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Soft Despotism

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Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

06/09/2009David Gordon

[Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. By Paul A. Rahe. Yale University Press, 2009. Xxiii + 374 pages.]


Paul Rahe's outstanding book can be considered an extended commentary on a famous passage in Tocqueville's Democracy in America:

Over these [citizens] 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 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 testaments, divides their inheritances… In this fashion, every day, it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will within a smaller space and bit by bit it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own. Equality has prepared men for all of these things: it has disposed them to put up with them and often even to regard them as a benefit. (pp. 187–88, quoting Tocqueville)

As Rahe abundantly demonstrates, this passage has great relevance to recent American history. Tocqueville's comment, he shows, represents the culmination of a line of thought that began with Montesquieu. Although Montesquieu in the eighteenth century was regarded as a great thinker, he does not figure much today in discussions of political theory. Most people view him as a figure merely of historical interest. Rahe shows that the modern view is seriously mistaken: Montesquieu offered a penetrating discussion of the problems of modern political regimes.1

Montesquieu in Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline rejected both the desirability and possibility of a modern return to the virtue characteristic of classical antiquity, with its preeminent stress on military valor.

The point that Montesquieu intended to make is clear enough. We should not want to imitate the Romans… And even if for some perverse reason we wanted to imitate the Romans, he then demonstrates in his Universal Monarchy, we could not succeed. (p. 7)

Instead, a commercial society, of which England was the foremost example, offered the best prospects for a flourishing social order under modern conditions. England, though ostensibly ruled by a king, was in fact a "republic concealed under the form of a monarchy" (p. 37). Unlike a genuine monarchy, it aimed at liberty and economic prosperity and demanded no particular virtue from the people.

It by no means followed from the success of English society, though, that the people in it lived in contentment. Quite the contrary, they found themselves in an anxious state, which Montesquieu termed "inquiétude." With characteristic erudition, Rahe traces this notion to the Jansenist Blaise Pascal and his disciple Pierre Nicole. They held that after the Fall, human beings were in the grip of concupiscence. Though a malign emotion, it could simulate the effects of the virtues and produce, in unintended fashion, a workable society.

Nicole devoted a seminal essay suggesting that Christian charity is politically and socially superfluous — that, in its absence, thanks to the particular providence of God, l'amour propre is perfectly capable of providing a foundation for the proper ordering of civil society, of the political order, and of human life in this world more generally. (p. 43)

Montesquieu, following Montaigne, secularized this notion; here we have a principal source of Bernard Mandeville's view that private vices were public benefits and more generally, of the Scottish Enlightenment concept of the unintended consequences of human action.

In the modern world, then, we can obtain a tolerable, though not ideal, order by following the English model. But a danger threatens this happy outcome: in certain circumstances, the executive might seize control of the reins of power and transform society into a despotic system.

In Montesquieu's judgment, the legislature within a modern republic would be in serious danger of succumbing fully to executive influence only in the unlikely event that the management of commerce and industry within that republic were somehow, to a very considerable extent, entrusted to the executive. In such a polity should the populace in general and the middle class in particular ever be beholden to government for their economic well-being, the situation of the citizens would indeed be grim. (p. 58)

To prevent this transition to despotism, it is essential to preserve the intermediate powers, such as the nobility and clergy, who can interpose their authority between the central government and the people. Without these powers, the executive may take control, in the manner just described. The course of French history prior to the 1789 illustrates an analogous transition, though in a monarchy rather than a republic. Under Louis XIV and his successors, the power of the nobility to resist royal authority had been suppressed; the ensuing growth of an all-powerful central state helped bring about the revolution, as a reaction against the state's excesses. Malesherbes, a highly placed liberal aristocrat and close reader of Montesquieu, warned Louis XVI of the dangers of undue centralization, to no avail. In the Grandes Remonstrances of 1775, Malesherbes and his colleagues on the Cour des aides charged "that the system of administration put in place by Louis XIV and further developed under Louis XV had made of the French monarchy an 'Oriental despotism'." Malesherbes, who was executed under the Revolution for his defense of Louis XVI, was Tocqueville's great-grandfather, and like his ancestor, Tocqueville continued the line of analysis begun by Montesquieu.2

Before turning to Tocqueville, Rahe discusses another figure much influenced by Montesquieu. Jean-Jacques Rousseau took much of his criticism of bourgeois society from Montesquieu, but his remedy differed entirely from that of his great predecessor. Rousseau embraced the classical ideal that Montesquieu rejected:

Montesquieu's description of the ancient republics and his analysis of their character Rousseau thought entirely just, but he did not share the misgivings that had caused the French philosopher to devote so much effort to assessing the virtues and prospects of monarchy and the peculiar form of government found in England. In fact, the very features of classical republicanism that had occasioned such misgivings on Montesquieu's part were the features that Rousseau found most attractive. (p. 120)

Despite his praise for the ancient city, though, Rousseau as well as Montesquieu doubted whether it would be possible to recreate such a regime in the modern world. The conditions for doing so were so demanding as to render the task in effect impossible.

As we have already seen, Rahe wishes sharply to contrast the political theory of the modern age with classical republicanism. He can carry out this endeavor by treating Rousseau as an exception; but, as one might anticipate, he views with disfavor attempts by J.G.A. Pocock and others in the Cambridge School to find a classical republican tradition at the heart of early modern political theory. He devotes a mordant note to the view he opposes:

Today, to a remarkable degree, these arguments [of Rousseau] infect contemporary scholarship on republican thought before Rousseau, much of which consists in an ill-conceived attempt to read Rousseau's distinctive vision back into Machiavelli, the republican thought of the English interregnum, and English Whiggery more generally; for one such attempt, see J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment … and for another, consider the various works by Quentin Skinner. (p. 310, note 56)3

Though a close reader of Rousseau, Tocqueville did not share his quixotic admiration for the classical republic. To the contrary, Tocqueville is for Rahe, "Montesquieu's heir." Like Montesquieu, he deplored the growth of administrative centralism in France. America, by contrast, was marked by strong emphasis on local institutions and was thus better able than France to reconcile the revolutionary impulse toward equality with liberty. (Tocqueville was not entirely optimistic about America either.) Rahe maintains that, despite its ostensible subject, Democracy in America really was intended as an intervention in French politics:

Democracy in America constitutes a muted polemic — designed first and foremost for consideration by his contemporaries. The warnings that he issued with regard to the propensities inherent in the democratic social condition were directed to them; and when he singled out various aspects of American life as portents of doom or as harbingers of hope, he nearly always did so with an eye to the presence of the former and the absence of the latter in his native France. (p. 222)

Unfortunately, a concerted political movement that began in the nineteenth century and continued in the twentieth has undermined the guards against despotism in America that Tocqueville analyzed. The progressives demanded efficiency in government and spurned traditional American practices as obstacles on the path to needed reforms.

The foundations for the administrative state were laid … in and after the 1870s and 1880s, in the thinking of a group of exceptional individuals, for the most part university professors, who regarded the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, the federalist system, and the primacy of local government — the very features in American institutions that had most powerfully elicited Tocqueville's admiration — as hopelessly archaic. (p. 244)

Rahe stresses the role of Woodrow Wilson in the progressives' takeover of the American system. Wilson, an ardent admirer of the Prussian administrative state, had no use for Montesquieu. The notion of checks and balances, he held, reflected an outdated mechanical philosophy. Biology, not physics, must be our guide; and an "organic" view of the state must replace limited government. Rahe also notes that Wilson "gave white supremacy a tremendous boost" (p250) by his patronage of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation.

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal continued the progressive trend, and Rahe makes an especially valuable point in response to Roosevelt's proclamation of a second, economic, Bill of Rights in 1944.

Every item … that Roosevelt denominated a right is, of course, something intrinsically desirable and good; every item is arguably an element within the "happiness" that the Founding Fathers expected most Americans to pursue. But in their day, and in Tocqueville's as well, it was taken for granted that no one had a "right" to such goods… Moreover, at the time of the founding, Americans believed — and no one more fervently than Thomas Jefferson — that the expansion in centralized administration necessary to guarantee "equality in the pursuit of happiness" and requisite for the provision of such goods was incompatible with the political rights that Roosevelt would later list in his message to Congress. Tocqueville was of the same opinion. (p. 261)

Hayek of course argued to the same effect in The Road to Serfdom, and Rahe's great achievement is to show that this type of criticism has its origins in Montesquieu and Tocqueville.4 He has, moreover, accomplished his task with extraordinary erudition. This is a major work of scholarship that everyone should read.

I have noted a few minor points: When he speaks of Louis XIV's aspirations for "universal monarchy in Europe" in the War of Spanish Succession (p. 3), he should, I think, take account of the revisionist scholarship of Mark Thompson on the war. It is not altogether correct to refer to "the Estates-General in its traditional form as three separate assemblies" (p. 146); the three estates had in the past sometimes, but not always, deliberated separately. Roosevelt was Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy, not secretary (p. 252).

  • 1. In taking Montesquieu seriously as a political theorist, Rahe follows Leo Strauss.
  • 2. After considering Malesherbes, Rahe devotes several pages to Turgot. Readers of this journal will find the following note of interest: "For an astute appreciation of Turgot's qualities as an economist and an attempt to situate him vis-à-vis his immediate predecessors and successors, see Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought I," p. 290, note 23.
  • 3. For further discussion of Rahe's view of the republican tradition, see his monumental Republics Ancient and Modern.
  • 4. Rahe refers to Mises and Hayek on p. 265; see also the accompanying note 68.
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