Paul Rahe: The road to soft despotism, part 2

Professor Paul Rahe continues his recent Powerline series regarding democracy’s drift in America:

If, in the 20th and 21st centuries, the United States has gradually succumbed to what Tocqueville called “soft despotism,” it is arguably because we have abandoned the advantages that we possessed in Tocqueville’s day and that I outlined in my last post. The most important of these was local self-government.

In the 19th century, state governments began asserting ever-greater control over counties and municipalities; in the 20th century, under the influence of the Progressives, the national government, in times of crisis (real or imagined), took on responsibilities that it rarely gave up.

This was done deliberately after a great deal of public debate. In my view, the turning point took place in 1912, when the two leading presidential candidates – Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt – both attacked the American constitution and argued for its inadequacy, and the third such candidate, William Howard Taft, failed to defend the American founding in a rhetorically compelling way.

One year later, 1913, the dam broke. The 16th and 17th amendments to the Constitution were ratified, and the chief obstacles in the way of a massive expansion of the administrative state were removed.

The first of these amendments legalized the federal income tax, making it possible for the federal government to fund its own expansion. The second provided for the direct election of senators, denying to the state legislatures, which had performed this function under the constitution framed in 1787, a check on federal encroachment.

Mores and manners change slowly. What these amendments made possible has only gradually been realized. But step by step – in an experimental fashion during World War I, then with an eye to permanence under the New Deal – the administrative state began extending its tentacles into every corner of American life, threatening to regulate everything that we do and to direct us in every action of our lives.

To get a sense of what the project involves, one need only read the message that Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent to Congress in 1944, wherein he asserted that the vision which had informed the American founding was an anachronism and then set out to redefine our rights:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

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.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill if Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.

This “second Bill of Rights,” which aims, as Roosevelt tellingly put it, to “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness,” was never made a formal part of the Constitution, but, in effect, it has been read into that document by succeeding administrations and by the federal and state courts, and it now serves as an extralegal standard by which our government and its policies are judged.

The list of “rights” that must be guaranteed is long:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education.

Moreover, this list is meant in stages to grow and grow, for Roosevelt intimates that it is incomplete, and that redefining our rights is an endless process.

Every item on Roosevelt’s list is, of course, something intrinsically desirable and good; every item is arguably an element within the “happiness” that the Founding Fathers expected most Americans to pursue. But in their day, and in Tocqueville’s as well, it was taken for granted that no one had a “right” to such goods. They were not a matter for public provision; their achievement was a task for individuals, acting on their own and in cooperation with their families, their neighbors, and friends.

These good things were not items to which anyone was simply entitled; they had to be earned, and with the earning came a certain dignity and pride. Moreover, it was up to individuals, acting on their own behalf, to determine for themselves what “happiness” meant. Liberty consisted to a considerable degree in taking responsibility for one’s own well-being and for that of one’s family. It was in possessing this liberty and in being saddled with this responsibility that men were deemed equal, and it was their possession of this liberty and the allocation to them of this responsibility that government was established to protect.

Since January, 1944, we have generally drifted and occasionally lurched in the direction FDR outlined. At each stage, local governments have ceded responsibilities to the central administration, and, thanks to unfunded and partially funded mandates, these governments have gradually become instruments deployed by the central administration.

At each stage, in consequence, our civic associations have also become less vigorous. And since the 1960s, as the federal government assumed a providential role, religion in American gradually lost its hold, and the social institutions through which individuals in the past managed their lives deteriorated. Divorce became commonplace; the birth rate dropped dramatically; and a growing proportion of the children brought into the world came to be born out of wedlock. In the world of social security and welfare, human beings tend to go it alone.

We are now, in effect, without the shield that we protected us from fully falling prey to inquiétude in Tocqueville’s day, and, as Rahm Emanuel has openly acknowledged, the Obama administration is now intent on exploiting our present difficulties for the purpose of radically extending the scope of the administrative state. “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste,” he candidly remarked. “it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”

At no time have we faced up to the soft despotic consequences of democracy’s drift, and no President, apart from Ronald Reagan, has in any serious way drawn our attention to the problem. There are, nonetheless, I believe, genuine grounds for hope. Outlining these will require, however, another post.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. Some of the material in this post is adapted from his book, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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