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Introduction: democratic despotism comes of age
An Introduction to “The New Statism and the Assault on Individual Liberty,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit.
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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.
Although we have lately seen a sudden upsurge in statist sentiment in this country and in Europe, it is important to understand that statism and the blandishments of socialism are not novelties but peren- nial temptations. Were they novelties they would be less dangerous. The late Irving Kristol, who died last year at 89, was exquisitely sensitive to the role of intellectuals in the metabolism of this debate, and I’d like to start by quoting from a speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute in 1973. “For two centuries,” Mr. Kristol noted,
the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas—until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society—the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions—are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will—perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably—twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape.
The ideas that are percolating down from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and Brussels these days are not new. That, indeed, is one of the depressing things about the new statism: it inspires a sense of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà-vu all over again.” We’ve been down this road before. We know where it leads. It is that forlorn byway that Friedrich von Hayek called the Road to Serfdom. Do we really have to travel down it again?
Perhaps the best anatomy of the sorts of statist initiatives we see popping up all around us these days was given nearly two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in his dissection of what he called “Democratic Despotism.” In a justly famous passage from Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes this “tutelary despotism” that “does not tyrannize” but rather infantilizes.
Democratic despotism, Tocqueville points out, is unlike despotisms of old. It pre- fers the carrot to the stick. The goal of the operation is the same—the achievement of conformity and the consolidation of power—but the means of choice is not terror but dependence. Accordingly, Tocqueville writes, democratic despotism is despotic at one remove. It does not, unless stymied, terrorize. Rather, it “hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
For decades, the United States has been drifting towards the shoals of that enslavement. With the ascension of our current President and his plans to inspan us all in his “spread-the-wealth-around” socialism, we are nearing the point of shipwreck. “The devilish genius of this form of tyranny,” as the commentator Michael Ledeen has pointed out, “is that it looks and even acts democratic. We still elect our representatives, and they still ask us for our support… . Freedom is smothered without touching the institutions of political democracy. We act out democratic skits while submitting to an oppressive central power that we ourselves have chosen.” The element of seduction that is so central to this sort of managerial despotism is one of the things that makes it so hard to resist. Its power, Tocquville noted,
is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
I mentioned Hayek a moment ago. In The Road to Serfdom (1943), Hayek reminds us that the upsurge of socialism in a society has an internal as well as an external aspect. Socialism is not only something that the state does to individuals. It is also something that individuals do to themselves when they decide that freedom is too expensive to fight for and that the consolations of dependency are worth the tax on individual liberty.
The really depressing thing about the renewed calls for increased government intervention, more onerous and insinuating regulation, and bailouts for all is what it portends for the future of freedom. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek quoted David Hume’s observation that “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” The biggest challenge we face now is not to our stock portfolios or 401K accounts (renamed “201K accounts” by one wag) but rather the psychological conditions for political liberty, among which a spirit of individual initiative, i.e., taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family, figures prominently.
As Hayek observed, “The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of a people.” It doesn’t happen all at once. You don’t, in a modern democracy, go to bed free on Friday and wake up in chains on Saturday. It takes, Hayek notes, “perhaps… one or two generations.” Where do you suppose we are in the process?
The crucial point, Hayek says, is that “the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives. This means, among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.”
If you ask where it all tends, what the change or alteration that socialism (what he also calls “extensive government control”) brings about in the character of a people, you need look no further than Hayek’s title: The Road to Serfdom.
Tocqueville’s and Hayek’s observations are so familiar that I hesitated to trot them out again. But as I listen to our leaders tell critics to “get out of the way” so they can enact ruinous energy legislation or appropriate a sixth of the U.S. economy under the banner of “health care reform,” I wonder whether the significance of their teaching is anywhere near as familiar as it should be.
In October 2008, shortly before the election, Barack Obama told a crowd of his followers that they were only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Question: Do we really want to “fundamentally transform” the United States of America? Of course, people say a lot of grandiose things on the campaign trail, and I suspect that many people regarded candidate Obama’s statement as hustings hyperbole. Since January 20, 2009, however, we have seen that he was in earnest about transforming the United States from a country devoted to democratic capitalism and individual liberty to a socialist regime in which egalitarian- ism, not individual freedom, provides the guiding principle.
One of President Obama’s primary tools to accomplish this goal is money—that ubiquitous but deeply mysterious power that is both one of the world’s greatest engines of liberty and, when frustrated, an awful tool of enslavement. In his book The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc observed, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.” This is an insight that democratic despots the world over understand and savor. They make up an anodyne name for the result of their delectation—a “tax code,” for example—but to the rest of us it is indistinguishable from an instrument for the redistribution of wealth.
When it comes to money, President Obama seems curiously divided in his mind. On the one hand, he is not averse to spending gobs and gobs of it—millions, billions, trillions. (A canny bumper sticker: “It’s a good thing Obama doesn’t know what comes after ‘trillion’.”) There’s always more, he seems to think, where that came from. It’s the spigot theory of economics: just turn the handle of government authority, and presto! the tax receipts, the fees, the garnishments, the sundry redistributed adjustments flow in like rain water after a storm.
As I say, money for the President is the great tool—the great weapon, even—of social reconstitution. There are piles and piles of it about, and all he needs to do to fulfill his campaign promise to “fundamentally transform the United States of America” is move some rather hefty piles from your squares on the gameboard over to the squares marked “nationalized health care,” “educational reform,” “fairness,” and the like.
On the other hand, President Obama is deeply suspicious of money. He seems to believe it carries a moral taint, especially when any significant amount of it finds its way into the hands of ordinary citizens. I don’t mean to suggest that he has any objection to money personally. Clearly, he thinks it is OK that his wife pads off for a photo op at a local soup kitchen in sneakers that cost $540. But in the larger sense—i.e., when he thinks about society as a whole—he deprecates wealth and the acquisitive instincts that make its accumulation possible. It seems to me, though, that there is a lot to be said for Anthony Trollope’s observation, which he puts into the mouth of Plantagenet Palliser, in his novel Can You Forgive Her? Responding to a character who announces that he lacks “mercenary tendencies,” Palliser observes that
There is no vulgar error so vulgar,—that is to say, common or erroneous, as that by which men have been taught to say that mercenary tendencies are bad. A desire for wealth is the source of all progress. Civilization comes from what men call greed. Let your mercenary tendencies be combined with honesty and they cannot take you astray.
I think Trollope is right. And I believe that abandoning the philosophy of mercenary tendencies, rightly understood (as Tocqueville might put it), is a prescription not only for impoverishment but also for immiseration and, ultimately, for the soft tyranny of democratic despotism.
I know that President Obama is not alone in dissenting from this philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, shared his suspicion of wealth, as did his heir Karl Marx and countless other would-be benefactors of mankind. But who, in the end, has actually benefitted mankind more, the capitalist with his wealth-producing “mercenary tendencies,” or the do-gooder who deprecates wealth (at least in others) for the sake of a “higher” good? Hint: we have here a road paved with good intentions: where do you suppose it leads? Was Lenin malevolent? He didn’t think so. He thought he was laboring on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Many Western intellectuals believed him. True, his policies—like socialist policies wherever they’re imposed—led to vast impoverishment, loss of freedom, and the growth of an unaccountable ruling nomenklatura. But he didn’t start off wanting to precipitate misery: he meant to bring about paradise on earth.
Like President Obama, Lenin wanted to “spread the wealth around.” And like the President, Lenin saw that to do that you need to go beyond the “merely formal” rights. If you were in earnest about effecting the sort of “redistributive change” that Obama, in an unguarded moment, spoke about, you needed to be bold, move swiftly, and not let yourself be impeded by such petty things as the rule of law. The “stimulus” package. The Chrysler bondholders. Cap-’n’-trade. Government-run health care. We’ve got a utopia to build here: get out of the way!
Last Spring, when the Obama administration took over General Motors and forced out G.M.’s chairman, Rick Waggoner, one commentator spoke of the “tectonic change in the relationship between business and government” this extraordinary intervention signalled. Time was, the role of government in a capitalist society was primarily to secure an environment in which private enterprise could thrive. Today, the role of government is increasingly to nationalize private enterprise, i.e., destroy it in the name of a “higher” good, what President Obama has called with Orwellian piquancy a “new era of responsibility” in which government bureaucrats tell you how to run your business, whom to employ, and how much to pay them.
A “tectonic change in the relationship between business and government”: remember that phrase. And note that a “tectonic,” that is, a fundamental, change between business and government is also a tectonic change between the individual and government. “What our generation has forgotten,” Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom, “is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.”
The tectonic change in the relationship between business and government, between the individual and government, signals more than the expansion of government control. It also signals the contraction of individual freedom in the name of what President Obama calls “fairness.” From the very beginning of his campaign, President Obama made it clear that economic “fairness” was his political lodestar. He made it clear, but did we really understand him? “Fairness”: that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Who can be against “fairness”?
But what if by “fairness” he meant not “impartial justice” but “equalized outcomes”? What if by “fairness” he meant “spreading the wealth around”? What then? “Who can doubt,” Hayek asked, “… that the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work?”
The chapter of The Road to Serfdom in which these words appear is called “Who, Whom?”—the question that, said Lenin, was the fundamental fulcrum of politics.
“Who, Whom?” Hitherto, the genius of the American system has been to short-circuit that question by distributing the power of the subject. Lenin’s “Who” is no longer a central and centralizing authority but a multiplicity of actors each with his native interests and prerogatives. Edmund Burke spoke of the importance to liberty of those “little platoons” that claim our daily allegiance. James Madison, in Federalist 51, made a similar point when he observed that “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” helped encourage the distribution of power and hence the growth of liberty.
The tectonic change contemplated by the Obama administration would have us disband those little platoons and assimilate ourselves to the swarming army of the state. Madison’s “opposite and rival interests,” for these collectivists, impede the progress of “fairness” and interrupt the process of equalizing wealth.
Earlier in The Federalist, Madison observed that there were “two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Madison thought it self-evident that both courses, being inimical to liberty, spelt disaster. He believed that the protection of that “diversity of faculties” which underwrote the diversity of property was the “first object of government.” Our current masters in Washington disagree. They seem willing to experiment with both of the expedients Madison warned against in order to achieve their egalitarian goals. Last March it was Rick Waggoner who had to go. Last September, we read that the government wishes to determine how much banks will be allowed to pay their employees. And tomorrow? Who can say? When a tectonic change takes place, things can happen awfully fast.
One of the most rebarbative features of the Obama administration’s effort to bring government-control to a life near you is its combination of the antiseptic rhetoric of utilitarian social science with old-fashion- ed central planning. Consider Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the brother of President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is a top White House advisor on health care reform. Dr. Emanuel has famously argued that doctors “take the Hippocratic Oath too seriously.” He wants to concentrate medical services not on those who need it most—the elderly, seriously impaired children, etc.—but on those who are likely to contribute to “the continuation of the polity,” “ensure healthy future generations,” and so on. Forget about “first do no harm.” “Services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens,” quoth Dr. Emanuel, “are not basic and should not be guaranteed.”
Got a loopy grandparent or a kid who is playing with half-a-deck? What can they contribute to “the continuation of the polity” or “healthy future generations”? The internet blogger Glenn Reynolds made the observation, amusing and scary in equal measure, that what we’re dealing with here bears an awful similarity to the troubled “cash for clunkers” program: “First Grandma’s Caprice then Grandma.”
One of the most depressing things about all these government expropriations is the fact that they operate like a one-way ratchet undermining freedom and extending the control of the state. Once the government sinks its teeth into you, it is extremely difficult to wiggle free. The income tax and social security tax, we tend to forget, were both instituted as temporary, emergency measures. That’s why 1895 is one of my favorite years in U.S. history: in that banner year the Supreme Court ruled that the income tax was unconstitutional. Needless to say, the ruling didn’t last long.
Ultimately, I suspect, President Obama is ostentatiously committed to what he calls “health care reform” (“reform”?) not for medical but for political reasons. By appropriately another sixth of the U.S. economy, he will not help Americans live longer or lead healthier lives. But he will greatly extend the government’s prerogatives over the details of your life.
Contemplating the Democrats’ almost fanatical push to enact health care legislation now, today (forget about actually reading the bill), I thought of Ronald Reagan’s warning about how socialists so often use health care as a wedge to extract not only money but also freedom, including freedom of choice, from the citizenry. “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people,” Reagan observed back in the 1970s, “has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project. Most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can’t afford it.”
My only quibble is with the word “disguise.” The effort to further socialism by means of a government takeover of health care is not something disguised as a humanitarian project. It is a humanitarian project in its purest left-wing form: a humanitarian project imposed on the unwilling “for their own good”—a “good,” naturally, that is defined by a government bureaucracy.
The name of that reluctance President Reagan identified is compassion. Compassion is a noble human emotion. But it can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians and twisted into self-flagellating feelings of guilt, on one side, and the self-regarding emotion of virtue, on the other.
And this brings me to another aspect of the President’s program. There is, he said, “a moral imperative to health care.” Is there? What he meant was that if you agree with his proposal, you are an upstanding citizen who deserves the warm, self-regarding glow of moral infatuation. If you disagree with him, however, you are a greedy, selfish, unenlightened person who needs … well, the President hasn’t gotten around to that part of the scenario yet, except to note that anyone who is solvent can expect higher taxes.
I doubt whether most of the people who turned up at townhall meetings last summer to express their dismay about the President’s plans to revolutionize American health care had Tocqueville or Hayek in mind. But the people that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs disparagingly referred to as the “Brooks Brothers Brigade” sense that a lot is at stake in the controversy over the future of health care. It’s not just a question of what doctors you can see when, or even what sort of doctors will be available to be seen in a government-run health care system. No, it’s a question of what Reagan called “imposing statism” in the name of pursuing a humanitarian project.
More and more people are waking up to the fact that statism is what lurks behind (and not very far behind) the Democratic plans for health care. They sense it, and they don’t like it. This, I think, provides a glimmer of hope, a silver lining, if you will, to the specter of statism that is haunting us. The essays that follow conjure with various manifestations of the specter and go far in restoring a healthy modicum of gloom by explaining why we would be ill advised to put too much faith in the hope those dissenting voices inspire.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 January 2010, on page 4
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