SOFT DESPOTISM, DEMOCRACY'S DRIFT:
MONTESQUIEU, ROUSSEAU, TOCQUEVILLE
THE MODERN PROSPECT
Acute analysts of emergent commercial republicanism found much to praise, even while foreseeing (and showing how one might avert) its slide into mindless self-absorption. With this expert, engrossing account, Paul Rahe joins that honorable company who resist the further degradation of democratic souls.
-Ralph Lerner, The University of Chicago
This is an exemplary deployment of great past thinkers in an intensely provocative, deliberately controversial meditation on the profound strengths and weaknesses or dangers in our political culture.
-Thomas L. Pangle, author of Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism:
A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws
In this impressive work of scholarship, Rahe brings together detailed readings of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, a command of the historical context in which they wrote, and a sensibility to the literary challenges and requirements of such an understanding.
-Michael Gibbons, University of South Florida
Conservatives are accustomed to books, from The Road to Serfdom in 1944 to Liberal Fascism in 2008, warning of the affinities between the leftist project and hard despotism. Now comes a valuable new book from Paul Rahe, a Hillsdale College historian, warning of the dangers of soft despotism.
Where hard despotism brutalizes, soft despotism infantilizes. Hard despotism conquers the social spaces where citizens live their lives and exercise their freedoms. Soft despotism slowly and imperceptibly fills the vacuum formed when citizens voluntarily abandon those spaces.
Rahe directs our attention to modern Western European social democracies to understand the encroachments of soft despotism, and to France to see its culmination. His discussion of the "French disease" makes clear that Frenchmen's virtuosity at surrendering to invaders and terrorists is the result of a few centuries of practice at surrendering their destinies and liberties to bureaucracies. Such entities constitute, in Tocqueville's words, "an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring [the people's] enjoyment and watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle."
In a thesis resembling that of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism , by Daniel Bell, Rahe argues that the effects of living in a democracy render the continued survival of democracy increasingly doubtful. Democracy drifts as its citizens gradually embrace habits and dispositions that treat freedom as a burden, and reduce self-government to a hollow ritual in which wards choose between interchangeable sets of wardens.
To grasp the dangers confronting America tomorrow and today, we need to understand the past interplay between the distinctive features of our social condition and the inherent tendencies of democracy. America "should not gloat or be smug," says Rahe, for we, too, have "contracted the French disease," which now "advances at a quickening pace."
Fittingly, Rahe turns to French political philosophers for guidance. To understand the perils posed by the cultural contradictions of democracy we need to understand Tocqueville. (On this point Rahe's argument aligns with the assertion of Harvey Mansfield and the late Delba Winthrop that Democracy in America is "the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.") And to understand Tocqueville we need to understand Rousseau and Montesquieu, since Tocqueville was "Rousseau's secret admirer" and "Montesquieu's heir."
Rahe's peers, professors of intellectual history and political philosophy, will find the meticulous scholarship and deep erudition he brings to connecting the three French philosophers impressive and provocative. To summarize Soft Despotism's subtle, thorough argument too briefly to do it justice: Montesquieu contended in the early 18th century that the "Achilles heel" of the modern commercial republic was its pervasive sense of restlessness and anxiety, culminating in what Leo Strauss called "the joyless quest for joy." Rousseau, writing in the middle of the 18th century, was even more pessimistic, presenting "citizenship on the ancient model as the only plausible remedy" for modern restiveness, according to Rahe, but giving little reason to expect the convenient reappearance of that deus ex machina before the curtain comes down. Tocqueville, finally, combined the most detailed exposition of democracy's self-extinguishing tendencies with the qualified hope that America's unique history and social conditions offered the most promising check against those tendencies, one that might even be sufficient to save democracy from itself indefinitely. . . . . More
-William Voegeli (The Claremont Institute), The National Review
Driving north out of New York the other day, I heard a caller to Mark Levin's show discuss his excellent book Liberty and Tyranny . The word she kept using was "inevitable": The republic felt exhausted, and there was an "inevitability" to what was happening. A quarter-millennium of liberty seemed to be about the best you could expect, and its waning was-again-"inevitable." As she spoke, the rich farmland of Columbia County rolled past my window. To many of its residents, the caller would have sounded slightly kooky. Were any of the county's first families suddenly to rematerialize from their centuries of slumber, they would recognize the general landscape, the settlements, the principal roads, and indeed many of the weathered farmhouses. And they would be struck by the comfort and prosperity of their successors in this land. So what's all this talk about decay and decline?
Ah, but I wonder if those early settlers would recognize the people, and their assumptions about the role of government. Mr. Levin's listener was trying to articulate something profound but elusive. It's not something you can sell the film rights for -there are no aliens vaporizing the White House, as inIndependence Day; no God- zilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue and hurling the Empire State Building into the East River. No bangs, just the whimper of the same old same old civilizational ennui, as it gradually dawns that Admiral Yamamoto's sleeping giant may be merely a supersized version of Monty Python's dead parrot.
Paul A. Rahe's new book on the subject is called Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift , which nicely captures how soothing and beguiling the process is.Today, the animating principles of the American idea are entirely absent from public discourse. To the new Administration, American exceptionalism means an exceptional effort to harness an exceptionally big government in the cause of exceptionally massive spending. The can-do spirit means Ty'Sheoma Bethea can do with some government money: A high-school student in Dillon, South Carolina, Miss Bethea wrote to the President to ask him to do something about the peeling paint in her classroom. He read the letter out approvingly in a televised address to Congress. Imagine if Miss Bethea gets her way, and the national bureaucracy in Washington becomes responsible for grade- school paint jobs from Maine to Hawaii. What size of government would be required for such a project? And is it compatible with a constitutional republic?
Professor Rahe knows the answer to that. The first three-quarters of his book are about Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, which is to say they're really about us. Montesquieu's prediction that "in Europe the last sigh of liberty will be heaved by an Englishman" seemed self-evident after the totalitarian enthusiasms of the Continent in the twentieth century. Today? The last sigh will be heaved by England's progeny, in the United States, or perhaps, given the galloping ambition of twenty-first-century American statism, in Australia. Is "the last sigh of liberty" inevitable? A progressivist would scoff at the utter codswallop of such a fancy. Why, modern man would not tolerate for a moment the encroachments his forebears took for granted! And so in the face of the careless assumption that social progress is like the internal combustion engine-once invented, it can never be uninvented-it is left to a trio of dead French blokes to anticipate the long-term temptations of a republic none had ever lived in, and which at that point was technologically all but impossible. . . . . More
-Mark Steyn, The New Criterion
Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees. His territory is republicanism, ancient and modern, and he shares it with two other historians, also distinguished and prolific, also in political philosophy as well as history, Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. These two professors at Cambridge and Johns Hopkins are somewhat better placed, as academics say, than Rahe, a follower of Leo Strauss and a professor at Hillsdale College.
Rahe's work can be said to be an extended critique of the work of Skinner and Pocock, which has never resulted in a debate among the principals because Skinner and Pocock have never deigned to answer him. The issue between him and them is whether and how ideas influence history. Rahe believes that "ideas have consequences," that they have the power to guide and even make events, and therefore that they are not mainly caused by the conditions of their time or context but are, on the contrary, mainly the cause of these conditions.
In a previous book, Republics Ancient and Modern (1992), an impressive work of three volumes loaded with historical fact, philosophical analysis, and bibliography, he argued that republics are fundamentally divided between ancient and modern on the basis of a new, modern idea. This was that a republic can become so perfected through remedies for its weaknesses as to be no longer subject to misfortune, thus perpetual--an idea first propounded by Machiavelli.
Skinner and Pocock, however, in seminal works of theirs (Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought and Pocock's Machiavellian Moment), maintain that there is no such distinction between ancient and modern republics, and that republicanism is a theme or set of ideas found useful in various times and contexts, and neither an essential truth nor a project for the future. In their view, often called "historicism," ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests. Ideas are essentially defensive; they justify, defend, and protect the established interests of various regimes and of their opponents, for example the defense of the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.
Ideas cannot cause events because they themselves are caused; so the colonists were not moved to act by the ideas in the Declaration, but those ideas merely expressed what they thought to say after the fact. Ideas are no different from ideology in which you say what you are forced to say in your situation, or your "context," like a defendant speaking through a clever lawyer.
Rahe's book on soft despotism, one of three substantial volumes he is publishing this year, studies a concept of Alexis de Tocqueville's set forth in his magisterial work, Democracy in America . Soft despotism (despotisme doux), according to him, is a new despotism found only in democracy. It is not based on making the people tremble with fear, as Montesquieu said of the usual despot, but on providing benefits and offering good will to the people as individuals.
"It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them," says Tocqueville. It even teaches you how to improve your life. But the price of the benefits is to hinder and discourage all political or associational activity in the people, leaving democracy in the condition of a mass of dissociated individuals governed by an "immense being" known today as Big Government. This new democratic despotism, rather than any direct enemy of democracy, is the greatest danger in our democratic age.
Rahe shows the ideas behind Tocqueville's concept [come] from two philosophers who were dear to him. He explains how the ideas of Montesquieu helped to create the "modern republic" of individual commercial interests, and how the ideas of Rousseau countered with a deep critique of the modern republic for its failure to promote citizenship among dissociated individuals and its misunderstanding of liberty as the expression and cultivation of uneasy, divided souls.
Rahe goes beyond this generality in his thorough and accurate elaboration of the subtleties of these two philosophers, each of whom was a great thinker demanding the closest attention, yet also the bestselling author of his portion of the 18th century. If ever ideas have influence, it would seem to be when they are expressed at the highest level and in the same books conveyed directly to the largest multitude. . . . More
-Harvey C. Mansfield (Harvard University), The Weekly Standard
A number of the most interesting people I've met in the years since 1996 (I think it was), when I first attended a Liberty Fund gathering, have been participants in these meetings, which (with a nod to Michael Oakeshott, but especially to the founder of Liberty Fund, Pierre Goodrich) celebrate conversation for its own sake. (I know, I know. At first I thought there was a trick of some sort, a hidden agenda. Nope.) So it was that I met Paul Rahe several years ago. Yale has just published Rahe's long-awaited book, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect , and will issue a companion volume (on Montesquieu) in the fall. This is a project of staggering erudition, driven by great passion. I've only begun to plumb it, and to read this book and the second volume properly will require a long time not only with Rahe's own words but also with his conversation partners.
-John Wilson, Books and Culture
Paul Rahe's outstanding book can be considered an extended commentary on a famous passage in Tocqueville's Democracy in America :
Over these [citizens] 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 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 testaments, divides their inheritances… 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. (pp. 187-88, quoting Tocqueville)
As Rahe abundantly demonstrates, this passage has great relevance to recent American history. Tocqueville's comment, he shows, represents the culmination of a line of thought that began with Montesquieu. Although Montesquieu in the eighteenth century was regarded as a great thinker, he does not figure much today in discussions of political theory. Most people view him as a figure merely of historical interest. Rahe shows that the modern view is seriously mistaken: Montesquieu offered a penetrating discussion of the problems of modern political regimes.
Montesquieu in Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline rejected both the desirability and possibility of a modern return to the virtue characteristic of classical antiquity, with its preeminent stress on military valor.
The point that Montesquieu intended to make is clear enough. We should not want to imitate the Romans… And even if for some perverse reason we wanted to imitate the Romans, he then demonstrates in his Universal Monarchy, we could not succeed. (p. 7)
Instead, a commercial society, of which England was the foremost example, offered the best prospects for a flourishing social order under modern conditions. England, though ostensibly ruled by a king, was in fact a "republic concealed under the form of a monarchy" (p. 37). Unlike a genuine monarchy, it aimed at liberty and economic prosperity and demanded no particular virtue from the people.
It by no means followed from the success of English society, though, that the people in it lived in contentment. Quite the contrary, they found themselves in an anxious state, which Montesquieu termed "inquiétude." With characteristic erudition, Rahe traces this notion to the Jansenist Blaise Pascal and his disciple Pierre Nicole. They held that after the Fall, human beings were in the grip of concupiscence. Though a malign emotion, it could simulate the effects of the virtues and produce, in unintended fashion, a workable society.
Nicole devoted a seminal essay suggesting that Christian charity is politically and socially superfluous - that, in its absence, thanks to the particular providence of God, l'amour propre is perfectly capable of providing a foundation for the proper ordering of civil society, of the political order, and of human life in this world more generally. (p. 43)
Montesquieu, following Montaigne, secularized this notion; here we have a principal source of Bernard Mandeville's view that private vices were public benefits and more generally, of the Scottish Enlightenment concept of the unintended consequences of human action.
In the modern world, then, we can obtain a tolerable, though not ideal, order by following the English model. But a danger threatens this happy outcome: in certain circumstances, the executive might seize control of the reins of power and transform society into a despotic system.
In Montesquieu's judgment, the legislature within a modern republic would be in serious danger of succumbing fully to executive influence only in the unlikely event that the management of commerce and industry within that republic were somehow, to a very considerable extent, entrusted to the executive. In such a polity should the populace in general and the middle class in particular ever be beholden to government for their economic well-being, the situation of the citizens would indeed be grim. (p. 58)
To prevent this transition to despotism, it is essential to preserve the intermediate powers, such as the nobility and clergy, who can interpose their authority between the central government and the people. Without these powers, the executive may take control, in the manner just described. The course of French history prior to the 1789 illustrates an analogous transition, though in a monarchy rather than a republic. Under Louis XIV and his successors, the power of the nobility to resist royal authority had been suppressed; the ensuing growth of an all-powerful central state helped bring about the revolution, as a reaction against the state's excesses. Malesherbes, a highly placed liberal aristocrat and close reader of Montesquieu, warned Louis XVI of the dangers of undue centralization, to no avail. In the Grandes Remonstrances of 1775, Malesherbes and his colleagues on the Cour des aides charged "that the system of administration put in place by Louis XIV and further developed under Louis XV had made of the French monarchy an 'Oriental despotism'." Malesherbes, who was executed under the Revolution for his defense of Louis XVI, was Tocqueville's great-grandfather, and like his ancestor, Tocqueville continued the line of analysis begun by Montesquieu.
Before turning to Tocqueville, Rahe discusses another figure much influenced by Montesquieu. Jean-Jacques Rousseau took much of his criticism of bourgeois society from Montesquieu, but his remedy differed entirely from that of his great predecessor. Rousseau embraced the classical ideal that Montesquieu rejected:
Montesquieu's description of the ancient republics and his analysis of their character Rousseau thought entirely just, but he did not share the misgivings that had caused the French philosopher to devote so much effort to assessing the virtues and prospects of monarchy and the peculiar form of government found in England. In fact, the very features of classical republicanism that had occasioned such misgivings on Montesquieu's part were the features that Rousseau found most attractive. (p. 120)
Despite his praise for the ancient city, though, Rousseau as well as Montesquieu doubted whether it would be possible to recreate such a regime in the modern world. The conditions for doing so were so demanding as to render the task in effect impossible.
As we have already seen, Rahe wishes sharply to contrast the political theory of the modern age with classical republicanism. He can carry out this endeavor by treating Rousseau as an exception; but, as one might anticipate, he views with disfavor attempts by J.G.A. Pocock and others in the Cambridge School to find a classical republican tradition at the heart of early modern political theory. He devotes a mordant note to the view he opposes:
Today, to a remarkable degree, these arguments [of Rousseau] infect contemporary scholarship on republican thought before Rousseau, much of which consists in an ill-conceived attempt to read Rousseau's distinctive vision back into Machiavelli, the republican thought of the English interregnum, and English Whiggery more generally; for one such attempt, see J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment … and for another, consider the various works by Quentin Skinner. (p. 310, note 56)
Though a close reader of Rousseau, Tocqueville did not share his quixotic admiration for the classical republic. To the contrary, Tocqueville is for Rahe, "Montesquieu's heir." Like Montesquieu, he deplored the growth of administrative centralism in France. America, by contrast, was marked by strong emphasis on local institutions and was thus better able than France to reconcile the revolutionary impulse toward equality with liberty. (Tocqueville was not entirely optimistic about America either.) Rahe maintains that, despite its ostensible subject, Democracy in America really was intended as an intervention in French politics:
Democracy in America constitutes a muted polemic - designed first and foremost for consideration by his contemporaries. The warnings that he issued with regard to the propensities inherent in the democratic social condition were directed to them; and when he singled out various aspects of American life as portents of doom or as harbingers of hope, he nearly always did so with an eye to the presence of the former and the absence of the latter in his native France. (p. 222)
Unfortunately, a concerted political movement that began in the nineteenth century and continued in the twentieth has undermined the guards against despotism in America that Tocqueville analyzed. . . . More
-David Gordon, The Mises Review
Paul Rahe, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is seriously concerned about the political malaise that has been gnawing away at our institutions here and in Europe since the Cold War ended in 1989. His concern has led him to write this intelligent, well-reasoned book Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift on the ideas of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville and what they mean for us today.
Fittingly enough, Yale University Press timed its publication of Rahe's book to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville's death on April 16. Soft despotism, as the professor views it, is what arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power progressively undermines the spirit of self-government. This condition, feared by Tocqueville in his day when he was viewing first-hand the early baby steps of the new democracy, have now largely come to pass throughout the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, under President Obama, our own country.
Writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rahe is singularly vivid, not to say downright passionate, in summing up what he feels is the man from Geneva's contribution to our thinking. This is not to say that he doesn't speak most highly indeed of Montesquieu, calling his "great work" The Spirit of Laws "the political bible of learned men and would-be statesmen everywhere in Europe, and beyond" at the beginning of the second half of the 18th century. He goes on to claim, "In France, it was the starting point for all subsequent political thought," and concludes that "its influence can hardly be overestimated."
Nonetheless, consider the following passage on how he judges Rousseau's contribution to our society and culture: "Through thick and thin, Rousseau's diagnosis of our plight and the various palliatives he suggested somehow retain their purchase.… Rousseau's panoramic vision may seem preposterous and outlandish, but it cannot be ignored. It speaks to the felt needs of untold millions, many of whom have never even read a line of Rousseau. It exercises a profound and largely uncharted influence within the culture at large, shaping attitudes toward religion, the environment, the family, child rearing, education, gardening, music, art, literature, romantic love, politics, and the good life more generally." . . . More
-Cynthia Grenier, Human Events
I had the pleasure speaking recently with Paul Rahe, who is the author of Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press: 2009).
Professor Rahe's book is the first of three that I will be recommending for summer reading in preparation for the RedState get-together in Atlanta on August 1st. Judging from the covers, this trio might not seem the lightest of reading but fortunately all three authors prove in their own styles that substantive reading doesn't have to be a long, hard slog. And all three of them have important lessons for us in this lazy, off-election-cycle summer.
Over the months since the 2008 election, conservatives of all stripes have searched their souls and wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth over the apparent demise of our movement. Various proposals to reinvent, repackage and/or rebrand conservatism have been widely offered. My thought is that we might productively, with the assistance of these three excellent books, strive for another "r" word-renaissance.The word renaissance carries a number of meanings. Literally, it means "rebirth." It is generally associated with the intense interest in classical antiquity that emerged in Italy at the beginning of the fourteenth century. But as Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, what we think of as the Italian Renaissance is just one in a long series of encounters with the classical past that continue to this day.
In our current quest, we might find Professor Panofsky's work instructive. I think we are right to recognize that the contemporary version of conservatism has, at least judging from the results of the last two election cycles, become exhausted and sterile. But it does not necessarily follow that conservatism is dead. It seems to me that what we might do is revisit the past to forge our own vision of the future, one that is suited to the twenty-first century. To return to Panofsky's example, just because he didn't paint like Raphael doesn't mean Cezanne didn't understand antiquity in his own right. He just responded to it differently.
And so we come to Professor Rahe's new book. His premise is that in the work of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Swiss and French philosophers Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville we find the origins of classical modern political theory designed to ensure the liberty and rights of the individual-a movement which is, as Rahe notes, itself yet another reinterpretation of the lessons of classical antiquity.
For those of us not blessed with the kind of rigorous education offered by Rahe and his colleagues at Hillsdale College, the opening section of Soft Despotism provides a thorough grounding in their political philosophy. Through this section I was struck by the aspects of their thought that seems to have particular resonance for our situation today-resonance that for me was most profound in the sections on Tocqueville.
It may seem curious that a Frenchman who was born 204 years ago would have much to tell us about twenty-first century America, but I find Alexis de Tocqueville eerily prophetic in his identification of the cult of equality that characterizes the American approach to democracy. I find him more appealing than Montesquieu and Rousseau-although that may stem from too little exposure to Montesquieu and too much to Rousseau in another context. In any event, Tocqueville has something to say to us, notably:
Without fear, he trusts in his own strength, which to him appears sufficient for all. An individual conceives the thought of some enterprise; this enterprise has in itself a relation with the well-being of society; the idea that he should address himself to the public authority for the purpose of obtaining its help does not even occur to him. He makes his plan known; he offers to execute it; he summons the strength of other individuals to the aid of his own strength; and he engages in hand-to-hand combat against all the obstacles. Often, without a doubt, he succeeds less well than if the State was to take his place. But in the long run, the general result of all these individual enterprises greatly exceeds that which the government would be able to accomplish. (I.i.5, p. 78)
It's a passage to make you think a bit-it might seem to go against the grain to admit that the State could do some things better, given its enormous resources. But the point is that the greater good is actually better served by the sum of individual rather than collective activity. It requires, however, self-generated effort by the individual.
Soft Despotism is more than historical analysis of long-departed white European males. In the conclusion of the book, Rahe bravely makes a leap that few historians are willing to take these days, and applies the lessons of the past to the present day. For him, these are not dead texts isolated in their own time; they are living documents that we can revisit in order to confront our own dilemmas.
The thing about "soft" despotism as opposed to other kinds of despotism is that it is not necessarily inevitable. It is not created by natural or man-made disaster. It is rather self-inflicted by societies that have come to a point of exhausted surrender to the naturally-expansionist tendencies of the state. In Professor Rahe's analysis, the United States has arrived at the brink of this abyss. We had thought that the fall of the Soviet Union had created a world in which the trend towards liberty and democracy would naturally evolve, but we were perhaps wrong. Rather than march on towards freedom, the victorious west has drifted in the opposite direction. Complacency has replaced urgency.
Rahe here makes what may be his most powerful contribution. We have on our library shelves tomes that foretold this unfortunate trend, and that contain the seeds of ideas that can help us combat it if we have the will. True, it is a tall order, but not an impossible one. We have an opportunity now that is uniquely our own to revisit the origins of what we understand as conservatism and take our own lessons-not the lessons that resonated in 1952 or 1980 but those that speak to 2009-to heart. We can look at the menace of encroaching government control that manifests itself in ways big and small and seriously consider how this is stifling the spirit Tocqueville so admired.
It is greatly to Professor Rahe's credit that he has taken this material off the dusty shelves and put it freshly into our hands-and that he has done so with such vigor and passion as well as scholarly rigor.
In the course of our conversation, Rahe emphasized the need for "vigorous local government"-in other words the form of government best suited to respond to the needs of the individual rather than the collective, and so foster prosperity. He pointed out that the social democratic state is an entity that "eats its own seed corn"-it has nothing to plant that will grow in the future. He proposed that two events that have occurred since President Obama's inauguration illustrate both his thesis of a drift towards soft despotism, and his proposed means to combat it. They are the infamous DHS report identifying potentially dangerous domestic terrorists, and the April 15th "tea party" protests against excessive taxation and government race.
In the first case, Rahe pointed out that the rights and privacy of individuals were being targeted in the name of the collective good. After all, everyone hates terrorists, right? But the people in this report aren't actually terrorists. They are people who are likely to feel strongly against the policies that result in the social democratic state and so they are "softly" blacklisted not by overt attack, but by the suggestion that such people are dangerous and need to be controlled for all of our good.
Professor Rahe did, however, find "hope" in the tea party protests, which speak to the Revolutionary sprit that forged this country. They were relatively small, local affairs that expressed the needs and opinions of the few rather than the many-needs and opinions that would most effectively be handled by a knowledgeable and responsive local authority rather than a distant, once size fits all central government. They suggested that parts of the populace are still willing to take action and stand up for themselves, rather than surrender to the state. As he concludes, "Let our motto be, as once it was, 'Don't tread on me!' And let our virtue be individual responsibility." (p. 280)
So, people, Memorial Day has passed. The summer reading season is here. Get cracking, and let's discuss in August.
-Victoria G. Coates, Academic Elephant