Driving north out of New York the other day, I heard a caller to Mark Levin’s show discuss his excellent book Liberty and Tyranny. The word she kept using was “inevitable”: The republic felt exhausted, and there was an “inevitability” to what was happening. A quarter-millennium of liberty seemed to be about the best you could expect, and its waning was—again—“inevitable.” As she spoke, the rich farmland of Columbia County rolled past my window. To many of its residents, the caller would have sounded slightly kooky. Were any of the county’s first families suddenly to rematerialize from their centuries of slumber, they would recognize the general landscape, the settlements, the principal roads, and indeed many of the weathered farmhouses. And they would be struck by the comfort and prosperity of their successors in this land. So what’s all this talk about decay and decline?
Ah, but I wonder if those early settlers would recognize the people, and their assumptions about the role of government. Mr. Levin’s listener was trying to articulate something profound but elusive. It’s not something you can sell the film rights for —there are no aliens vaporizing the White House, as in Independence Day; no Godzilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue and hurling the Empire State Building into the East River. No bangs, just the whimper of the same old same old civilizational ennui, as it gradually dawns that Admiral Yamamoto’s sleeping giant may be merely a supersized version of Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Paul A. Rahe’s new book on the subject is called Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, which nicely captures how soothing and beguiling the process is. Today, the animating principles of the American idea are entirely absent from public discourse. To the new Administration, American exceptionalism means an exceptional effort to harness an exceptionally big government in the cause of exceptionally massive spending. The can-do spirit means Ty’Sheoma Bethea can do with some government money: A high-school student in Dillon, South Carolina, Miss Bethea wrote to the President to ask him to do something about the peeling paint in her classroom. He read the letter out approvingly in a televised address to Congress. Imagine if Miss Bethea gets her way, and the national bureaucracy in Washington becomes responsible for grade-school paint jobs from Maine to Hawaii. What size of government would be required for such a project? And is it compatible with a constitutional republic?
Professor Rahe knows the answer to that. The first three-quarters of his book are about Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, which is to say they’re really about us. Montesquieu’s prediction that “in Europe the last sigh of liberty will be heaved by an Englishman” seemed self-evident after the totalitarian enthusiasms of the Continent in the twentieth century. Today? The last sigh will be heaved by England’s progeny, in the United States, or perhaps, given the galloping ambition of twenty-first-century American statism, in Australia. Is “the last sigh of liberty” inevitable? A progressivist would scoff at the utter codswallop of such a fancy. Why, modern man would not tolerate for a moment the encroachments his forebears took for granted! And so in the face of the careless assumption that social progress is like the internal combustion engine—once invented, it can never be uninvented—it is left to a trio of dead French blokes to anticipate the long-term temptations of a republic none had ever lived in, and which at that point was technologically all but impossible.
The professor opens his study with a famous passage from M. de Tocqueville. Or, rather, it would be famous were he still widely read. For he knows us far better than we know him: “I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world,” he wrote the best part of two centuries ago. He and his family had been on the sharp end of France’s violent convulsions, but he considered that, to a democratic republic, there were slyer seductions:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.
He didn’t foresee “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol” but, details aside, that’s pretty much on the money. He continues:
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…
The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Welcome to the twenty-first century.
“It does not tyrannize, it gets in the way.” The all-pervasive micro-regulatory state “enervates,” but nicely, gradually, so after a while you don’t even notice. And in exchange for liberty it offers security: the “right” to health care; the “right” to housing; the “right” to a job—although who needs that once you’ve got all the others? The proposed European Constitution extends the laundry list: the constitutional right to clean water and environmental protection. Every right you could ever want, except the right to be free from undue intrusions by the state. M. Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president and chairman of the European constitutional convention, told me at the time that he had bought a copy of the U.S. Constitution at a bookstore in Washington and carried it around with him in his pocket. Try doing that with his Euro-constitution, and you’ll be walking with a limp after ten minutes and calling for a sedan chair after twenty: As Professor Rahe notes, it’s 450 pages long. And, when your “constitution” is that big, imagine how swollen the attendant bureaucracy and regulation is. The author points out that, in France, “80 per cent of the legislation passed by the National Assembly in Paris originates in Brussels”—that is, at the European Union’s civil service. Who drafts it? Who approves it? Who do you call to complain? Who do you run against and in what election? And where do you go to escape it? Not to the next town, not to the next county, not to the next country.
In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), “the celebrated Montesquieu” (as both Madison and Hamilton called him) concluded that England had developed, in Professor Rahe’s summation, “a new form of government more conducive to liberty and graced with greater staying power than any polity theretofore even imagined.” The key words here, and the theme of Professor Rahe’s book, are “staying power.” Anyone can start a republic. The challenge that remains was posed by Ben Franklin: Can you “keep it”?
Examining England’s “crowned republic” in the wake of Montesquieu and Rousseau, Tocqueville wrote that, from the seventeenth century on, you could find “the classes mixed up with one another … wealth become power, equality before the law, equality in taxation, freedom of the press, public debate—all new principles that the society of the Middle Ages did not know. But these are precisely the new things which, introduced little by little and with art into the old body, reanimated it without risking its dissolution.” Monarchies do not always evolve, and republics seek to put their theoretical perfection into practice too instantly. If you abolish, wrote Montesquieu, “the prerogatives of the lords, the clergy, the nobility & the towns,” you’re on a fast track to “a state popular—or, indeed, a state despotic.”
Thus, Tocqueville’s great insight—that what prevents the “state popular” from declining into a “state despotic” is the strength of the intermediary institutions between the sovereign and the individual. The French revolution abolished everything and subordinated all institutions to the rule of central authority. The New World was more fortunate: “The principle and lifeblood of American liberty” was, according to Tocqueville, municipal independence. “With the state government, they had limited contact; with the national government, they had almost none,” writes Professor Rahe:
In New England, their world was the township; in the South, it was the county; and elsewhere it was one or the other or both… . Self-government was the liberty that they had fought the War of Independence to retain, and this was a liberty that in considerable measure Americans in the age of Andrew Jackson still enjoyed.
For Tocqueville, this is a critical distinction between America and the faux republics of his own continent. “It is in the township that the strengths of free peoples resides,” he wrote. “Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people.” In America, democracy is supposed to be a participatory sport not a spectator one: In Europe, every five years you put an X on a piece of paper and subsequently discover which of the party candidates on the list at central office has been delegated to represent you in fast-tracking all those E.U. micro-regulations through the rubber-stamp legislature. By contrast, American democracy is a game to be played, not watched: You go to Town Meeting, you denounce the School Board budget, you vote to close a road, you run for cemetery commissioner.
Does that distinction still hold? As Professor Rahe argues, in the twentieth century the intermediary institutions were belatedly hacked away—not just self-government at town, county, and state level, but other independent outposts: church, family, civic associations. Today, very little stands between the individual and the sovereign, which is why schoolgirls in Dillon, South Carolina think it entirely normal to beseech Good King Barack the Hopeychanger to do something about classroom maintenance.
I say “Good King Barack,” but truly that does an injustice to ye medieval tyrants of yore. As Tocqueville wrote: “There was a time in Europe in which the law, as well as the consent of the people, clothed kings with a power almost without limits. But almost never did it happen that they made use of it.” His Majesty was an absolute tyrant—in theory. But in practice he was in his palace hundreds of miles away. A pantalooned emissary might come prancing into your dooryard once every half-decade and give you a hard time, but for the most part you got on with your life relatively undisturbed. “The details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control,” wrote Tocqueville. But what would happen if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”?
That moment has now arrived. And administrative despotism turns out to be very popular: Why, we need more standardized rules, from coast to coast—and on to the next coast. After all, if Europe can harmonize every trivial imposition on the citizen, why can’t the world?
Would it even be possible to hold the American revolution today? The Boston Tea Party? Imagine if George III had been able to sit in his palace across the ocean, look at the security-camera footage, press a button, and freeze the bank accounts of everyone there. Oh, well, we won’t be needing another revolt, will we? But the consequence of funding the metastasization of government through the confiscation of the fruits of the citizen’s labor is the remorseless shriveling of liberty.
Is it, as Mark Levin’s caller said, “inevitable”? No, not quite. But it seems like the way to bet. When President Bush used to promote the notion of democracy in the Muslim world, there was a line he liked to fall back on: “Freedom is the desire of every human heart.” Are you quite sure? It’s doubtful whether that’s actually the case in Gaza and Waziristan, but we know for absolute certain that it’s not in Paris and Stockholm, London and Toronto, Buffalo and New Orleans. The story of the Western world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and government “security,” large numbers of people vote to dump freedom every time—the freedom to make their own decisions about health care, education, property rights, and eventually (as we already see in Europe, Canada, American campuses, and the disgusting U.N. Human Rights Council) what you’re permitted to say and think.
I’m often struck by how much of our language has become metaphorical: A few years ago, a Fleet Street colleague accidentally booked himself into a conference on “building bridges” assuming it would be some multiculti community outreach yakfest. It turned out to be a panel of engineers discussing bridge construction. Yet in an important sense the ability to build real bridges is indeed an attribute of community. A friend of mine is a New Hampshire “selectman,” one of those municipal offices Tocqueville found so admirable. In 2003, a state highway inspector rode through and condemned one of the town’s bridges, on a dirt road that serves maybe a dozen houses.
That’s the bad news. The good news was the 80/20 state/town funding plan, under which, if you applied to Concord for a new bridge, the state would pay 80 percent of the cost, the town 20. So they did. The state estimated the cost at $320,000, so the town’s share would be $64,000. Great. So the town threw up a temporary bridge just down river from the condemned one, and waited for the state to get going. Six years later, the temporary bridge has worn out, and the latest revised estimate is $655,000, such that the town’s share would be $131,000.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, under the “stimulus” bill, they can put in for the 60/40 federal/state bridge funding plan, under which the feds pay 60 percent, and the state pays 40, and thus the town would be on the hook for 20 percent of the 40 percent, if you follow. If they applied for the program now, the bridge might be built by, oh, 2015, 2020, and it’ll only be $1.2 million, or $4 million, or $12 million, or whatever the estimate’ll be by then.
But who knows? By 2015, there might be some 70/30 UN/federal bridge plan, under which the UN pays 70 percent, and the feds pay 30, and thus the town would only be liable for 20 percent of the state’s 40 percent of the feds’ 30 percent. And the estimate for the bridge will be a mere $2.7 billion.
While the Select Board was pondering this, another bridge was condemned. The state’s estimate was $415,000, and, given that the previous bridge had been on the to-do list for six years, they weren’t ready to pencil this second one in on the schedule just yet. So instead the town put in a new bridge from a local contractor. Cost: $30,000. Don’t worry; it’s all up to code—and a lot safer than the worn-out temporary bridge still waiting for the 80/20/60/40/70/30 deal to kick in. As my friend said at the meet- ing: “Screw the state. Let’s do it ourselves.”
“Screw the state” is not a Tocquevillian formulation, but he would have certainly agreed with the latter sentiment. When something goes wrong, a European demands to know what the government’s going to do about it. An American does it himself. Or he used to—in the Jacksonian America a farsighted Frenchman understood so well. “Human dignity,” writes Professor Rahe, “is bound up with taking responsibility for conducting one’s own affairs.” When the state annexes that responsibility, the citizenry are indeed mere sheep to the government shepherd. Paul Rahe concludes his brisk and trenchant examination of republican “staying power” with specific proposals to reclaim state and local power from Washington, and with a choice: “We can be what once we were, or we can settle for a gradual, gentle descent into servitude.” I wish I were more sanguine about how that vote would go.
- Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, by Paul A. Rahe; Yale University Press, 400 pages, $38. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 10, on page 4
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