January 13, 2010

on liberalism & liberty

Despite some misunderstanding to the contrary, this is not a "book review blog", it is simply my blog. The emphasis of the title should be placed on "season" and "another", in terms of why I chose it.

That said, I think that the most convenient way to approach some topics I have been recently considering is as a book review. I just finished reading Paul A. Rahe's Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. The book was, thankfully, much better than its title.

I have been revisiting, over the past few months, territory I first covered as a teenager: Tocqueville, Jefferson, Rousseau, the Federalist, the Anti-Federalist, John Adams. For someone like myself whose last ancestor–as far as I know–to not have been born in North America was a Scottish soldier in the British army, who fought in the Revolutionary War, but stayed behind in the new country, deserting his nation and post, I cannot reasonably claim to be the inheritor of any governmental tradition other than the American. I was once an ardent "classical liberal", but have since come to wonder if the deep pathologies in our political culture (and outside it) are not because of betrayals of liberalism, but rather brought on by it.

The majority of the book is quote-heavy, a blow-by-blow selection of quotes from the title authors. The form is actually somewhat Hegelian, though Rahe takes the appropriate liberal shots at Hegel himself. Tocqueville is positioned as a synthesizer of Montesquieu's liberalism and Rousseau's anti-enlightenment critique. I cannot evaluate this part of the book, but Rahe's evidence that Tocqueville was inspired by Rousseau despite the lack of citation seems both reasonable and perhaps even inevitable.

Rahe tracks Tocqueville's pro-democratic approach to evaluating the diseases proper to democracy, and largely endorses it. There is some mention of Montesquieu's warnings regarding the dissolution of traditional privileges and how it would undo the social character those privileges sustained, but little follow-through. This part of the book is somewhat marred by repetition, but this may just be for me. Those who are fairly well-versed in Tocqueville will likely find themselves simply skimming much of the middle of the book. You know what Rahe is quoting, it is time to understand why.

The last twenty pages, however, are Rahe's program for reform, such as it is. It is mostly reactionary: end the worst abuses of the current progressive administrative state. It seems unclear that any "turning back" of the clock would result in any sort of re-capture of former democratic, liberal virtue on the part of the American people. Rahe correctly notes that the American ruling class has no concept of noblesse oblige, but are rather as self-aggrandizing as any bourgeoise striver. He touches on Rousseau's warning regarding market society and the restriction of intellectual freedom, and again on Tocqueville's mention of the lack of true dissent in American society, but does not draw the line as to what that means for his program. This does not mean I do not favor his reforms (especially in the ending of the institutionalized murder of children for whim and profit), but rather that I have no illusions as to their improving the condition of the American people as such for self-rule.

That democratic, progressive society hates true talent is self-evident. Perhaps it is sharper for myself, who grew up in a public schooling regime whose main goal was to keep children with talent from not embarrassing the normal ones, with the drive becoming more openly abusive the more different the child was. Rahe writes as if this is a feature of American education post-"No Child Left Behind", but it has been there for much longer in many parts of the country. He writes also of the destruction of masculinity and femininity, but nothing of how persons who have never felt free to be either can suddenly learn how to be so again. At this point, I think nothing more than the march of generations will bring back much of virtue to American public life.

The core question, however, is one of the virtues inherent to self-rule. This problem is where I have broke with my classical liberal background, and likely will always do so. The problem is that the great liberals were nearly all aristocrats, surrounded by aristocrats. They saw largely those who were raised to be rulers of themselves, and who had the resources to do so. What they saw of the bourgeoise was largely that of an upwardly mobile sort, also obviously ready for some form of self-rule in a culture that still had limits set on it by morality and custom. Few had even considered preparing or allowing the "lower orders" to self-rule, though the logic of liberal government made that broadening inevitable, whether it happened relatively suddenly (as in the USA) or gradually (as in the United Kingdom). Obviously, the ability to be a natural aristocrat is not all in birth, but aristocracies have traditionally been more willing to allow the elevation of brilliant and competent outsiders than our modern democracies. That the perhaps excessive liberality of the aristocrats helped seed their downfall should not doubted by anyone, as studies of both the French and Russian revolutions have continually uncovered.

The question is whether it is fair to force self-rule upon persons who have little interest in it, whether the broadening of political power does anything but allow the functionaries called "career politicians" to have the pretense of working on a "mandate" form "the people". That this sort of talk was prefigured by monarchs speaking of their "nations" is true, but the distinction is not without difference.

There is no despotism in the Western world that no longer has the pretense of being a despotism of "the people". All obey democratic forms, and some even leave the essence intact. The complaint of many liberals is that if they were only allowed to educate the people via the media, they could change the tide, but the question is also whether the people want to be educated. And besides, it is not by the news that we are motivated to vote for one candidate or another, it is by marketing and the emotive appeals found in our entertainments. More people will react to the marketing techniques of the Green movement because they saw Avatar than ever would because they saw Al Gore appear on MSNBC.

The question is–to evoke Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn–liberty or equality, specifically the equality implied by the infinite franchise and progressive programming.

Much has been made of "positive" versus "negative" definitions of liberty. I think that, to the extent that that dichotomy is even legitimate (I doubt it is), that Christians should be concerned with positive liberty, which has more in common with the theological uses of the term. Put simply, the goal of a governance aimed at liberty should be a state where none are compelled to do obvious evil and all are free to work obvious good.

Such a philosophic definition of the end of governance cannot blossom in mass politics. It has forever been true that the only real restraint on rulers has been themselves and the strength of their enemies, and for our state the prospect for both looks weak. Restraint in the use of power is something that is either educated into a person or due to the sort of virtue that would make them shy from democratic prostitution.

That a truly liberal state would likely be impossible for a fallen humanity should be obvious, but that should not prevent us from considering the best paths towards it. It becomes obvious that mass politics, which both encourage and are exacerbated by coercive marketing are not conducive to good order or a state where the human soul can at least work out its salvation in the Church in relative peace. Any state, also, where the greater drives of the human person are ruthlessly suppressed or made into kitsch should also be suspect. For all that Orthodox converts love to speak of beauty, there is little of it in Orthodox America, and much fear of it. Beholden to the egalitarian impulse, we even try to destroy the music of the services in order to fulfill an ideological impulse, projecting our ideas of "the people" onto the laïcs of the Church. Is it so hard to see that this cannot go on?

This is all poorly organized, but I have more to say on this, but from another angle.

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