Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift bears a title that seems far from the preoccupations of America today. We have nothing to do with despots, do we? And the subtitle refers to authors—Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville—that many have heard of but few know anything about. So what does the book have to do with American democracy today?
Consider our current setting: Threatened with the loss of our homes and financial security, and the potential for terrorism; embroiled in endless war in lands few of us understand; worried that the American dream is disappearing—is it any surprise that Americans look to political change that provides hope? Furthermore, many Americans apparently do not believe our crises will be solved until the government steps in to protect us. We seem to assume that human action happens either through political organization or within the boundaries set by political leaders.
The State, in other words, is the guardian of our interests and the shepherd of our action; without it, many believe, all would descend into chaos or worse.
Professor Rahe, a self-described “political historian” who teaches at Hillsdale College, tells us that such is the setting in which despotism will increase—not just the sword but also by the “soft” means of the regulator, the consumer advocate, the bank overseer, even the community organizer. “I know what you really need,” says the despot-cum-shepherd. “Let me organize things for you, so your choices are simple, and the common good is advanced.”
Rahe’s book tells us what those famous political theorists whom we never seem to get around to reading can teach us about our “modern prospect.” He concentrates mainly on the best known of the three, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who first warned us about soft despotism. Rahe argues that American democracy is well on its way to the destination that Tocqueville feared.
The United States of today has more in common with Tocqueville’s royalist France than with the nation of the American founders. It has a stable elite that happily presides over the erosion of individual rights. Large swaths of our economy now are under the control of bureaucrats, petty and inconsequential people who revel in the use of power. Instead of a free society, ours is increasingly controlled and directed—as the French would say, dirigiste.
Among the manifestations of that is the transformation of higher education, about which Rahe comments:
Our colleges and universities became the finest in the world when they were left to their own devices. It is in the years of federal regulation and superintendence that they became top heavy with bureaucracy and ridiculously expensive, fiercely ideological and unwilling to give grades that would distinguish the goat from the sheep, and increasingly hostile to the very idea of liberal education. The only conceivable justification for federal regulation of education is the preposterous conviction, entertained by our administrative class, that ordinary human beings are simply unfit to manage their own affairs.
Of course, it isn’t only in education that our elite regard ordinary people as unfit to manage their own affairs. That has become the norm; we’re engulfed by regulations.
What has gone wrong? Rahe maintains that “We have jettisoned much of the equipment—political, social, moral and psychological—that in the past enabled us to join together, stand our ground, and resist liberal democracy’s despotic drift.”
America is in a bad way, but Rahe does not believe that once a nation starts down the “road to serfdom,” it will inevitably reach that destination. In fact, he argues—persuasively to my mind—that Tocqueville and Montesquieu assist us in recovering that American form of limited government and the rule of law that lovers of liberty cherish. Soft as the path to despotism may be, Rahe believes that Americans can reverse course and restore the virtues of the republic that have been dismantled.
If despotism in democratic society isn’t inevitable, where do we see the opposing forces and hope of new opportunities? What’s missing from Rahe’s discussion of Tocquevillian soft despotism is the same thing I find missing from F. A. Hayek’s discussion of the pull toward state centralization in The Road to Serfdom: recognition of the ways in which free actions of individuals and voluntary associations pull in the opposite direction. Rahe spends his time talking about action in the political realm that we should be taking (or, mostly, stopping).
Absent from his account are the positive actions of civil associations and individuals acting independently and responsibly. I’m thinking, for example, of home-schooling, the explosion of liberty-based think tanks and civil associations, and the creation of several new colleges resistant to government intrusion.
In the tug of war between soft despotism and individual liberty, liberty is down but far from out.