As far as I am concerned it is really difficult to find a deeper thinker and analyst of society then Alexis de Tocqueville. I knew about his analysis of American Democracy since my life back in the Soviet Union (obviously it was not available for reading at the time, but I read it soon after coming to America).
What is interesting and unexpected for me was to encounter his book about French revolution of 1789 or more precisely about economic, political, and psychological conditions preceding this revolution. Everything seems to be not the way as it is typically presented in history books and I actually trust De Tocqueville a lot more then authors of these books because his analysis was based not on metadata, but on actual reading of documents of the period from personal diaries to bureaucratic reports.
So instead of traditional picture, which could be summarized as revolt of the Third estate against First estate (aristocracy) and the Second estate (clergy) caused by increasing burden on peasantry and business from wasteful aristocratic accesses supported by religious ideology enforced by church and accompanied by the contempt and indifference to the fate of people who actually carried this burden, we have quite a different picture of pre-revolution society.
First of all it includes real power groups (classes) that was missing – huge bureaucracy which quietly took over control of economic and political life of the society from aristocracy and secular ideologues from Voltaire to Diderot to Rousseau and a zillion other men of letters fed and supported by both aristocracy for their entertainment and feel good value and by bureaucracy for providing ideological support.
It seems that by the time of revolution the real power slipped from the hands of aristocracy. The lord of the locality did not control life of people in this locality; it was the function of Intendant appointed by bureaucratic power from the Paris. It was this unelected and not really visible Intendant who made all decisions on use of state violent powers – who will get taxed and how much and who will not, what revenues will be used for and how. Bureaucracy even wrangled out judicial power from the courts and judiciary that was formally serving to the king, informally and traditionally quite independent. By the time of revolution a bureaucrat rather then the king’s court resolved any serious dispute. By the same pattern ideological underpinning of society slipped from the church to the secular ideologists of Pure (more often then not bureaucratic) Reason.
All this left Aristocracy and Clergy redundant and parasitic in the eyes of majority of population. These people were excluded from taxes, waved around their superiority and external attributes of power while actually loosing real power to centralized bureaucracy. By the 1789 they become a perfect scapegoats to be punished for whatever wrong was happening in society without real power to do anything about it.
And it did went wrong as it always does when bureaucracy acquire power to transfer resources to themselves using apparatus of violent state. There were sinecures to create for brothers in law and government contracts to assign to old friends. There were wars to fight and grand projects to implement, but most of all there was an urgent needs to expand government and spend on it all resources that could possibly be obtained either via taxation or government debt.
This “noble” strive of bureaucracy to expand itself well beyond ability of French society to support it did aristocracy and clergy in during the storm of revolution of 1789.
Here is where the similarities between French society of 1788 and American society today are striking – uncontrolled growth of tumor of bureaucracy. New agencies and new regulations functioning using force of law; without obtaining any authorization by legislative power. Crowding out by bureaucracy of all other components of society in providing functionality necessary for society’s existence – government organizations providing everything from income to healthcare instead of private enterprise. Consequently it led to dramatic decrease in efficiency and effectiveness of these functions, because bureaucracy could not possibly match private enterprise. Tremendous growth of government debt and continuing attempts to increase taxes in the name of “fairness”.
The good news is that America is still democratic country and still has significant residue of American culture as created by independent people, pursuing their happiness in the wide wilderness of new continent. Hopefully there is still enough of health in American society to shrink this tumor. Lately we are doing pretty well using science in improving human chances with many other forms of cancer. Why not the cancer of bureaucracy?