Paul Rahe: Sobriety and hope

With this post, Professor Paul Rahe continues his series on the the present discontents. The posts in this series have discussed the tyrannical ambitions of the Obama administration (posted here), the danger a consolidation of government poses for the people of the United States (posted here), the psychological disposition that makes democratic peoples vulnerable to servile temptation (posted here), the institutions that once in some measure shielded Americans from these propensities (posted here), and the gradual disappearance of that shield (posted here).

When my book, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, was published some months back, Mark Steyn wrote an appreciative review for the New Criterion, which ended with a single caveat. Where I had suggested that it might be possible to reverse democracy’s drift and reclaim a measure of state and local power from Washington, he feared that we might have to settle for a gradual, gentle descent into servitude – or for something worse.
William Voegeli, in a similarly generous review, made the same point in National Review. Alexis de Tocqueville, he wrote, was “an exemplar of philosophical discernment and resignation.” We, he intimated, should take him as a model. “[P]laying the hand that history deals us as best we can is our highest duty. Folded within it is the obligation not to kid ourselves about our latitude for action, or the scope of the successes we can hope for. To keep social and political conditions from getting worse will often be a signal achievement. The more quotidian victories will see conditions get worse slowly rather than rapidly. Effecting any significant, durable reversal of democracy’s drift is an item rarely found on history’s menu.”
Steyn is arguably the most prescient journalist on the scene, and William Voegeli is exceptionally astute. As his articles on the Claremont Institute site – especially this one – make clear, he has in recent months given considerable thought to the very question on which he takes issue with me. The pessimism that these two observers express may well be on the mark.
If, nonetheless, I am unpersuaded, it is for two reasons. To begin with, I am old enough to remember a time in which conservatives, such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, were inclined to think the advances made by the Soviet Union irreversible and to believe that we should pursue a policy of preserving as much as we could in the face of communism’s approaching victory. Ronald Reagan rightly regarded their policy as a recipe for defeat, and he showed us that democratic statesmanship can have far greater scope than others supposed.
I am also convinced that the social democratic model is bankrupt. Margaret Thatcher once remarked that the trouble with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. That is what happened under communism. In Europe, our cousins are at that stage now. Moreover, something of the sort is true in California, as Joel Kotkin argued last Fall in The American; and, as Myron Magnet has made clear quite recently in Forbes, the chickens are now coming home to roost in New York as well. As I argue in my book, the welfare state is not only an obstacle to economic growth. It erodes the underpinnings of the family, and in country after country it has contributed mightily to a demographic implosion fatal to the tax base on which it depends.
The political class in Europe is acutely aware of the impending crisis. That is why Angela Merkel and others have resisted our calls for their passage of a “stimulus” package comparable to the fraud foisted on us by Nancy Pelosi.
Barack Obama and his minions appear to be oblivious, for the ambitious program that they are so zealously pursuing can only hasten the day when meltdown of the sort we now see in California and New York will be upon us all.
Put simply, the figures that our new masters bandy about do not add up. The so-called “stimulus” bill may satisfy for the time being the craving of some constituencies dependent upon the Democratic Party for largesse. It will not bring us out of recession. Indeed, by driving up interest rates and guaranteeing that taxes will soon have to be dramatically raised, it will impede investment, restrict economic growth, and delay, if not prevent, our return to prosperity.
The administration’s health care proposal and the cap-and-trade bill, if they are passed, will do even greater harm. It is essential to remember that unemployment in 1941, eight years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President, was still at 15 percent. High taxes and burdensome social programs can turn a severe economic downturn into a prolonged depression, and they have done so in the past.
FDR got away with something comparable to what is contemplated now – but he did so in part because Herbert Hoover got the blame. The interest-rate policy pursued, the Smoot-Hawley tariff adopted, and the tax increases passed under the latter had by 1933 helped push unemployment up to 25 percent.
Barack Obama may think that happy days are here again, but he is not in Roosevelt’s situation. He cannot blame the consequences of his own blunders on George W. Bush. Unemployment is now considerably higher than it was when he took office, and the opinion polls already forecast that, if this continues to be the case – as it will – Obama, not Bush, will get the blame.
In my judgment, Barack Obama is in the process of singlehandedly resuscitating a moribund Republican Party that had badly lost its way. If he continues on the path he is intent on following, as I am confident he will, and if he takes his party with him even part of the way, he is virtually certain to discredit that party and, with it, not just his own proposals but the welfare state on which they are designed to build.
In my opinion, therefore, a lot more will soon be possible than Mark Steyn or William Voegeli now imagine. This country is not going to accept a tax regime as onerous as the one that exists in France; and, if it were to do so, that regime would still not be sufficient to pay for an augmentation of the welfare state on the scale that Barack Obama has in mind. The size of the deficit he will leave us, whether he succeeds in getting his program passed or not, will force his successor to make draconian cuts in the federal budget, and this will open the way for a rollback of the administrative state and for a restoration of state and local prerogatives on a scale far more ambitious than what I had in mind when, in 2008, I put the finishing touches on my book.
Of course, the Republicans may not be up to the job. In the past, they have been all too willing to play second fiddle to the Democrats and serve as tax collectors for the welfare state. Success in the endeavor I have outlined would require on their part strategic acumen, tactical skill, and resolve. We should not, however, underestimate the scope of the change in direction that Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have unwittingly made possible – for, in the present, there is only one certitude: conservatives will not succeed at that which they do not try.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. In his forthcoming book, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (available for order on Amazon), he lays the foundation for the analysis that he presented in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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