204 Democracy’s Despotic Drift

Seven centuries before Christ, Lycurgus, the legendary architect of Sparta’s constitution, was allegedly asked why he hadn’t designed a democracy.  To him the answer was self-evident:  “Try the experiment in your own family.”  Sharing Lycurgus’ distrust, neither Plato nor Aristotle found much commendable in democratic regimes.  Nor did Thomas Aquinas 1500 years later, noting, with his usual acuity:  “If an unjust government is carried on by one man alone, who seeks his own benefit from his rule and not the good of the multitude subject to him, such a ruler is called a tyrant—a word derived from strength—because he oppresses by might instead of ruling by justice.  Thus among the ancients all powerful men were called tyrants.  If an unjust government is carried on, not by one by several, and if they be few, it is called an oligarchy, that is, the rule of a few.  This occurs when a few, who differ from the tyrant only by the fact that they care more than one, oppress the people by means of their wealth.  If, finally, the bad government is carried on by the multitude, it is called a democracy, i.e. control by the populace, which comes about when the plebian people by force of numbers oppress the rich.  In this way the whole people will be as one tyrant” (On Kingship, I, 1).  

That ancient, and venerable, critique of majority rule is reaffirmed in Paul A. Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift:  Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville & The Modern Prospect (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 2009), a meticulous investigation of modern democracy’s intellectual development and ominous implications.  Its positive case was best argued by Montesquieu early in the 18th century   He “rivals Aristotle as an analyst of political regimes” (p. 13), and his Spirit of the Laws quickly became “the political Bible of learned men and would-be statesmen everywhere in Europe, and beyond.  In Britain, it shaped the thinking of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, William Blackstone, Adam Smith . . . and in America, it inspired the Framers of the Constitution and their opponents, the anti-Federalists, as well” (p. 64).  His countryman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was also indebted to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, though he repudiated many of the Enlightenment principles embodied therein.  Rejecting Montesquieu’s call for a representative republic—much like the federal system established by the United States Constitution, with its balanced (legislative, executive, judicial) powers and moderate policies—Rousseau envisioned a utopian society incubated by an autocratic, mystical “general will.”  Thus he celebrated ancient Sparta and republican Rome, claiming that those ancient polities provided guidance for the modern democracies he envisioned.  (In fact, he used arbitrary portraits of the past as a club with which to destroy the 18th century monarchies he despised.) 

As a gifted propagandist, Rousseau “laid hold of the inchoate uneasiness afflicting his contemporaries and gave it both substance and form.  In doing so, he fomented the revolutionary and nationalist impulses and the democratic envy that he so frequently professed to abhor; and by insisting that men are naturally good and that all of the wickedness they display and all of the misery they suffer can be traced to the political institutions under which they live, he fostered within what was in origin a secular impulse an almost messianic hope, and he inspired in many a reader a profound longing to establish new institutions capable of transforming the human condition and of reworking thereby the very nature of man” (p. 139).  In Rahe’s judgment:  “Every radical movement of both left and right, from Jacobism at the time of the French Revolution through communism and fascism in the twentieth century to the anti-globalization movement, the environmental movement, and the Islamist jihad characteristic of our time, has wittingly or unwittingly taken as its starting point one or another variation of the powerful critique of bourgeois society first suggested” by Rousseau (p. 139).  

Rejecting Rousseau while embracing Montesquieu, the third great French thinker Rahe examines—Alexis de Tocqueville—discerned enduring truths regarding both European and American democracies worth pondering.  His Democracy in America pivots around Montesquieu’s “haunting observation that if you ‘abolish in a monarchy the prerogatives of the lords, the clergy, the nobility, & the towns,’ as England’s parliament had done, ‘you will soon have a state popular—or, indeed, a state despotic’” (p. 161).  In the name of “the people,” enabled and applauded by “the people,” you can subtly enslave the people, and they are especially subject to a dictatorial “public opinion” that easily becomes the final arbitrator of all democratic decisions.  Consequently, to Tocqueville, “soft despotism really is democracy’s drift” (p. 193).  This is especially facilitated by what seems an inevitable centralization of power, establishing a “tutelary state”—a “despotism of Administrators” that inexorably expands.    

Ironically, even the most “compassionate” administrative endeavors subtly corrupt the body politic.  “‘Every measure,’ Tocqueville insisted, ‘which establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives to it an administrative form creates thereby a class unproductive and idle, living at the expense of the class which is industrious and given to work. . . .  Such a law is a poisonous germ, deposited in the bosom of the legal code, . . . and if the current generation escapes its influence, it will devour the well-being of generations to come’” (p. 242).  This becomes clear as Rahe investigates the impact made by eminent American progressives—ranging from the economist Richard Ely to Justice Roscoe Pound to the philosopher John Dewey—who designed “a new political regime, distinct from and, in certain critical respects, opposed to the one that had gradually taken shape in the period stretching from 1776 to 1789” (p. 245).  

Ever intent on helping the helpless, American progressives established the New Deal and Great Society—utopian endeavors Tocqueville had warned against while analyzing the “French disease” a century earlier.  What he “discerned in embryo long ago is now a matter of brute fact” in both France and the United States.  “Over the people of France today, as he feared would someday be the case, there ‘is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate,’ and it threatens to reduce this astonishingly talented nation ‘to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd’” (p. 237).  Following France’s lead (with a suitable time lag) and manipulating the “rhetoric of rights” to centralize state power, American progressives advanced “‘the idea that the State ought not to be the director of the society only, but that it ought to be, so to speak, the master of every man—what do I say?—his master, his preceptor, his pedagogue; for fear of allowing him to fail, the State should situate itself unceasingly beside him, above him, around him to guide him, protect him, restrain him, sustain him.’  In a word, he said, this idea demands ‘confiscation’—not just of property, but ‘to a greater or lesser degree the confiscation of human liberty’ as well.  Socialism was, in his opinion, ‘a new formula for servitude,’ and in the battle against it, he was not prepared to give an inch” (p. 262).  

Tocqueville’s warning has gone largely unheeded in America, Rahe.  During “the past seventy-five years,” Rahe says, “as our government has conferred on its citizens the extensive array of programmatic rights now called ‘entitlements, there has been a steady erosion of our political and our private rights” (p. 262).  To equalize outcomes in the name of “fairness,” we Americans “have forgotten what James Madison so clearly understood—that it is from ‘the diversity in the faculties of men’ that ‘the rights of property originate,’ and that ‘the protection of these faculties is the first object of Government’—and with the growth in what are euphemistically called ‘transfer payments,’ our democracy has step by step become a giant kleptocracy” (p. 263).  Compounding the expansion of entitlements is “the erosion of mores, manners, and religion” that Rahe documents, for in those areas, “as well as in our political institutions and practices, we are more like Tocqueville’s compatriots than like Americans of his day.  And the fears that he expressed with regard to the French now apply with considerable force to us as well, for we have forgotten that human life is sacred, that it is unjust to take from one to give to another, that libertinism is fatal to liberty, and that strong, stable families and personal self-discipline are prerequisites for sustaining a government limited with regard to the ends it may pursue and the means it may employ” (p. 269).  Consequently we are poorly poised to “resist liberal democracy’s despotic drift,” as was evident in the 2008 election, when we elected a president and Congress “intent on dramatically increasing the scale and scope of the administrative state” (p. 269).  Sadly enough, “Step by step, gradually, and to a considerable degree unwittingly, we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage” (p. 274).  

This is an unabashedly scholarly work, primarily devoted to an explication of the works of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville.  Rahe’s research was done in the best French editions available, and much that he discusses is quite technical and demanding.  So though I highly commend this treatise I must note that it is quite unapproachable to the general reader.  The intellectual case he builds, however, and the applications he makes to the current American scene are highly significant for all who treasure liberty.   

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To address the same concerns from a legal perspective, James Kalb has written The Tyranny of Liberalism:  Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (Wilmington:  Intercollegiate Studies Institute, c. 2008).  Like Rahe, he is alarmed by recent developments in the United States, and he writes to arouse readers to critique and resist the emergent tyranny everywhere evident.  For it’s clear, he argues, that “advanced liberal society is reproducing the error of socialism—the attempt to administer and radically alter things that are too complex to be known, grasped, and controlled—but on a far grander scale.  The socialists tried to simplify and rationalize economics, while today’s liberals are trying to do the same with human relations generally” (p. 12).  

To argue his case, he first describes the “decline and fall” of American liberty that has accompanied the triumph of liberalism.  In one of the amazing inversions of history, what began (with John Locke and later espoused by the likes of Thomas Jefferson) as a movement devoted to individual freedom, “liberalism” in the 20th century transformed itself into a movement of societal control.  “In trying to secure and expand freedom, equality, and tolerance, liberal society becomes unfree, unequal, and intolerant” (p. 83).  Liberals still declare their allegiance to “freedom, reason, and the well-being of ordinary people” (p. 3), but have in fact established a “liberal tyranny” ever justified by a deep commitment to “a very simple principle:  equal freedom” (p. 14).  Not only is everyone equal (as Christians have ever asserted) as persons in the sight of God, but modern liberals insist everyone must be considered essentially the same.  Thus, for example, women and men, to liberals, are different in only trivial ways and must be treated identically.   Nothing is intrinsically superior to anything else.  Even in the realms of ideas and values there must no hierarchies.  “Standards must go.  Advanced liberal society insists on equal status for pop culture and the classics, abolishes school dress codes, instructs children in alternative sexualities, and puts Christmas and Kwanzaa on the same footing” (p. 99).  

Most significantly, “The ultimate basis of liberalism is rejection of moral authorities that transcend human purposes” (p. 20).  With the ancient sophist Protagoras, liberalism insists that “man is the measure of all things.”  Whereas classic liberals, in the 18th century, believed in natural rights—life, liberty, property—given us by the Creator, modern liberals locate all rights in human nature and cultural conventions.  Deeply dyed with Darwinism, modern liberalism assumes human nature and cultures continually evolve, so moral relativism shapes its ethics.  All is changeable and all should be changed.  (That the archetypical liberal, Barak Obama, was elected on a platform of “change” clearly illustrates this position.)  Accordingly, whatever technological developments enable us to control and transform the world are supported, for (as pragmatists like John Dewey stressed) whatever succeeds is true and good.  Whatever pleases us must be done.  “If it feels good do it!”   “Modern science, which is oriented toward control of the natural world, and modern politics and morals, which are also oriented toward getting us what we want, go together” (p. 35).  Importantly, Kalb insists:  “Totalitarianism is a consequence of the modern abolition of the transcendent and the edification of human will” (p. 128).  

Liberalism now rules virtually all our cultural institutions. “It is an enormous and all-pervasive system of power dedicated to the control and transformation of human life backed by a huge public sector; lower- and middle-class recipients of public assistance; accredited minority groups and their representatives; corporate recipients of various favors; and media, journalistic, and expert functionaries who draw their importance from the power of the regime they defend and promote” (p. 75).  This system survives through the “centralization of intellectual life that makes molders of opinion—experts, educators, media people, entertainers—integral to government.  The saying that such people constitute a ‘Fourth Estate’ should be taken literally.  This power over opinion puts them among our rulers, and it brings with it disciplines and incentives that promote cohesion and help make their rule effective” (p. 78).  Strangely enough, “control of thought and expression follows from the basic dynamic of liberalism” (p. 91).  Thus speech codes proliferate in the strongest bastions of liberalism, university campuses!  

For its devotees, liberalism has become a “new religion, a system of moral absolutes based on a denial that moral truth is knowable, [that] consists in nothing less than the deification of man.”  Liberal faith “puts our own thoughts and desires at the center of things, and so puts man in the place of God.  If you say we cannot know anything about God, only our own experience, you will soon say that there is no God, at least for practical purposes, and that we are the ones who give order and meaning to the world.  In short, you will say that we are God” (p. 94).   As religious dogma, of course, liberalism proves belligerently hostile to all rivals, and its inquisitors (e.g. the ACLU) endeavor to cleanse the world of all rivals.  No crosses are allowed in public, nor is any theory of origins, apart from naturalistic evolution, permitted consideration in public schools.  In Kalb’s judgment, “we are in the midst of a world struggle between two quasi-totalitarian religious movements:  radical Islam and advanced liberalism” (p. 97).  

Having detailed his objections to modern liberalism, Kalb turns, in the second section of his book, to making suggestions regarding ways to defeat it.  Only a principled conservatism has a chance of rightly reorienting this nation.  Firstly, conservatives must regain the high ground of sound reason, for “the fatal flaw of liberalism is its defective view of reason and the good” (p. 189).  Its emotivism renders it incapable of rational defense.  Secondly, conservatives need to rightly defend tradition as a source of truth and wisdom.  The good life, whether in families or communities, depends upon established routines that have proven to promote the well-being of persons.  Thirdly, conservatives must be unabashed about their faith, their religious commitments, their discovery of truth and goodness and beauty in transcendent Reality.  Sadly enough, “The recent decisive rejection of Christianity in much of Western society, and with it the rejection of a principle of transcendent public truth tied to some distinct representative, has been accompanied by irrationalism, a radical decline of nontechnological culture, and the attempt to reduce politics and public life to purely technical functions, thereby abolishing them in theory while making them tyrannical in practice” (p. 249).  

Though the odds against overthrowing modern liberalism may seem monumental, Kalb assures readers that thousands of small steps—reasserting order amidst anarchy, upholding values amidst nihilism, and patiently working to make strong families, churches, and communities—may in time restore the American way.  

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In one of his essays C.S. Lewis declared:  “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.   It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”  These words rather sum up the case drafted by Mark R. Levine in Liberty and Tyranny:  A Conservative Manifesto (New York:  Simon & Schuster Threshold Editions, c. 2009).  And though the intellectual case he makes is less persuasive than that of Rahe and Kalb, it is more simply presented and thus accessible to the general reader.  

Liberty, Levine believes, was the guiding principle of America’s 18th century Founders, who insisted it could be preserved only through carefully limited governmental powers, enunciated in the nation’s Constitution.  Consequently, he defends:  1)  the federalism decreed by the 10th Amendment (“the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”), and 2) the free market, with its commitment to the sanctity of private property, “the material value created from the intellectual and/or physical labor of the individual, which may take the form of income, real property, or intellectual property” (p. 62).  

Both federalism and private property have been discounted for nearly a century by courts and congressmen.  Thus Levine decries the rapidly growing power of those (dubbed “Statists”) who seek to centralize power and manage not only the economy but all of life for the “good” of the people.  Statists such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter established the ubiquitous welfare state, promoted dubious environmental causes, and championed unlimited, illegal immigration—all designed to establish an administrative state, run by experts determined to reconfigure the polity of this nation.   In sum:  “So distant is America today from its founding principles that it is difficult to precisely describe the nature of American government.  It is not a strictly a constitutional republic, because the Constitution has been and continues to be easily altered by a judicial oligarchy that mostly enforces, if not expands, the Statist’s agenda.  It is not strictly a representative republic, because so many edicts are produced by a maze of administrative departments that are unknown to the public and detached from its sentiment.  It is not strictly a federal republic, because the states that gave the central government life now live at its behest.  What, then, is it?  It is a society steadily transitioning toward statism” (p. 192).  Inexorably, this leads to the loss of liberty and the establishment of tyranny.

What then should be done?  Nothing less that President Ronald Reagan prescribed when he said:  “‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.  We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.  It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free’” (p. 205).  

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