War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain,
Technology, Uneasiness of Mind,
the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the
Foundations of the Modern Republic
by Paul Rahe
Yale University Press, 2010, 400 pp., $30
Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Project
by Paul Rahe
Yale University Press, 2010, 400 pp., $25
Wise men agree that most people sleepwalk their way through life. We get to be so familiar with our customs and circumstances that we hardly notice the tiny social changes that turn over time into large transformations. The years pass, the hair goes grey, and only then do we wake up to the fact that we are living in a strange world, dominated by the young. It happens in every generation. It is part of being modern. But does it matter? Mostly, it doesn’t. Life goes on as before, unless something horrible happens, as it did, for example, to Europeans before World War II. They found they had lost something vital: their freedom. Such was the fate, at different times, of the Russians, Italians and Germans as they drifted mostly unawares into the ideological slavery of totalitarianism. The moral is: staying alert is important.
It isn’t easy, however, to avoid being “overtaken by events.” One reason is that we go on using the same names for practices that are slowly changing. We praise ourselves for our tolerance, but the things we must now tolerate and the things we are no longer allowed to tolerate have changed dramatically. And every change presents itself as virtue, or as progress. Bolsheviks offered “true community”, and Nazis offered power and purification. They lied, of course, but many were taken in. The media constantly alert us to one crisis or another, but most of what it puts on offer is surface froth. The real problem for the thoughtful is to see what is before our very eyes.
Paul Rahe’s two new books offer an unusual and brilliant method of grasping the essence of the present. It is to plunge back into the past. America has, of course, many pasts, the most fundamental being the state’s foundation in and after 1776. That foundation itself, however, recalled centuries of English common law and the shadow of Magna Carta. But Rahe points us to another crucial past: the moment when a set of brilliant French thinkers recognized the civil arrangements of the English as peculiarly generating freedom. He looks to the moment, early in the 18th century, when the power of freedom in liberating the energies of a modern state could be analyzed at something like the moment of its origin.
Truth comes by blows, and what signaled the emergence of this new power in the world was the battle of Blenheim in 1704, when John Churchill, ancestor of Winston, commanded the alliance that defeated the formidable army of Louis XIV. Churchill went on to win a string of victories that ended Louis’s ambition to dominate the Continent. England had previously been a marginal player in European politics, but from this point on it could no longer be ignored. In becoming free, England had become powerful, and passed on this model of freedom and power to the many Anglophone states that followed.
As it happened, the French played a vital part in this diffusion of freedom. A century before Tocqueville’s famous voyage to the United States, the dazzling Voltaire came to London and became a figure in English life. His Lettres Philosophiques celebrated the pluralism and tolerance of English life.1 The Baron Montesquieu came in 1729 and stayed for a little more than a year, but the fruits of his encounter with England became unmistakable only in 1748 with the publication of his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws.2 Rahe provides us a highly scholarly account of how both the conclusions and the hesitations of these figures, particularly Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers as essential to a free state, vitally influenced the American foundation. That is partly why it remains important today.
As with Tocqueville in America, Voltaire and Montesquieu were fascinated by England as a model for the future. Precisely because they studied this new society from the outside, these French thinkers gained a dramatic sense of what made England different from the other monarchies of Europe. Much of the vitality of our Western civilization has resulted from the endless dialogue (and disagreement) between the English and the French, and among these philosophers, Montesquieu was perhaps the greatest. The Spirit of the Laws did for modern times what Aristotle had done for the classical world: It set the basic terms of modern politics. As Rahe remarks, “we live today in the world first discovered by Voltaire and Montesquieu.”
Montesquieu recognized three basic types of rule. The commonest was Despotism, or rule based on fear, and it was almost universal outside Europe. Montesquieu also recognized as another basic structure Republics, such as Rome or Periclean Athens, but these structures could only be found in the vanished classical world. They had astonished modern Europeans because they were based on a specific virtue: the abiding preference for the good of the state over private advantage. Republics were astonishing and marvelous, but, perhaps paradoxically, their virtue could flower only in a more brutal world than that of Christian Europe.
The political structure of modern Europe was Monarchical. These states could be recognized as distinguishing between the three powers of government—legislative, executive and judicial. “In most kingdoms in Europe”, Montesquieu wrote, “the government is moderate because the prince, who has the first two powers, leaves the exercise of the third to his subjects.” Where these powers were united (as among the Turks) “an atrocious despotism reigns.”3 The divided structure of European monarchies allowed at least a personal freedom, which is “that tranquillity of spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his security.”
The civil order of Monarchies resulted from what Montesquieu called “honor”—notionally an aristocratic virtue but one that we may, I think, identify with modern individualism. Honor is a moral practice in which the agent responds not only to general ideas about what is the right thing to do, but also to what the action in question reveals about the agent’s own character. The most dramatic exhibition of honor is given in an anecdote Montesquieu recounts about France during the wars of religion:
After Saint Bartholomew’s Day [in which the Huguenots in Paris had been massacred], when Charles IX had sent orders to all the governors to have the Huguenots massacred, the Viscount of Orte, who was in command at Bayonne, wrote to the king. “Sire, I have found among the inhabitants and the warriors only good citizens, brave soldiers, and not one executioner; thus they and I together beg Your Majesty to use our arms and our lives for things that can be done.”4
Honor thus forbids acts that would reveal one as despicable. Such judgments are highly individualistic and vary greatly, of course, but they are what make the lives of Western peoples rich and morally complex.
Rahe makes very clear that Monarchy was the only genuinely political structure of rule, because it was compatible with freedom and it rested upon a stable balance of power between competing interests in the state. Citizens of monarchy could enjoy the freedom of a quiet mind. The danger in Monarchy was that, should this balance collapse, kings might drift into despotism, as Montesquieu sometimes thought might be happening to France. Further, the whole idea of honor in this changing world was threatened by enlightened ideas insisting that men are basically equal. Sustaining an inherited respect for rank was becoming increasingly difficult as commerce, with its social leveling propensities, came to play a greater role in European states. Rank depends on hierarchy of birth and status, while in markets distinction emerges from wealth. This was particularly true of England.
Honor was not only vulnerable to enlightened ideas, but was also theologically dubious. It was hard to distinguish from vanity, or from what the French called amour-propre. But among French thinkers of those times, a remarkable idea came to be discussed. Virtue, everyone agreed, is superior to vice. But was it essential to ordering a modern European society? Might it not be possible to sustain civil order on the basis of vanity and amour-propre rather than by virtue and goodness? Here would be a society in which men did the right thing not from virtue, but from caring about their reputation. Here were the materials for a revolutionary change in our idea of progress. It was nothing less than a moral revolution. Its most amusing expression was Bernard de Mandeville’s satirical argument in the Fable of the Bees (1705) that society’s prosperity depended not on goodness but on vices such as greed and self indulgence. The ultimate victory of this remarkable idea came with Adam Smith declaring in The Wealth of Nations that individuals following self-interest were led by an invisible hand to benefit society. With that, the aristocratic concept of honor had been transposed into a fledgling democratic concept of individualist sovereignty.
Voltaire and Montesquieu greatly admired English politics, but they were puzzled by it. Here was a state that was not only free, but based on a deliberate and conscious admiration for freedom. It was a passion embedded in English mores, for just as the “customs of a slavish people are a part of their servitude”, wrote Montesquieu, “those of a free people are part of their liberty.”5 Speaking and judging freely will be the general practice among such people. Classical writers had understood freedom in terms of reason, but Montesquieu, like all the moderns, thought of human beings as creatures less of reason than of passion. He had little faith in reason—only in limits and moderation. The dominant passion among the English was a love of independence. England could only fit into his schema in the paradoxical form of a “republic in the form of a monarchy.”
The strength of free Anglophone societies was thus their conscious passion for freedom, but their weakness consisted in the fact that this very passion had removed the power of the intermediate institutions—aristocratic privileges, churches, corporations—whose balance sustained Continental freedoms. It posed a problem similar to that which had concerned classical republics such as Rome: During the Republic, each generation worried that virtue could not survive increasing wealth and luxury. Such corruption had in Rome destroyed republican freedom and led to the distinctly unfree Empire. Montesquieu was acute about the many sources of corruption in politics: “The soul tastes so much delight in dominating other souls; even those who love the good love themselves so strongly that there is no one who is not so unfortunate as to still have reason to doubt his own intentions.” As Rahe remarks, “there is something immoderate . . . at the heart of all forms of political idealism and public spiritedness.”6 And it is by focusing on this point that he derives from the French his explanation of what he calls in the second of his two new books “democracy’s drift.”
Democracy as it has developed over the past century and more has become distinct from both monarchy and republic in Montesquieu, and I think we may find the essence of this change pinpointed in remarks de Tocqueville made to the Assembly of the French Second Republic in 1848.7 The issue was a proposal to legislate a right to work, a proposal that would, Tocqueville noted, make the state the employer of last resort and hence the dominant industrial power. But the basic fault of the idea was the assumption that “socialism is the legitimate development of democracy.” Socialism, being a social ideal, is a different kind of thing from democracy, which had arisen in Europe as a desirable extension of accountability in constitutions. Politics is constituted by a balance between conflicting interests in the state; resting on balance and compromise, it can never generate an ideal or even a reliably stable society.
Socialism, by contrast, is the project of turning the state into an ideal community from which conflict, poverty and inequality have been banished. This ideal has many variations and many names: social justice, equality, human rights, inclusion and so on. As being, notionally, a universal perfection, socialism necessarily requires suppressing whatever does not accord with it. Socialism is anti-politics. It is part of the plausibility of Rahe’s Soft Despotism thesis that many opinions and locutions (discarded as “prejudices”, “bigotries”, “phobias” and “unacceptabilities”) are today frowned on, and in some cases (as with ”hate speech”) subject to legal sanction. No doubt few of these locutions need be missed, but the whole apparatus of political correctness warns us that a process of this servile kind is operating, and that political idealism is inherently tyrannical.
Tocqueville, even in that remote time, warned his colleagues against creating a “social power that would itself directly produce each citizen’s fortune, well-being and ease of life, which would substitute the highly questionable wisdom of governments for the practical and self-interested wisdom of the governed.” He repudiated the idea that “the state must not only direct society but must, as it were, be the master of every man [and]—how should I put it?—the idea that the state must be his master, his tutor, his teacher . . . from fear of letting him fail.” This, Tocqueville observed, “is a new form of servitude.”
Nor need we mince words: It is our servitude—extensively in Europe and increasingly in America. That is what Rahe understands as “democracy’s drift”, and in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift he sketches the steps leading to it. In the late 19th century, the intellectual classes identified progress with a more egalitarian community, and in America many of the educated brought back from Europe the idea that Jefferson and the other founders had been “archaic” in making such a fuss about property rights and the individual pursuit of happiness. Just as the slide from the political to the social had been the first stage of the drift, so in this period the belief in society’s increasing complexity came to be the fact on which advocacy of increased central power was based. In our post-Hayekian world, there is something whimsical about the belief that the uncoordinated actions of millions of individuals pursuing their own interests required salvation from confusion by the wise decisions of administrators. But such was the settled conviction of the advanced thinkers of that time.
Every wild political idea waits for the crisis that will seem to justify it. For a time in the 1920s, Presidents such as Calvin Coolidge tried to revive the individualist convictions of the Founders, but any influence they might have had was lost with the economic collapse of the 1930s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt could express the progressive doctrine in ways that resonated with the uncritical of those times: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.” And in his 1944 message to Congress, he went on to “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”8 We had come a long way from “Give me liberty or give me death”, and arguably we have come even further since.
Our rulers today want to make sure we are happy and not in need. Who could reject such an offer? Montesquieu’s despots ruled their subjects by fear, but here we find rulers offering us benefits; indeed, they even encourage our virtues. They want to stop us from killing ourselves by smoking, remove our irrational prejudices against outsiders, supply us with medical help we may or may not realize we need, and bring us the many advantages of welfare. They even want to make us be thin and eat less salt. Indeed, in making us happy, these rulers now have the benefit of a burgeoning science of happiness, largely being constructed by lapsed economists. Is the dismal science becoming delightful? Well, not excessively delightful, since one suggestion generated by this new science is that increased taxation is good because it diminishes our envy of the successful, and envy is very bad for our happiness.
The softness of this new order of government is indeed evident, but how can Rahe call it despotic? The reason is that freedom declines as subjects choose a kind of happiness at the price of letting outsiders determine their competence in the business of life. In modern democracies, most of the competence—and all of the power—is increasingly monopolized by our tutoring rulers, and we are merely happy beneficiaries, though we do supply, of course, the tax that pays for it all. In such a structure of increasing central power, rulers need not resort to fear. The feebleness of a conveniently servile set of subjects is achieved without generating resistance, indeed without even generating much wariness about what is happening.
Tocqueville ended his reflections on America with the melancholy observation that “it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government among a people in which the conditions of society are equal than among any other.” For in being equal, each individual is essentially powerless. It is precisely in the privileges and institutions of a genuinely political (and therefore unequal) society that independence and freedom may be sustained. But the democratic demand for equality renders us hostile to such powers. In seeing current problems through the eyes of this acute French tradition, Rahe reminds us that that bewitchment with the project of a socially just community (whatever that may be) threatens the conditions on which freedom itself depends.
1See Alan Charles Kors, “Voltaire’s England”, The American Interest (July/August 2007).
2Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
3Montesquieu, I. 11. 6, p. 157.
4Montesquieu, I. 4. 2. p. 33.
5Montesquieu, III. 19. 7. p. 325.
6Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty, p. 70.
7Quoted in Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings, translated and edited by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 394.
8Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, p. 260.