Introduction: democratic despotism comes of age The New Criterion by Roger Kimball
An Introduction to “The New Statism and the Assault on Individual Liberty,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
—C. S. Lewis, 1953
This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them for ourselves.
—Ronald Reagan, 1964
Although we have lately seen a sudden upsurge in statist sentiment in this country and in Europe, it is important to understand that statism and the blandishments of socialism are not novelties but peren- nial temptations. Were they novelties they would be less dangerous. The late Irving Kristol, who died last year at 89, was exquisitely sensitive to the role of intellectuals in the metabolism of this debate, and I’d like to start by quoting from a speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute in 1973. “For two centuries,” Mr. Kristol noted,
the very important people who managed the affairs of this society could not believe in the importance of ideas—until one day they were shocked to discover that their children, having been captured and shaped by certain ideas, were either rebelling against their authority or seceding from their society. The truth is that ideas are all-important. The massive and seemingly solid institutions of any society—the economic institutions, the political institutions, the religious institutions—are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions. The leverage of ideas is so immense that a slight change in the intellectual climate can and will—perhaps slowly but nevertheless inexorably—twist a familiar institution into an unrecognizable shape.
The ideas that are percolating down from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and Brussels these days are not new. That, indeed, is one of the depressing things about the new statism: it inspires a sense of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà-vu all over again.” We’ve been down this road before. We know where it leads. It is that forlorn byway that Friedrich von Hayek called the Road to Serfdom. Do we really have to travel down it again?
Perhaps the best anatomy of the sorts of statist initiatives we see popping up all around us these days was given nearly two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in his dissection of what he called “Democratic Despotism.” In a justly famous passage from Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes this “tutelary despotism” that “does not tyrannize” but rather infantilizes.
Democratic despotism, Tocqueville points out, is unlike despotisms of old. It pre- fers the carrot to the stick. The goal of the operation is the same—the achievement of conformity and the consolidation of power—but the means of choice is not terror but dependence. Accordingly, Tocqueville writes, democratic despotism is despotic at one remove. It does not, unless stymied, terrorize. Rather, it “hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
For decades, the United States has been drifting towards the shoals of that enslavement. With the ascension of our current President and his plans to inspan us all in his “spread-the-wealth-around” socialism, we are nearing the point of shipwreck. “The devilish genius of this form of tyranny,” as the commentator Michael Ledeen has pointed out, “is that it looks and even acts democratic. We still elect our representatives, and they still ask us for our support… . Freedom is smothered without touching the institutions of political democracy. We act out democratic skits while submitting to an oppressive central power that we ourselves have chosen.” The element of seduction that is so central to this sort of managerial despotism is one of the things that makes it so hard to resist. Its power, Tocquville noted,is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
I mentioned Hayek a moment ago. In The Road to Serfdom (1943), Hayek reminds us that the upsurge of socialism in a society has an internal as well as an external aspect. Socialism is not only something that the state does to individuals. It is also something that individuals do to themselves when they decide that freedom is too expensive to fight for and that the consolations of dependency are worth the tax on individual liberty.