Paul Rahe: The servile temptation, part 2

Professor Paul Rahe continues his series on “Obama’s tyrannical ambition.” He writes:

As I argued in my most recent Powerline post, to come to understand why the tyrannized sometimes savor tyranny and why it is difficult to roll back the administrative state, we must turn from an examination of the first principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence to political science of the sort that guided the framers of the American Constitution and that occasioned renewed reflection on the part of James Madison in the early 1790s with regard to the dangers faced by the fledgling American republic.

Tocqueville profited from two advantages. First, he haled from France, a country already subject to a centralized administration under the Bourbon monarchy in the eighteenth century, which had seen a radical tightening up of centralized control under the French Revolution and Napoleon. Tocqueville had first-hand experience of that which Madison could only imagine.

Second, Tocqueville had read with very great care Pascal’s Pensées, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws, and the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he had paid close attention to what all four had had to say about the psychological disposition they called inquiétude.

Pascal, following Augustine’s Confessions, had attributed this species of restlessness, anxiety, and uneasiness to fallen man. Locke had wrenched the notion from its theological context, arguing that “uneasiness” is the natural condition of human beings as such.

Montesquieu thought this disposition peculiar to the English of his day, who were governed by a “republic disguised as a monarchy” and lived in a “democracy based on commerce” that left them to their own devices and liberated their passions, promoted their vanity, and consigned them to frustration.

Rousseau, who supposed inquiétude natural to human beings within civil society, charged that the bourgeois, commercial, liberal polities emerging under the influence of the Enlightenment in his day would profoundly intensify the malady, and he suggested as a remedy enforced social and economic equality.

Tocqueville took in all of this and turned Rousseau on his head. What the latter took to be a cure for the restlessness, anxiety, and uneasiness besetting man in liberal, commercial polities is, he argued, its cause. Where there were aristocratic polities, he observed, in times of turmoil, men could look for help and consolation to what Montesquieu had called “intermediary powers” – to local aristocrats, to great magnates, to the church, to the various corporate bodies constitutive of European monarchy – for, under the ancien régime, no one was isolated and alone.

But now, where equality has become the defining feature of their “social condition,” he argued, men tend to feel helpless in the face of political and economic forces beyond their control. Even in the best of times, their ambitions exceed their capacity, the desires inflated by their vanity go unsatisfied, and they are anxious and uneasy.

In times of turmoil and trouble, their inquiétude collapses into fear; and, where there is no power close at hand to which they can turn, there is every likelihood that they will in desperation run for help to the all-powerful, omni-competent administrative state, trading liberty and autonomy for a promise of security.

Such was the situation in France, and Tocqueville worried that, in the long run, democracy in that country would develop into a species of despotism hitherto unknown to man – one set in motion not by terror but by an unmanly and degrading desire for security. “I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world,” he wrote.

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose in order to procure for themselves petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn apart, is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of the others: his children and his particular friends form for him the entirety of the human race; as for his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he sees them not; he touches them and senses them not; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and, if he still has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.

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 loves the fact that the citizens enjoy themselves provided that they dream solely of their own enjoyment. It works willingly for their happiness, but it wishes to be the only agent and the sole arbiter of that happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their testaments, divides their inheritances. Can it not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and of the effort associated with living?

In this fashion, every day, it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will within a smaller space, and bit by bit it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own. Equality has prepared men for all of these things: it has disposed them to put up with them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, 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 past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. 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 destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Such, I suggest, is the logic unfolding today within American democracy. Such is the future we now face. There is, however, one ray of hope. This is Tocqueville’s forecast of developments in France. It is not what he anticipated for the United States. When he visited North America, he thought that he had found in the institutions, mores, and manners of the Americans an antidote for this propensity. Clarifying what that was will, however, take 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 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, which is now available for order on Amazon at a 33 percent prepublication discount. In it he also draws on Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, which was released 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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