Slaves to Democracy

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Niccolo and Donkey
Slaves to Democracy

The American Conservative

Paul Gottfried

December 8, 2011

The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes The Moral Life , Kenneth Minogue, Encounter, 374 pages

Kenneth Minogue is a distinguished figure for serious students of political thought. A longtime professor (now emeritus) at the London School of Economics, president of the Mont Pelerin Society, and the author of provocative works on nationalism, ideology, and egalitarian democracy, Minogue is one of the most illustrious representatives of what survives of the European classical liberal tradition. A disciple of Michael Oakeshott and an incisive critic of public administration, Minogue has been open about expressing his views ever since he left his native New Zealand, first for Australia and then for England. He is for whatever social democrats are against—bourgeois culture, free-market economics, and as strict a separation as possible between the administrative state and civil society.

In The Servile Mind , Minogue makes clear where he stands. He does not view the democratic experiment as it has gone forward in his lifetime—he was born in 1930—as favorable to freedom. He believes our current politics are driven by a popular demand, fed by intellectuals and politicians, for the imposition of ever greater equality. This demand for “fairness” or “social justice” nurtures the soft totalitarianism of political correctness and redistributionist policies.

A major problem of democratic welfare states, according to Minogue, is that they turn citizens into slaves. They produce what he considers “servile minds” that fit into what Hilaire Belloc a hundred years ago described as the “servile state.” Modern states manipulate and transform onetime members of families and communities into fragmented subjects addicted to state control. In the name of equality, political authorities reshape the moral development of increasingly isolated individuals.

Minogue clearly does not set out to praise democracy in its contemporary form as humanity’s greatest blessing. Nor does he wish to inflict our late modern regime on the entire world. He would agree with a judgment that Milton Friedman expressed in a Liberty Fund interview shortly before his death, that economic and civil freedom usually suffer with the advance of political freedom. By extending the franchise too far and by making too many human arrangements subject to “what the people want” or “what they think is just,” we destroy our economic liberties and right of free association. Minogue gives his work the suggestive subtitle How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life .

He is in favor of well-ordered freedom but not necessarily the democracy to which liberty is often tendentiously linked. Minogue is more sober in his judgments about democratic regimes than were two of his heroes in Austrian economics, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. These otherwise astute economists generally assumed that democracy was the only form of government that protects economic and civic freedoms. When Hayek noted that the match didn’t work out as well as expected, he attributed this failure to not having the right kind of democracy. If only democratic countries would take the model of Swiss republicanism at its best, then our freedoms, according to Hayek, would be secure.

Minogue, by contrast, does not cherry-pick his examples. He deals with democracy as it has developed most widely over the last century. The colonization of the family by state functionaries and public educators, government inroads into our earnings and business enterprises, and the state-sponsored cult of victim groups are for Minogue the predictable outcomes of modern democratic rule. They are the state’s attempts to satisfy the demand that government itself incites for greater equality of condition.

This process began, we are told, with a change in the size of the electorate, the ultimate effect of which was to turn “democracy as denoting a kind of political arrangement” into democracy as a “moral, social and political ideal.” By the 20th century, a “relatively slight change in electoral practice” had led to a “comprehensive critique and, in many cases, a rejection of the inherited mores of European states.”

All of this became more acute when Labour parties and other social-democratic forces entered the scene. English Labourites often began with “a small technical change in the constitution” and ended their rule with the “remarkable idea of democracy as a critic of an entire civilization.” As mass democracy progressed into social democracy,

Perhaps Minogue’s most noteworthy contribution to political analysis—albeit one that runs counter to what American conservatives have been taught to accept—is an understanding that the left has strong moral values. The problem is not that the left is run by moral relativists but rather that it is driven by a yearning for social justice. Unlike equivocating Republican operatives, the left believes all too passionately in what it says. In fact, it is trying to “politicize everything.” The “bigots for justice” on the multicultural left see all human interactions as opportunities for manipulation. It just so happens that their project requires them to get rid of bourgeois civilization to clear the field for imposing their vision. But this certainly does not mean that these reformers lack all conviction. As Minogue explains in an earlier work, Politics :

In that same work, Minogue evokes a nightmarish picture in which normal political life becomes impossible because of the compelling power of the leftist demand for social justice in all aspects of our existence. In The Servile Mind he focuses particularly on the “great project” that informs the leftist transformation of politics:

In comparison to the project of ending poverty and discrimination, at the trivial cost of bourgeois liberties, what can the left’s opponents present as showing a comparable degree of “moral seriousness”? Thus the ordinary person, who is brought up by the democratic state, is convinced that he must sacrifice his “morally frivolous” interest to the greater good of the world’s poor and of those groups still marginalized at home. In this moral blackmail, which comes to envelop civic life and finally international relations, people rush to accept what they are made to believe is the proper way to speak and act: “How can they pass as ethical unless they are told what words they may or may not use in describing fellow-citizens, the way their children ought to be educated, what ethnic distribution of friends they ought to have and what benevolences are required for them?”

Minogue points out that the architects and enforcers of the Great Project need never say they’re sorry. Purity of intention is enough to justify any social experiment gone awry: “Our civilization has long been rather soft on good intentions, even though most of us realize they pave the road to hell.” Equally relevant, Minogue sees the acceptance of pure intention as related to the belief that the “politico-moral idealist” holds the “high moral ground.” Because of his presumed concern with egalitarian goals, this reformer is perceived as being pure as the driven snow. Indeed, it is not good taste to dwell on well-intentioned failures, just as it is unfair to hold designated victims accountable for their misdeeds.

There are however three small points in Minogue’s work that call for clarification. Was it really a minor step that led from restricted to universal (manhood) suffrage, a widely celebrated reform that was soon extended to women in Western countries? A voluminous polemical literature by 19th-century conservatives and classical liberals, including the French premier of the 1840s Francois Guizot and many of the (actually liberal) subjects of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind , warned against this leap into the dark.

The other query is terminological and may have no ready solution, given the poverty of our fashionable political vocabulary. Minogue refers to the government of Great Britain before its extensions of the electorate as being “democratic” but less ideologically and programmatically so than it would later become. Describing a monarchy with limited popular representation and an aristocratic component as a “democracy” may be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, calling that form of government what it was, a balanced pre-democratic regime—and a good one at that—may be unimaginable to many readers.

Minogue also provides a panegyric to “liberal democracy” from pages 121 and 124, and one wonders why it was inserted. Certainly in view of everything else he writes in this book about democracy creating servile subjects, it is hard to contextualize his statements about how we have seen the “triumph of personal freedom” unequaled in human history. Further: “people have at last escaped the tutelage of their governments.” Are we speaking here about “democracy” before it lapsed into politico-moralism and continuous social engineering? Or is this meant to be a description of the existing Anglo-American regime, which neoconservatives see as the best of all possible worlds? Perhaps these pages are intended to soften the harsh tone of a work that is not likely to attract the in-crowd. In any case, it is not related to the rest of Minogue’s splendid work.
Niccolo and Donkey
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Key takeaway:



Bob Dylan Roof
After WW2 several idiosyncratic philosophers and economists, including Bertrand de Jouvenel and Friedrich Hayek, founded the Mont Pelerin Society in order to discuss the collapse of the old order and the tendency toward total mobilization and liberal democracy. Since then the society has reduced itself to parroting mainstream "free market" arguments and functioning as an irrelevant think-tank for "limited government" GOP members from D.C. Hans-Hermann Hoppe ultimately broke with the MPS and founded the Property and Freedom Socety because the new cadre of MPS members weren't receptive to his attacks on classical liberalism - a hallmark of Jouvenel's philosophy.

A reader will notice in Minoque's thought the same radical conclusions about democracy arrived at by less partisan thinkers like Jouvenel, but supported by new premises. The active force is now, for Minoque, "a change in the size of the electorate." What some of the original MPS members saw, however, was that the size of the electorate was ultimately dictated by an absolute, yet malleable, public law of the land that could be altered by aspiring elites. Weak challengers to the old order of propertied white men used the power of state and federal legislation and Constitutional amendments to expand their electorates and propel themselves to the center of state power. From there they shrouded their agendas in the legitimacy of the American Government and used the power of the state to destroy the old elites. Thus, the primary cause was never the expansion of suffrage, which was a foregone conclusion by virtue of the immense power conferred on the Federal Government by the Constitution, but rather classical liberal government itself.

It is obvious to any genuine conservative that people have not "at last escaped the tutelage of their government." What has really happened is that the state has dissolved every other source of authority other than itself, producing the illusion that people are "free" from traditional constraints on behavior. As soon as a people erects for itself a law of the land that both changes according to the will of the people (via legislation, amendments, judicial interpretation, and executive fiat) and supersedes private authorities like family law, they have established a mechanism for the systematic dissolution of their own traditions.
Porkchop Holocaust
How can one prevent turning such a "political arrangement" into a "moral, social and political ideal"? All political systems tend towards auto-justification on simultaneously moral, social and political grounds, even when the principles at work are not identified and there is no proper "propaganda" to speak of. In the Middle Ages, kingship and aristocratic rule were the subject of such idealization, which became crystallized in the chivalric romances of the era. In a democracy, it's the people that must be ennobled in order to provide legitimacy to the system. So it is with "politico-moral idealists" and their "moral high-ground". Just as minstrels made songs about cruel, but valorous nobles, or affluent and respectable Muslims hand out money to innocent-killing Jihadists, the legitimacy of today's "politico-moral idealist" is always upholded, even when the target of "criticism". It is their particular brand of idealism, and not its results that legitimize them.
Augusto Pinochet

I bought a copy of Minogue's book after reading this thread and man, it is BORING. His writing approaches Bruce Charlton levels of stiltedness. I've only read the first couple chapters, but so far it has no ideas that Gottfried didn't describe in his review. Most books I've read recently are like this-- a few good ideas that could be summarized in a magazine article, and a lot of padding--and I'm really glad the Internet has given us a more efficient way to share ideas.

Gotta disagree with this. The politicians and bureaucrats who run the welfare state understandably want to eliminate rival forms of authority, but I don't think that turns people into slaves. Rather, I would say that most people are naturally servile--as Sallust wrote, "Few men desire liberty; most men wish only for a just master"--and social democracy is a byproduct of that.

At the heart of the welfare state is a tradeoff: people's freedom is circumscribed, and in exchange they get more economic security (and the opportunity to live off other people's labor, the satisfaction of seeing the government cut down tall poppies, etc.). If you're a serf by nature, it's a great trade because the thing you're giving up isn't something you value much anyway. Social democracy is universal in societies that have the economic resources to support it, which I take as evidence that it reflects a near-universal desire.

What distinguishes the welfare state from previous forms of government, IMO, isn't its imposition of servility but the totalitarian way in which it does so. In the Middle Ages, most people were serfs, but there were elites--nobles, knights, burghers, church officials--who were exempt. In a social democracy, the government forces servility on everyone to some degree or another. IDK whether this universal imposition is something that technological and social changes enabled or an inherent byproduct of democracy, or even if democracy and the technological revolution can be separated.
Augusto Pinochet

A relevant post from another thread:

"The Soviet Union was great because although you had to wait in line for food, they gave you free shit and you could live as a NEET if you wanted to."

It's hard to imagine a better illustration of the servile mind than this.
A Gleaming Leprosy

These are all excellent criticisms of the welfare state, but I find one key fact has been omitted: people could only be enslaved by their dependency on government benefits because they were already enslaved by their dependency on wages.