Malaysian Civil Service Reform requires Political Will


August 20, 2018

Malaysian Civil Service Reform requires Political Will

Change must come from the political leadership. There must be an insistence on greater diversity at the intake level. There must be an insistence on promotion and posting based on fairness, meritocracy and competency… Soon, you will find top civil servants praising Dr Mahathir Mohamad sky high, just like they did with other Prime Ministers.–T K Chua

by T K Chua@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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I refer to the letter, “Is there hope for the civil service?” by Dr Amar-Singh HSS.

As a former government servant, I too can relate to what he was saying although I have tried to avoid writing about it directly.

The environment in the civil service is more than stifling. It is also where favouritism, parochialism and bigotry are allowed to thrive. Discrimination in terms of recruitment, promotion and posting is routine and done with impunity. Tokenism has evolved into a fine art. If you are assertive and smart, be prepared to be sidelined and marginalised.

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A Bloated, Mediocre, Unproductive Malay dominated civil service

The civil service values mediocrity – this is absurd but true. The top echelon of the civil service is not populated by the smartest, but they know how to play politics to the hilt. To survive and keep the goodies to themselves, all they need to do is to quickly align themselves with the new regime. Soon, you will find top civil servants praising Dr Mahathir Mohamad sky high, just like they did with other Prime Ministers.

As a body, the civil service has its own inertia. It is not known for efficiency and progressiveness. On the contrary, the service is often associated with wastage, lack of initiative and poor service orientation.

The civil service is essentially an input-driven organisation, i.e. it will not move an inch without additional manpower and resources. Redeployment, revamp and reorganisation are hardly part of its consideration. That is why the civil service is ever expanding, often not in tandem with the size of the economy.

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Reports like the above which was written by two top civil servants of the Mahathir 1.0 Era, Tun Ahmad Sarji and Tan Sri Mahmud bin Taib are useless when there is no political will to undertake serious reforms.

Left on its own, I don’t think the civil service will ever change. It will remain insular, discriminatory and even racist.

Change must come from the political leadership. There must be an insistence on greater diversity at the intake level. There must be an insistence on promotion and posting based on fairness, meritocracy and competency.

We must temper the rights and privileges of communities with the need for competition, efficiency and performance. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be talking so much about greater dynamism and competitiveness for this country.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

The Long and Winding Uncertain Journey for Pakatan Harapan (Hope Coalition)


August 20, 2018

The Long and Winding Uncertain Journey for Pakatan Harapan (Hope Coalition)

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

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The new government’s 100 days is now up. What was put out as 10 key reforms by Pakatan in a manifesto aimed at enticing voters is dominating the headlines. However these are still very early days to assess the progress made with the promises of

● easing the burden of the public

● reforming the nation’s administrative institutions and politics

● reshaping the nation’s economy in a fair and just manner

● reinstating the rights and status in Sabah and Sarawak

● building an inclusive and moderate Malaysia in the international arena.

By way of contrast it is useful to recall that Barisan Nasional with its theme of “With BN for a Greater Malaysia” had a 220 page manifesto with 364 pledges covering almost every single community and group – Felda settlers, women, youth, orang asli, the people of Sabah and Sarawak, the bottom 40% households, Chinese community and other non-Muslims. Possibly the only group that was not covered was that of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) currently in the public limelight and under fire.

The Challenge That Pakatan Faces

In evaluating the performance of the present government, it needs to be remembered too that Pakatan’s victory was against the odds. Most analysts – as well as Pakatan’s leaders – saw little hope of ending the continuation of Barisan rule in GE-14.

Since the first election in 1955, the Alliance and its BN successor have gradually tightened their power through a combination of constitutional and extra-constitutional measures, the deployment of an enormous patronage machine and the cooptation of the nation’s civil service in suppressing whatever opposition exists in the country. The ruling coalition has also effectively exploited racial and religious faultlines to maintain its hold on the Malay majority voting population.

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They are back as a tag team. Will they do it again with the politics of Race and Religion in the name of Ketuanan Melayu?

Lest we under-estimate the magnitude of the reform challenge, let it not be forgotten that most of the present crop of Pakatan’s current leadership have been among the active supporters of the indoctrination movement in its diverse manifestations. They have been responsible for the Malay psyche, which needs transformation if the new Malaysia is not to remain a mirage.–Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Not only was there little hope of an election upset but there was also a big question mark as to whether there could be a peaceful transition of government and power. Now that we have had both extraordinary outcomes – to paraphrase what Dr. Mahathir, the Prime Minister, recently described in Japan as the nation’s unique and lucky peaceful transition of power – we need to be realistic about the challenge that Pakatan faces.

This is because the missteps, wrong doings, abuses and transgressions engaged in by the BN government – some going back to the time of Dr. Mahathir’s first stint as Prime Minister – are so rampant and the ensuing damage to the country’s socio-economy and governance structures and race and religious relations so egregious that it will require more than a few years – perhaps a decade – of sweeping and far-reaching policy changes and reform to undo them.

High level corruption and economic excesses and crimes are currently a major preoccupation of the new government. However, it is perhaps among the easiest of the improprieties and legacy of the BN regime that the Pakatan government has to deal with and correct.

More resistant to remedying are the policies, programmes and mindsets which the country’s state apparatus and most institutions of government (educational, media, professional and socio-cultural organisations, religious bodies, etc.) have propagated to a largely captive audience.

As explained in a recent article by Fathol Zaman Bukhari, editor of Ipoh Echo

“The Malay psyche is not something difficult to fathom. It is the result of years of indoctrination (brainwashing) by a political party that is long on hopes but short on ideas. Fear mongering is UMNO’s forte because the party believes that Malays are under threat. That their religion and their sultans are being assailed and belittled by imaginary goblins and make-believe enemies …. Anyone other than a Malay and a Muslim is considered unworthy to assume any sensitive appointments, which are only reserved for Malays. But on hindsight it is the Malays who have let the nation and their own kind down. Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor, Apandi Ali, Rahman Dahlan, Tajuddin Rahman, Khalid Abu Bakar, Jamal (Jamban) and all the obscenely-paid heads of government-linked companies are Malays. But this is of no consequence to a race that makes up over 60 percent of the nation’s population. They continue to feel threatened.”

It is this less easily definable, less financially quantifiable, but more ubiquitous, and ultimately more destructive and ruinous feature of nation-building directed and manipulated by the previous leadership for the last 60 years, that needs to be contended with and purged of its toxic ethno-religious content if the new Malaysia is to have any chance of succeeding.

Lest we under-estimate the magnitude of the reform challenge, let it not be forgotten that most of the present crop of Pakatan’s current leadership have been among the active supporters of the indoctrination movement in its diverse manifestations. They have been responsible for the Malay psyche, which needs transformation if the new Malaysia is not to remain a mirage.

 

US Social Critic Noam Chomsky Speaks on Thailand’s Political Situation


August 18, 2018

US Social Critic Noam Chomsky Speaks on Thailand’s Political Situation

By: Asia Sentinel Staff

https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/noam-chomsky-pavin-chachavalpongpun-interview-thailand/

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Professor Noam Chomsky has spoken with exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun exclusively for the first time on the dire political situation in Thailand. He delved into the issue of the monarchy in Thai politics, the persistent political intervention of the Thai army, the draconian lèse-majesté law which forbids anyone from criticising the royal family, and the role of Thai youths in the changing political environment.

Drawing on his own observations on American politics, Chomsky detects similar problems facing two dissimilar nations—the United States and Thailand. Although a republic, the United States has continued to worship certain political leaders as if they were gods. In Thailand, kings are seen as ultimately sacred. But the excessive reverence of the royal institution in Thailand has generated a myriad of political problems. Most evidently, it has placed the monarchy at the apex of the political structure, which, as Chomsky sees it, demands forced veneration from the public, and thus submission.

Looking into the future of Thailand, Chomsky hopes there will be dedicated efforts to confront the political regression in order to move to a more just and free political community in the country.

Pavin, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, in Japan, conducted this interview after Chomsky moved from MIT to the University of Arizona on 1 December 2017. Pavin was charged with lèse-majesté for his criticism of the government in the aftermath of the 2014 coup in Thailand.

The project was supported by the Free Future Foundation, a Paris-based non-profit organisation designed to promote democracy and human rights.

 

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s New Dilemma: Pakatan’s Manifesto


August 18, 2018

Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s New Dilemma: Pakatan’s Manifesto

by William Case, Nottingham University Malaysian Campus

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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Malaysia’s new Pakatan Harapan government rode to power on a pledge to clean up Malaysia’s foul politics. It was wise to focus on the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional’s transgressions: Pakatan’s appeal lay less in its own glowing imagery and manifesto than in the electorate’s widespread contempt for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads the now opposition Barisan Nasional coalition.

 

Pakatan’s manifesto, while helping bring it to power, now poses a dilemma. To firm its support, Pakatan must make good on its promise to cleanse political life, pressing down hard on the reformist pedal. It must show that the arrest of former Prime Minister Najib Razak was not sordid revenge but was instead the start of a renewal. As Pakatan does this, its purges and policy changes will affect the fortunes of those who, over a half-century of operation, have grown deeply entrenched. How likely now are these forces to make trouble?

Part of the answer lies in the nature of the democratic transition that Malaysia is undergoing. Analysts will debate at length how to characterise this process. But for now, in its abrupt and mass-based dynamic, it can be treated as a case of bottom-up transition (where citizens overthrow an authoritarian regime to install democracy), even if conducted peacefully within the electoral parameters of a competitive authoritarian regime.

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In such conditions, while the once-dominant party remains stunned, the new government will grow tempted to drive swift and far-reaching reforms. Against this, the interests of the bourgeoisie and the military are ‘inviolable’ if stability is to be preserved, and hence restraint is needed. In ‘founding elections’ typically held at the end of a transition, the parties representing these the military and bourgeoisie must be ‘helped to do well’, lest the old elites regroup, reactivate their constituencies and through military force mount an ‘authoritarian backlash’.

In Malaysia, ‘founding elections’ coincided with the transition, yielding a process that some analysts are already depicting as a spontaneous ‘democratisation-by-election’. In this situation, there was hardly time on Pakatan’s part — let alone the political wisdom and will — to ponder any need to cushion the blow dealt to UMNO. Nor in the flush of victory did Pakatan contemplate restraint in its pursuit of reforms. Rather, as headlines blared that ‘heads will roll’, the new government moved to flush out UMNO’s allies.

To this end, the new Pakatan government targeted top officials in the Attorney-General’s Chamber and the courts, in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, in the civil service and diplomatic corps, and perhaps most signally, in the sinecures that encrust the boards and management of Malaysia’s hulking government-linked corporations. At the same time, the new government has struck at the mass level, at least in the civil service, by terminating thousands of contract workers who were deployed under UMNO’s old spoils system.

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UMNO’s Man from Pornogo

As UMNO endures rivalries and ruckuses in the wake of defeat, it may be regrouping. In recent internal elections, the party rejected the more reform-minded and tolerant leadership of Khairy Jamaluddin. It has instead installed a ‘right-wing’ president, Zahid Hamidi, recalling the old order with its high-level privileging and ethnoreligious prioritising.

In making full use of Malaysia’s expanded political space, UMNO is working in concert with the Islamic Party of Malaysia to stir the nativist grievances of dispossessed party elites and the anxieties of the wider Malay-Muslim community by criticising Pakatan’s new appointments. And at the same time, UMNO’s print media mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, is growing ever more shrill, insisting indignantly on Malay dominance while condemning what it casts as the Democratic Action Party’s ‘racist’ hold over Pakatan.

The resonance of these appeals among ordinary Malays is demonstrated by the vigorous emotive support that the fallen Najib now attracts. These supporters contribute to a legal defence fund on his behalf even as the shrink-wrapped fashion accessories and cash seized from his Kuala Lumpur properties are paraded publicly by police in order to discredit him.

This is bolstering Najib’s position. He has been welcomed back to UMNO’s delegation in the Parliament. He sits alongside Zahid in the opposition’s front rank, and on the parliamentary session’s first day he wore all black as he helped to orchestrate a walk-out. At this point, if not yet a violent authoritarian backlash, we are likely to see a groundswell of Malay-Muslim grievance to the point that Najib’s transgressions will be forgotten. Meanwhile, Najib’s expert legal team will run circles around the government’s newly instituted and untested prosecutors.

Malaysia’s new Pakatan government confronts an excruciating dilemma. To maintain support, it must rapidly undertake far-reaching reforms. But as Pakatan proceeds, old elites, with their prerogatives at risk, will reenergise nativist grievances that may cumulate in backlash. A cruel irony is unfolding. As Pakatan now checks the pace of reforms, UMNO leaders taunt it over broken campaign promises.

William Case is Professor and Head of the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

A Traumatized Malaysian Press Feels its Way


August 15, 2018

A Traumatized Malaysian Press Feels its Way

by Mariam Mokhtar

http://www.asiasentinel.com

Three months after the voters showed the door to the Barisan Nasional, the coalition composed of Malaysia’s ethnic political parties, the media the parties have owned for decades appear at sea, uncertain if they have been unshackled from the parties that own them, unsure of their new freedom, as is the new government.

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The papers include, among others, the English-language New Straits Times and the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia, owned by companies affiliated with the United Malays National Organization; and the English-language Star and the Chinese-language Nanyang Siang Pau owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association. The Malaysian Indian Congress also publishes local editions.

The attitudes of the mainstream editors and publishers are unknown and spokespersons ignored requests for interviews from Asia Sentinel.

“There have been no real changes except that the mainstream media have reverted to journalism 101, reporting and analyzing without prejudice,” said Jahabar Sadiq, the editor of the independent online Malaysian Insight. “There isn’t much pressure on any media by any side of the political divide.  It’s still early days for this government and the opposition is trying to find its feet.”

Reporters at press conferences seldom ask challenging or tough questions, as was true in the past. The mainstream press has largely turned to praising the policies and actions of the Pakatan Harapan government, as Sadiq noted, without a serious examination of the issues, of which there are plenty.

After decades of circumspection out of fear of dismissal and worse, journalists are reluctant to criticize issues which  dominate social media such as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s proposal for a new national car project, his dominance of Khazanah Nasional, the investment arm of the government, the repressive religious actions of the Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (JAKIM).and government-linked companies (GLCs), most of which have been run by cronies of the previous government and which for years have lived off fat government contracts.

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Malaysia’s Cartoonist, Zunar

In the run up to the May 9 general election, the mainstream media, on instruction from the Barisan and its leading party the United Malays National Organization would attack Mahathir, its fiercest critic. Now, they have switched their attack to former Prime Minister Najib, who faces corruption charges over 1MDB and other issues. In fact, Sadiq said, there are moves to take over the establishment media and bend it to favor the new government, as if the new government hasn’t quite got the idea of a free press right.

“Obviously we were heartened by the new government’s move to lift the travel ban and drop the pending sedition charges against cartoonist Zunar,” said Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “And we were also encouraged by the government’s stated commitment to scrap Najib’s bogus ‘fake news’ law.”

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Malaysiakini’s Duo, Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan

But, Crispin said, “until Mahathir’s administration follows through with that commitment and moves to scrap various other laws on the books used to intimidate and harass the press,  journalists will still be at risk. It should also drop the various charges pending against journalists, including those filed by the previous government against Malaysiakini.”

Mahathir’s government “promised a democratic revolution upon its election – there would be no more meaningful way to make good on that vow than by freeing the press,” he continued.

Some 35 laws remain on Malaysia’s books that restrict freedom of the press.  One of them is the infamous sedition statute, which was used against a long string of academics, journalists, opposition politicians and others.

 

And shockingly it was used again in July, two months after the long-suppressed opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power, against Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, a lawyer with the Center to Combat Corruption and Colonialism, who questioned the power of the country’s nine sultans in a democracy. Fadiah was questioned by  the Police on July 10 for an hour. She claimed the right to remain silent and the case is hanging fire.  But the incident raises serious questions over the commitment of the new coalition to the right to free expression.

The alternative media, including the major online news portals, Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insight, continue to play their role as the conscience of the nation and try to present a balanced view to the public.

The Pakatan Harapan administration may have promised more press freedom, but unless reporters have more integrity and rise to the challenge of scrutinizing the new coalition\ by asking tough questions of its ministers, and their policies, little will change. They are easily fobbed off with remarks like “It’s Mahathir’s prerogative” to do as he pleases.

The election promise by the new government of increased press freedom has ostensibly been welcomed. At July’s Malaysian Press Night 2018 for the 2017 Malaysian Press Institute (MPI)-Petronas Journalism Awards, Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, urged the press to play a critical role in the nation’s political transition towards a mature democratic country.

Claiming that his government was more open and willing to embrace press freedom, he said: “Journalists do not have to worry about receiving calls from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) or other ministers. In fact, it is okay to hold more debates. Hopefully, no editor will be summoned anymore just because some pictures are ‘not interesting enough’.

Few would disagree, but some believe that there has been little change. Some 35 laws remain on Malaysia’s books that could potentially limit press freedom.

Prior to the election, political appointees enjoyed prominent positions on mainstream editorial boards and few politicians felt any fear, even during press conferences, of serious exposes. Editorial boards still control what the public reads.

To the casual observer, the mainstream media has always been full of praise for the ruling party, but fiercely critical of the opposition. With new editorial guidelines under the new government, many hoped that things would change.

The people who doubt the critical role of the free, self-regulating press to expose acts of corruption, deaths in custody and illegal practices need to remind themselves that many of these horrors would never have been in the public domain, but for the few people who were prepared to write about them, publish the reports in the papers and demand that action be taken to help society’s most marginalized people.

In the past, the institutions and the key people involved would close ranks, silence criticism and turn a blind eye to public concerns. Those who made the reports and who dared to give a voice to victims, were threatened and charged with various trumped-up offences, to silence them. In some cases, they were killed to stop action being taken.

De Tocqueville and the French exception


August 14, 2018

Liberal thinkers

De Tocqueville and the French exception

The gloomiest of the great liberals worried that democracy might not be compatible with liberty

 Print edition | Schools brief

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HE IS the most unusual member of the liberal pantheon. Liberalism has usually been at its most vigorous among the Anglo-American middle classes. By contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville was a proud member of the French aristocracy.

Liberalism tends to be marinated in optimism to such an extent that it sometimes shades into naivety. Tocqueville believed that liberal optimism needs to be served with a side-order of pessimism. Far from being automatic, progress depends on wise government and sensible policy.

He also ranks among the greats. He wrote classic studies of two engines of the emerging liberal order: “Democracy in America” (1835-40) and “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He also helped shape French liberalism, both as a political activist and as a thinker. He was a leading participant in the “Great Debate” of the 1820s between liberals and ultra-Royalists about the future direction of France.

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In 1849 he served briefly as foreign minister (he died a decade later). He broadened the liberal tradition by subjecting the bland pieties of the Anglo-American middle class to a certain aristocratic disdain; and he deepened it by pointing to the growing dangers of bureaucratic centralisation. Better than any other liberal, Tocqueville understood the importance of ensuring that the collective business of society is done as much as possible by the people themselves, through voluntary effort, rather than by the government.

Tocqueville’s liberalism was driven by two forces. The first was his fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual. The purpose of politics was to protect people’s rights (particularly the right to free discussion) and to give them scope to develop their abilities to the full. The second was his unshakable belief that the future lay with “democracy”. By that he meant more than just parliamentary democracy with its principle of elections and wide suffrage. He meant a society based on equality.

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The old regime was predicated on the belief that society was divided into fixed classes. Some people are born to rule and others to serve. Rulers like Tocqueville’s family in Normandy inherited responsibilities as well as privileges. They were morally bound to look after “their people” and serve “their country”. Democratic society was based on the idea that all people were born equal. They came into the world as individuals rather than as aristocrats or peasants. Their greatest responsibility was to make the most of their abilities.

Terror and the state

Many members of Tocqueville’s class thought that democratisation was both an accident and a mistake—an accident because cleverer management of the old regime could have prevented the revolution in 1789, and a mistake because democracy destroyed everything they held most dear. Tocqueville thought that was nonsense—and pitied his fellow blue-bloods who wasted their lives in a doomed attempt to restore aristocratic privilege.

The great question at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought is the relationship between liberty and democracy. Tocqueville was certain that it was impossible to have liberty without democracy, but he worried that it was possible to have democracy without liberty. For example, democracy might transfer power from the old aristocracy to an all-powerful central state, thereby reducing individuals to helpless, isolated atoms. Or it might make a mockery of free discussion by manipulating everybody into bowing down before conventional wisdom.

Sir Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, points out that Tocqueville’s contribution was to identify a structural flaw in democratic societies. Liberals are so preoccupied by the “contract” between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other that they don’t make enough room for intermediate associations which acted as schools of local politics and buffers between the individual and the state. And, he was the first serious thinker to warn that liberalism could destroy itself.

Tocqueville worried that states might use the principle of equality to accumulate power and ride roughshod over local traditions and local communities. Such centralisation might have all sorts of malign consequences. It might reduce the variety of institutions by obliging them to follow a central script. It might reduce individuals to a position of defencelessness before the mighty state, either by forcing them to obey the state’s edicts or making them dependent on the state’s largesse. And it might kill off traditions of self-government. Thus one liberal principle—equal treatment—might end up destroying three rival principles: self-government, pluralism and freedom from coercion.

Tocqueville feared his own country might fall into the grip of just such an illiberal democracy, as it had in the Terror, under Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. The French revolutionaries had been so blinded by their commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity that they crushed dissenters and slaughtered aristocrats, including many members of Tocqueville’s family. His parents were spared, but his father’s hair turned white at 24 and his mother was reduced to a nervous wreck.

He was worried about more than just the bloodshed, which proved to be a passing frenzy. The power of the state also posed a more subtle threat. The monarchy had nurtured an over-mighty state, as French kings sucked power from aristocrats towards the central government. The revolution completed the job, abolishing local autonomy along with aristocratic power and reducing individual citizens to equal servitude beneath the “immense tutelary power” of the state.

By contrast, the United States represented democracy at its finest. Tocqueville’s ostensible reason for crossing the Atlantic, in 1831, was to study the American penal system, then seen as one of the most enlightened in the world. His real wish was to understand how America had combined democracy with liberty so successfully. He was impressed by the New England townships, with their robust local governments, but he was equally taken by the raw egalitarianism of the frontier.

Why did the children of the American revolution achieve what the children of the French revolution could not? The most obvious factor was the dispersal of power. The government in Washington was disciplined by checks and balances. Power was exercised at the lowest possible level—not just the states but also cities, townships and voluntary organisations that flourished in America even as they declined in France.

The second factor was what he called “manners”. Like most French liberals, Tocqueville was an Anglophile. He thought that America had inherited many of Britain’s best traditions, such as common law and a ruling class that was committed to running local institutions.

Of liberty and religion

America also had the invaluable advantage of freedom of religion. Tocqueville believed that a liberal society depended ultimately on Christian morality. Alone among the world’s religions, Christianity preached the equality of man and the infinite worth of the individual. But the ancien régime had robbed Christianity of its true spirit by turning it into an adjunct of the state. America’s decision to make religion a matter of free conscience created a vital alliance between the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty”. America was a society that “goes along by itself”, as Tocqueville put it, not just because it dispersed power but because it produced self-confident, energetic citizens, capable of organising themselves rather than looking to the government to solve their problems.

Sleeping on a volcano

He was not blind to the faults of American democracy. He puzzled over the fact that the world’s most liberal society practised slavery, though, like most liberals, he comforted himself with the thought that it was sure to wither. He worried about the cult of the common man. Americans were so appalled by the idea that one person’s opinion might be better than another’s that they embraced dolts and persecuted gifted heretics. He worried that individualism might shade into egotism. Shorn of bonds with wider society, Americans risked being confined within the solitude of their own hearts. The combination of egalitarianism and individualism might do for Americans what centralisation had done for France—dissolve their defences against governmental power and reduce them to sheep, content to be fed and watered by benevolent bureaucrats.

Tocqueville exercised a powerful influence on those who shared his fears. In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill thanked Tocqueville for sharpening his insight that government by the majority might hinder idiosyncratic intellectuals from influencing the debate. In 1867 Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal politician, argued for mass education on the Tocquevillian grounds that “we must educate our masters”. Other Liberal politicians argued against extending the franchise on the grounds that liberty could not survive a surfeit of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s American intellectuals seized on Tocqueville’s insight that mass society might weaken liberty by narrowing society’s choices.

More recently intellectuals have worried about the rapid growth of the federal government, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme. Transferring power from local to the federal government; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats to pursue abstract goods such as “equality of representation” (even if it means riding roughshod over local institutions); and undermining the vitality of civil society tends, they fear, to destroy the building blocks of Tocqueville’s America. A recent conference, organised by the Tocqueville Society and held in the family’s Normandy manor house, dwelt on the various ways in which democracy is under assault from within, by speech codes, and from without, by the rise of authoritarian populism, under the general heading of “demo-pessimism”.

It is worth adding that the threat to liberty today does not stem just from big government. It also comes from big companies, particularly tech firms that trade in information, and from the nexus between the two. Gargantuan tech companies enjoy market shares unknown since the Gilded Age. They are intertwined with the government through lobbying and the revolving door that has government officials working for them when they leave office. By providing so much information “free” they are throttling media outfits that invest in gathering the news that informs citizens. By using algorithms based on previous preferences they provide people with information that suits their prejudices—right-wing rage for the right and left-wing rage for the left.

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

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Before the revolution in France in 1848, Tocqueville warned that the continent was “sleeping on a volcano…A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” Today democracy in America has taken a dangerous turn. Populists are advancing in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Authoritarians are consolidating power. The most pessimistic of great liberal thinkers may not have been pessimistic enough.

Read more on classical liberal values and thinkers at  Economist.com/openfuture

This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “The French exception”