The Soft Despotism of Liberal Government

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    Call it ‘creeping socialism,’ or progressivism, or left-wing thought, it remains popular and increasingly so to a large segment of the population.

    Why? And is the wave unstoppable? In a 2009 speech, parts highlighted as follows, Dr. Paul Rahe gives a cogent explanation, and understanding same make it more possible to make an informed choice.

    1. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing “Democracy in America” in the 1830’s, described “an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate.” As he predicted, this power is “absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle,” and 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 industry, regulates their testaments, divides their inheritances.” It is entirely proper to ask, as he asked, whether it can “relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and of the effort associated with living.”

    2. For many of us, the idea of never having to plan, to consider the ramifications of our actions, is more than inviting. After all, what is the cost of this loving envelope?

    a. A network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform, the rule of a technocratic elite armed with authority conferred by a liberal, quasi-democratic regime —through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. 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 destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

    b. Here is the warm embrace of the collective, hinting ever so solicitously, so assiduously, how simple it would be to join, to give up what makes one different, unique.

    3. Well, after all, what is so terrible about a “social body” that would be intent on exercising foresight with regard to everything; that would act as a “second providence,” nourishing men from birth and protecting them from “perils”; and that would function as a “tutelary power” capable of rendering men “gentle” and “sociable”??

    a. Tocqueville foresaw that the human “soul” would enter into a “long repose.” In the process, “individual energy” would be “almost extinguished”; and, when action was required, men would “rely on others,” in a new and unprecedented “species of servitude.”

    4. So, the conflict remains in our time, between what we glibly call liberalism, and conservatism, the felt “need for guidance, and the longing to remain free.” What this would involve, Tocqueville explains, is a “species of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people,” and the compromises that result, not in liberty, but in a soft, gentle despotism welcomed by those subject to it.

    5. And what would the alternative look like? Decentralized administration, local self-government, civic associations, an unfettered press, Biblical religion, and the marital solidarity characteristic of Jacksonian America, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, put into practical form through the Constitution, and given an authoritative interpretation in ‘The Federalist.’

    For the full speech, see "Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift"
    https://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/digital/rahe/default.asp
     
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    Last edited: Oct 16, 2010

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