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The New Despotism

[From The New Despotism]

When the modern political community was being shaped at the end of the 18th century, its founders thought that the consequences of republican or representative institutions in government would be the reduction of political power in individual lives.

Nothing seems to have mattered more to such minds as Montesquieu, Turgot, and Burke in Europe and to Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin in the United States than the expansion of freedom in the day-to-day existence of human beings, irrespective of class, occupation, or belief.

Hence the elaborate, carefully contrived provisions of constitution or law whereby formal government would be checked, limited, and given root in the smallest possible assemblies of the people.

The kind of arbitrary power Burke so detested and referred to almost constantly in his attacks upon the British government in its relation to the American colonists and the people of India and Ireland, and upon the French government during the revolution, was foremost in the minds of all the architects of the political community, and they thought it could be eliminated, or reduced to insignificance, by ample use of legislative and judicial machinery.

What we have witnessed, however, in every Western country, and not least in the United States, is the almost incessant growth in power over the lives of human beings — power that is basically the result of the gradual disappearance of all the intermediate institutions which, coming from the predemocratic past, served for a long time to check the kind of authority that almost from the beginning sprang from the new legislative bodies and executives in the modern democracies.

The 18th-century hope that people, by their direct participation in government, through voting and office holding, would be correspondingly loath to see political power grow, has been proved wrong. Nothing seems so calculated to expand and intensify the power of the state as the expansion of electorates and the general popularization of the uses of power.

Even so, I do not think we can properly explain the immense power that exists in modern democracies by reference solely to the enlargement of the base of government or to the kinds of parliaments Sir Henry Maine warned against in his Popular Government. Had political power remained visible, as it largely did down until about World War I, and the manifest function of legislature and executive, the matter would be very different.

What has in fact happened during the past half century is that the bulk of power in our society, as it affects our intellectual, economic, social, and cultural existences, has become largely invisible, a function of the vast infragovernment composed of bureaucracy’s commissions, agencies, and departments in a myriad of areas. And the reason this power is so commonly invisible to the eye is that it lies concealed under the humane purposes that have brought it into existence.

The greatest single revolution of the last century in the political sphere has been the transfer of effective power over human lives from the constitutionally visible offices of government, the nominally sovereign offices, to the vast network that has been brought into being in the name of protection of the people from their exploiters.

It is this kind of power that Justice Brandeis warned against in a decision nearly half a century ago.

Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the governments’ purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

What gives the new despotism its peculiar effectiveness is indeed its liaison with humanitarianism, but beyond this fact is its capacity for entering into the smallest details of human life.

The most absolute authority, wrote Rousseau,

is that which penetrates into a man’s inmost being and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions.

The truth of that observation is in no way lessened by the fact that for Rousseau genuinely legitimate government, government based upon the general will, should so penetrate. Rousseau saw correctly that the kind of power traditionally exercised by kings and princes, represented chiefly by the tax collector and the military, was in fact a very weak kind of power compared with what a philosophy of government resting on the general will could bring about.

Tocqueville, from a vastly different philosophy of the state, also took note of the kind of power Rousseau described.

It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in the great things than in the little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without the other.

Congresses and legislatures pass laws, executives enforce them, and the courts interpret them. These, as I have said, are the bodies on which the attentions of the Founding Fathers were fixed. They are the visible organs of government to this day, the objects of constant reporting in the media. And I would not question the capacity of each of them to interfere substantially with individual freedom.

But of far greater importance in the realm of freedom is that invisible government created in the first instance by legislature and executive but rendered in due time largely autonomous, is often nearly impervious to the will of elected constitutional bodies. In ways too numerous even to try to list, the invisible government — composed of commissions, bureaus, and regulatory agencies of every imaginable kind —enters daily into what Tocqueville calls “the minor details of life.”

Murray Weidenbaum, in an important study of this invisible government, Government Mandated Price Increases, has correctly referred to “a second managerial revolution” that is now well under way in American society. The first managerial revolution, described originally by A.A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means in their classic book The Modern Corporation and Private Property and given explicit identity by James Burnham, concerned, as Weidenbaum points out, the separation of management from formal ownership in the modern corporation.

The second managerial revolution is very different. “This time,” writes Weidenbaum,

the shift is from the professional management selected by the corporation’s board of directors to the vast cadre of government regulators that influences and often controls the key decisions of the typical business firm.

Weidenbaum concerns himself almost entirely with the business sector — pointing out incidentally that this whole cadre of regulation is a by now deeply embedded cause of inflation — but the point he makes is just as applicable to other, nonbusiness areas of society.

In the name of education, welfare, taxation, safety, health, the environment, and other laudable ends, the new despotism confronts us at every turn. Its effectiveness lies, as I say, in part through liaison with humanitarian rather than nakedly exploitative objectives but also, and perhaps most significantly, in its capacity to deal with the human will rather than with mere human actions.

“The kind of power traditionally exercised by kings and princes, represented chiefly by the tax collector and the military, was in fact a very weak kind of power compared with what a philosophy of government resting on the general will could bring about.”

By the very existence of one or another of the regulatory offices of the invisible government that now occupies foremost place, the wills of educators, researchers, artists, philanthropists, and enterprisers in all areas, as well as in business, are bound to be affected: to be shaped, bent, driven, even extinguished.

Of all the social or moral objectives, however, which are the taking-off points of the new despotism in our times, there is one that stands out clearly, that has widest possible appeal, and that at the present time undoubtedly represents the greatest single threat to liberty and social initiative. I refer to equality, or, more accurately, to the New Equality.

The foremost, or indeed the sole, condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality or to get men to believe you love it. Thus, the science of despotism, which was once so complex, has been simplified and reduced, as it were, to a single principle.

The words are Tocqueville’s, toward the end of Democracy in America, in partial summary of the central thesis of that book, which is the affinity between centralization of power and mass equalitarianism. Tocqueville yielded to no one in his appreciation of equality before the law. It was, he thought, vital to a creative society and a free state.

It was Tocqueville’s genius, however, to see the large possibility of the growth in the national state of another kind of equality, more akin to the kind of leveling that war and centralization bring to a social order. It is only in our time that his words have become analytic and descriptive rather than prophetic.

There is a great deal in common between military collectivism and the kind of society that must be the certain result of the doctrines of the New Equalitarians, whose aim is not mere increase in equality before the law.

In fact this historic type of equality looms as an obstacle to the kind of equality that is desired: equality of condition, equality of result. There is nothing paradoxical in the fondness of equalitarians for centralized power, the kind that the military best evidences, and the fondness of centralizers for equality. The latter, whatever else it may signify, means the absence of the kinds of centers of authority and rank that are always dangerous to despotic governments.

Equality of condition or result is one thing when it is set in the utopian community, the commune, or the monastery. The Benedictine Rule is as good a guide as we need for the administration of this kind of equalitarian order, small enough, personal enough to prevent the dogma of equality from extinguishing normal diversity of strength and talent.

For countless centuries, everywhere in the world, religion and kinship have been contexts of this kind of equality; they still are in theme.

Equality of result is a very different thing, however, when it becomes the guiding policy of the kind of national state that exists in the West today — founded in war and bureaucracy, its power strengthened by these forces throughout modern history, and dependent from the beginning upon a degree of leveling of the population.

We may have in mind the ideal of equality that the monastery or family represents, but what we will get in actual fact in the modern state is the kind of equality that goes with uniformity and homogeneity — above all, with war society.

Tocqueville was by no means alone in his perception of the affinity between equality and power. At the very end of the 18th century, Edmund Burke had written, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, of the passion for leveling that exists in the militant and the military: those, he wrote, “who attempt to level, never equalize.”

“Socialists such as Jaures in France saw in the citizen army, based upon universal conscription, an admirable means of instilling in Frenchmen greater love for equality than for the liberty associated with capitalist society.”

The French Revolution, Burke believed correctly, was different from any revolution that had ever taken place before. And the reason for this difference lay in its combination of eradication of social diversity on the one hand and, on the other, the relentless increase of military-political power that expressed itself in the timeworn fashion of such power.

All that tended toward the destruction of the intermediate authorities of social class, province, church, and family brought simultaneously into being, Burke noted, a social leveling and a transfer to the state alone of powers previously resident in a plurality of associations.

“Everything depends upon the army in such a government as yours,” he wrote; “for you have industriously destroyed all the opinions and prejudices, and, as far as in you lay, all the instincts which support government.”

In words prophetic indeed, since they were written in 1790, Burke further declared that the crisis inherent in “military democracy” could only be resolved by the rise of “some popular general who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command.” Such an individual’ “shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself.”

The theme of military democracy, of the union of military and social equality, was strong in certain 19th-century critics. We see it in some of Burckhardt’s writings, where he refers to the future rise of “military commandos” in circumstances of rampant equality.

We see it, perhaps most profoundly, in James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, though what is most evident in that remarkable work is much less the military, save by implication, than the implacable conflict Stephen discerned between equality and liberty.

There were others — Henry Adams in America, Taine in France, Nietzsche in Germany — who called attention to the problem equality creates for liberty in the modern democratic state. Nor were such perceptions confined to the pessimists.

Socialists such as Jaures in France saw in the citizen army, based upon universal conscription, an admirable means of instilling in Frenchmen greater love for equality than for the liberty associated with capitalist society.

It is evident in our day how much more of a force the ethic of equality has become since these 19th-century prophecies and prescriptions were uttered. Two world wars and a major depression have advanced bureaucracy and its inherent regimentations to a point where the ideology of equality becomes more and more a means of rationalizing these regimentations and less and less a force serving individual life or liberty.

This article is excerpted from The New Despotism, pp. 3–9.Download PDF


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