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Sunday, June 28, 2009

REVIEW: Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

A Good Synthesis of Montesquieu, Rousseau and de Tocqueville in Service of the Defense of Liberty,
June 5, 2009

Prof. Paul Anthony Rahe does service to the cause of freedom by producing a profoundly useful work entitled Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, de Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect. The author attempts to explain what de Tocqueville called many years ago, "democracy's drift." Meaning its descent into a "soft despotism" of centralized administration, barely perceptible over time. Rahe seeks serious philosophical support for his libertarian conclusions by appealing to the works of three great French thinkers. Montesquieu, whose work The Spirit of the Laws reflected his study of the English national constitution and first suggested the efficacy of separation of powers. Rousseau, who was voluminous works, including the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, provided for an attack on individual liberty as the safeguard of societal progress, and argued that societies need to trade liberty for equality. And of course, the great de Tocqueville, in whose magnum opus, Democracy in America astutely observed the habits of the early 19th century American population and through which he developed a theory of how societies can avoid democratic drift.

It is useful to review a quote from de Tocqueville that the author puts in his conclusion:

"Certain peoples pursue liberty obstinately in the face of all sorts of perils and misfortunes. It is not the material goods that it offers them that these peoples then love in it; they consider it itself as a good so precious and so necessary that no other good console them for its loss and that they find, in tasting it, consolation for everything that occurs. Other peoples tire of it in the midst of their prosperity; they allow to be snatched from their hands without resistance: for fear of jeopardizing by such an effort the very well-being they owe to it. What do they lack with regard to remaining free? What, indeed? The taste itself for being free. Do not ask me to analyze this sublime taste, it is necessary to experience it. It enters of its own accord into the great hearts that God has prepared to receive it: it fills them, it inflames them. One must renounce making mediocre souls understand what they have never felt."

In short, de Tocqueville is stating Rahe's hypothesis that with time and prosperity, free societies allow their Liberties to be selectively chipped away, which the author sees as having been happening to the United States for the past 75 years.

Rahe breaks his book down into four distinct parts; the first three dealing with the works and political insights of the philosophers mentioned above. In this he provides a valuable service for people who are interested in *why* these philosophers are important to the history of political thought and of Liberty, but don't necessarily want to slog through the large amount of material produced by them.

In this, the author is similar to others like Karl Popper, who digested Plato and Hegel in his The Open Society and its Enemies vols I & II, Allan Bloom, who provides for an excellent review of Nietzsche in The Closing of the American Mind, and Francis Fukuyama, who does similar work for Hegel and Koejeve in The End of History and the Last Man.

The last section of "Soft Despotism..." synthesizes the political insights of these authors in support of Rahe's conclusion that democratic society essentially harbors the seeds of its own destruction. That a drift towards a centralized administrative "soft despotism" is a natural part of the life-cycle of a free society and must be actively resisted. His arguments are not new, but they are convincing, and he has done a great service by demonstrating that the fear of democratic drift is not a recent phenomenon. In fact the three great French philosophers that are the focus of this book had no trouble in discerning the possibility of it.

A key concept that runs through each of the philosopher's thought is that of "uneasiness" (inquietude) that all three mark as a characteristic of all free societies. It is this uneasiness, about one's place in society, one's future prospects (the treadmill effect to be more modern about it) that is the force that drives free men to slowly proffer up their Liberties to an administrative despotism that convinces them it can relieve their insecurities.

Rahe's remonstrances against gently accepting the administrative despotism in which one could argue we are currently living is an important clarion call for all those who are interested in the cause of Liberty. Backed up by serious political philosophy and analysis, it deserves to be widely read.


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