Monday, June 29, 2009

Will Europe Ever Heal Its’ Inner Despot?

In the New Criterion, Mark Steyn reviews Paul Anthony Rahe’s “Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect” noting that though the advent of enlightenment ideas open humanity to a great many breakthroughs and possibilities. It finally boils down to the fact of Benjamin Franklin’s warning that a Republic is a fine thing if you can keep it.

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 in Independence 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.[1] 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?
The trick to devolving any society into that of a oafish welfare state is to make sure that no-one asks that question, no-one wonders who’s authority something really belongs under, and no-one sees past the benefit they can take from the rest of society. In short, it’s how you decimate the self-selected American model in favor of one imposed on us in an underhanded manner from without.
It’s way was one where one does not permit the citizen to consult citizen. The idea is to pretend that government has consulted the citizen when it really hasn’t.
“It does not tyrannize, it gets in the way.” The all-pervasive micro-regulatory state “enervates,” but nicely, gradually, so after a while you don’t even notice. And in exchange for liberty it offers security: the “right” to health care; the “right” to housing; the “right” to a job—although who needs that once you’ve got all the others? The proposed European Constitution extends the laundry list: the constitutional right to clean water and environmental protection. Every right you could ever want, except the right to be free from undue intrusions by the state. M. Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president and chairman of the European constitutional convention, told me at the time that he had bought a copy of the U.S. Constitution at a bookstore in Washington and carried it around with him in his pocket. Try doing that with his Euro-constitution, and you’ll be walking with a limp after ten minutes and calling for a sedan chair after twenty: As Professor Rahe notes, it’s 450 pages long. And, when your “constitution” is that big, imagine how swollen the attendant bureaucracy and regulation is. The author points out that, in France, “80 per cent of the legislation passed by the National Assembly in Paris originates in Brussels”—that is, at the European Union’s civil service. Who drafts it? Who approves it? Who do you call to complain? Who do you run against and in what election? And where do you go to escape it?
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t fear too much of a “progressive” retort to Rahe’s survey of our philosophical heritage. Not only are there too many large words in it, there are too many big, uncorruptable ideas that are to clear and meaningful to be bogged down with the emotionalized detritus of the class warfare politics that bear little resemblance to what the label promises: take up the banner of the left and you will find yourself with the same oppression as the worst sorts of monarchy. Fall for the pretend-concern about people, and you will find yourself without rights as an individual.
Thus, Tocqueville’s great insight—that what prevents the “state popular” from declining into a “state despotic” is the strength of the intermediary institutions between the sovereign and the individual. The French revolution abolished everything and subordinated all institutions to the rule of central authority. The New World was more fortunate: “The principle and lifeblood of American liberty” was, according to Tocqueville, municipal independence. “With the state government, they had limited contact; with the national government, they had almost none,” writes Professor Rahe:

In New England, their world was the township; in the South, it was the county; and elsewhere it was one or the other or both… . Self-government was the liberty that they had fought the War of Independence to retain, and this was a liberty that in considerable measure Americans in the age of Andrew Jackson still enjoyed.
The strange thing is that this model of a liberation movement is precisely the opposite of what even revolutionary liberation movements appear to want even today. If they aren’t misrepresenting those goals, they’re demonstrating just how little they understand liberty to begin with. It all seems to comes down to trying to rename you avarice for centralizing power in an all-powerful state, as liberation. It’s as hideous and anti-intellectual an inversion as you’ll ever find.