Paul Rahe: The servile temptation, part 1

Professor Paul Rahe writes:

As I intimated in my Powerline post last week, it is easy to see why political leaders should succumb to the Progressive vision and push programs conferring on the administrative state a power over our lives and well-being that is nothing short of tyrannical. Unlimited government heightens their power, and it flatters their sense of self-importance.

As John Locke once observed with regard to religious persecution, “The assuming [of] an authority of dictating to others . . . is a constant concomitant” of the natural “bias and corruption of our judgments.” But why, I asked at the end of that post, do the tyrannized sometimes savor tyranny? Why have our fellow citizens so often embraced elements of the progressive agenda? Why, let me now add, is it so difficult to reduce the size and scope of the administrative state?

Some opponents of the administrative state think it sufficient that the friends of liberty remind our fellow citizens of the self-evident truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence and trace the manner in which what Lincoln called “our ancient faith” requires that government be limited in scope. I am second to none in my conviction that this is necessary. If we do not win the war of ideas, we will not win the political battle. But I do not think having, or even making, the better argument sufficient. We do not live in Plato’s republic, and we are not governed by philosopher kings.

We are a democratic people, and we are not always fully governed by reason. It is impossible to understand the present discontents without paying attention to the Progressives’ repudiation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But intellectual history is not enough. There is more to politics than the play of ideas.

Plato understood as much. In the eighth and ninth books of his Republic, when he examined the rise, decline, and the eventual replacement of political regimes, he paid closer attention to the political psychology fostered by each than to disputes concerning justice.

The American Founding Fathers were no less aware of the importance of political psychology. They were no doubt intent on implementing the Declaration of Independence when they framed the Constitution and defended their handiwork in The Federalist, but they made no mention of it, and, in the latter work, they quoted from the Declaration only once.

They focused, instead, on institutions, and, by means of these, they sought to enlist the passions and the interests of their fellow citizens in support of justice and political rationality. Like Aristotle, they recognized that ideas become ruling ideas only when they are embodied and that the distribution of offices and honors within a working polity is generally more effective in educating the citizens than is rational speech.

It is important, however, that we see The Federalist for what it is. It does not provide us with a fully developed political science. It is an occasional work, written to promote a particular political outcome: the ratification of the Constitution. Its aim was to demonstrate to a skeptical public the need for “a more perfect union” – a genuine government uniting the disparate states – and it sought to explain how, in the conditions then existing, such a government would best be constituted. If it failed to articulate the case for vigorous local government, if it made no mention of civic associations, the political advantages attendant on the Christian religion, or the importance of strong family ties, it was because the occasion did not call for such a discussion.

It was not until the early 1790s that James Madison began thinking about the prospect we now face – “a consolidation of the States into one government” – and the dire consequences attendant on such an eventuality. First, he argued, the “incompetency of one Legislature to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments, would evidently force a transfer of many of” those objects “to the executive department.” Then, he contended that the, if the state and local governments were made subject to the federal government, the sheer size of the country “would prevent that control” on the federal Congress, “which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, [since] neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.”

In such circumstances, Madison warned, “the impossibility of acting together, might be succeeded by the inefficacy of partial expressions of the public mind, and this at length, by a universal silence and insensibility, leaving the whole government to that self directed course, which, it must be owned, is the natural propensity of every government.”

As Colleen Sheehan has shown in an important new book entitled James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Government, this argument – which Madison published anonymously as an essay in the popular press – was first drafted with an eye to his composition of a sequel to The Federalist, which he sketched out in a notebook now lodged in the Library of Congress.

Had he completed that work, we might now have, from the hand of one of the chief architects of the American Constitution, a theoretical account of the logic underpinning the rise of the modern administrative state and an analysis of its tyrannical propensities. As things stand, however, we have to look abroad for this – to Alexis de Tocqueville, who, with unsurpassed brilliance, analyzes the political psychology of liberal, democratic man in his masterpiece Democracy in America.

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 Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, which was published on April 16, the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death and has been reviewed by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion, by William Voegeli in National Review, and by Harvey C. Mansfield in The Weekly Standard.


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