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Sunday, June 28, 2009

The state despotic by Mark Steyn - The New Criterion

And in addition to our own review of Prof. Rahe's important work below, here is Steyn's way better written, way more humorous review of the book:

The state despotic by Mark Steyn - The New Criterion

The professor opens his study with a famous passage from M. de Tocqueville. Or, rather, it would be famous were he still widely read. For he knows us far better than we know him: “I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world,” he wrote the best part of two centuries ago. He and his family had been on the sharp end of France’s violent convulsions, but he considered that, to a democratic republic, there were slyer seductions:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

He didn’t foresee “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol” but, details aside, that’s pretty much on the money. He continues:

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 provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

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… 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 tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Indeed. And here's some more...

For Tocqueville, this is a critical distinction between America and the faux republics of his own continent. “It is in the township that the strengths of free peoples resides,” he wrote. “Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people.” In America, democracy is supposed to be a participatory sport not a spectator one: In Europe, every five years you put an X on a piece of paper and subsequently discover which of the party candidates on the list at central office has been delegated to represent you in fast-tracking all those E.U. micro-regulations through the rubber-stamp legislature. By contrast, American democracy is a game to be played, not watched: You go to Town Meeting, you denounce the School Board budget, you vote to close a road, you run for cemetery commissioner.

Does that distinction still hold? As Professor Rahe argues, in the twentieth century the intermediary institutions were belatedly hacked away—not just self-government at town, county, and state level, but other independent outposts: church, family, civic associations. Today, very little stands between the individual and the sovereign, which is why schoolgirls in Dillon, South Carolina think it entirely normal to beseech Good King Barack the Hopeychanger to do something about classroom maintenance.

I say “Good King Barack,” but truly that does an injustice to ye medieval tyrants of yore. As Tocqueville wrote: “There was a time in Europe in which the law, as well as the consent of the people, clothed kings with a power almost without limits. But almost never did it happen that they made use of it.” His Majesty was an absolute tyrant—in theory. But in practice he was in his palace hundreds of miles away. A pantalooned emissary might come prancing into your dooryard once every half-decade and give you a hard time, but for the most part you got on with your life relatively undisturbed. “The details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control,” wrote Tocqueville. But what would happen if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”?

That moment has now arrived.


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