Joe script, it said: “If we don’t know how big our community is, how do we know how big our hospitals need to be?” Coming on the weekend ObamaCare passed, this ad almost perfectly expresses the “administrative despotism” that Tocqueville warned against. First of all, it is so reasonable and caring, who could be against it? I was enjoying the lowly pleasures of college basketball, but even I can agree with my neighbor, Mr. Census Bureau, that “we” should have hospitals big enough to serve “our” community.
On the other hand, the ad implies that a national census is the only or best way to determine how big any community is. It also suggests that the size of one’s community is the sole or main consideration in determining the size of hospitals. Sure, the Census Bureau could add other considerations to the mix, but the point is that central planning inevitably simplifies and standardizes. And that – central planning – is the ad’s most important premise: one arm of the Federal bureaucracy will supply the information that another arm of that bureaucracy needs to deliver services. The ad implies (at least to someone in small town Ohio) that decisions about the size of hospitals should be made by some distant experts, or at least with their information and under their guidance. And that mix of compassionate and gentle though irresistible suasion from outside is the problem. The more the decisions that affect our lives are made by others, Tocqueville argued, the less opportunity each citizen has to use and develop his or her own faculties and the less attached that citizen will be to his or her own community. The immediate danger is not tyranny, but that in turning over more and more decisions to the government shepherd, we become less and less like self-governing citizens and more and more sheep-like.