Review: Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

5 Star, Civil Society, Congress (Failure, Reform), Culture, Research, Democracy, Economics, Education (General), Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Justice (Failure, Reform), Power (Pathologies & Utilization)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Erudition Demanding Concentration–Need Lay Chapter or Pamphlet
October 12, 2009
Paul A. Rahe
This is an extraordinary book offering a very detailed and superbly integrated examination of the consistencies and differences among Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, both to illuminate precisely what was in the Founding Father's minds when they sought to create a Republic of, by, and for We the People; and how distant we have migrated from that ideal.

As other reviewers have noted, this is not for the lay person or even the average Libertarian, for whom I would like to see (and would benefit myself) a pamphlet or article version. This is erudition in its highest form, offering a painstakingly devised integration and application of the works of three author's to the question: “what is the ideal state of unfettered democracy, and where does the USA stand in that regard?”

The book begins with an utterly devastating full page quote from Tocqueville in which I underline the words “petty and vulgar pleasures,” “elevated an immense, tutelary power,” “a network of petty regulations,” and “it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”

Published in 2009 this book is totally current with our recent financial collapse based on Congressional failures of integrity combined with Wall Street moral hazard and bad judgment, and the author notes that as of 2008 25% or more of US citizens were not happy with the state of America or its government. I believe a more telling statistic is the migration of over 44% of the population away from the two-party tyranny and toward declared Independent status. See also:

Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny
Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It
Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography)

I learn a great deal from this book, which once again confirms my view that most college courses are wasted on the young and should be reserved from more mature reflection. I read all this stuff in the 1970's in the original, and did not extract–could not comprehend–the nuances and catalytic connections I can appreciate today.

I am fascinated by the author's discussion of how one must read Montesquieu with a full appreciation for the double-talk necessary in a time of repressive and punitive censorship, and the author's clear depiction of how to read in the context of history, psychology, and sociology of the time being read.

See also:
The Lessons of History
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

This book is nothing less than a primer for those new to the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers, and also a master's seminar for those ready to reflect anew on prior learning.

See also:
The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country
What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States

The bottom line comes early and is confirmed throughout the book: the American Empire is bankrupt and divorced from its past–it has followed in the paths of France, Germany, and Russia, instead of the more enlightened paths intended by the founders and summed up in Ron Paul's book of speeches, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship.

Early on the author draws out the importance of education and especially of the formation of the young, and how political liberty, once won with hard-fought battle, must be maintained with education or it will have to be fought for again. We have failed our young and this is for me the center of gravity for the future, apart from Electoral Reform (see Electoral Reform Act of 2009).

See also:
Philosophy and the Social Problem: The Annotated Edition
Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling

I learn of Roseau's emphasis on corruption as the most likely destroyer of democracy, especially within its legislative branch; of Rousseau's anticipation that “courtiers” would become the norm in the academic and media classes; of his view that political ideology would displace religion as a means of moving crowds with fantasy; and of his concern that representation (intermediaries) is inconsistent with popular sovereignty.

Today the Nobel Prize for Economics was announced, and one of the two winners is Elinor Ostrom, who has pioneered collective decision-making with respect to common resources. Montesquieu was there first, maintaining that one *can* achieve peace and prosperity without giving up liberty, and I consider this to be a solid foundation for welcoming the honor rendered to Elinor Ostrom today.

This book helped me think about the inherent complementarity rather than opposition between politics as the art of achieving consensus on means, ways, and ends, and intelligence (decision-support). I realized in reading this book that the one constant that can assure that politics and intelligence work as they should, in the public interest, is INTEGRITY. I now see integrity as the grease that ensures the whole system of systems works well, and am certain Buckminster Fuller saw this in the same way.

The core concept presented by the author is that all three of the antecedent minds came to grips with the reality that if liberty is achieved and then lost, the intermediaries or tyrannies that will arise are much worse than those that were displaced (monarchy, nobility, clergy). The tyranny of the majority and legislative despotism are much less rational and much less equitable.

I am at the end of my allowed word limit and will finish this at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog.

Information NOT at Amazon:
The author provides a thorough review of the degree to which fear, when present among the pupulation, is by definition of Montesquieu and others, an indication that democracy is NOT present.  The moderation of the government, the balance of powers, the role of the judiciary in tempering legislative excess and misdirection, are all covered.
The importance of a large and prosperous middle class in Montesquieu's thinking is covered as is the relationship between political legitimacy and public morality.  The philosophers most consulted by the Founding Fathers all worried about commerce converting intellect into crass celebrity, the commoditization of ideas–one has only to look at our ideological think tanks and the reductionist stove pipe manner in which the military-industrial complex has incapacitated our government to see how prescient they all werre.
I am a fan of “collective intelligence,” and learned from this author that Tocqueville did not believe the assumption that from numbers came wisdom.  I would guide the concerned reader to Tao of Democracy as well as Society's Breakthrough, and the other books recommended in my reviews of those two.
In the author's view Tocqueville really fleshed out the idea that “democratic despotism” could develop in which the government, with the best of intentions, sought to regulate everything, bending its constituents to its will and in so doing, ending free will and innovation from the bottom up.
I see townships as the center of gravity, and the book furthers myself that townships, counties, and states need to begin nullifying federally-imposed mandates at the same time that they require a waiver of corporate personality from all those seeking to do business in their jurisdiction.  I do believe “home rule” is a meme with legs.
The author traces the decline of the USA to the Civil War (or the War of Secession) in which Abraham Lincoln created a central bank and expanded central government, thus creating the administrative state that did not exist until then.  This is when central planning and confiscatory taxation took hold.
The author cites Walter Lipmann as being among the progressives concerned with what they had wrought.
The Administrative State devised a means of growing through “entitlements,” thus creating constitutencies beholden to the Administrative State, and I completely agree with the author's view that entitlements for one are a reduction of the political and private rights of others.  I am reminded of Davy Crockett being reminded that the public treasury was “not yours to give.”  It's time we all get behind Grover Norquist and start shutting down taxation without representation, beginning with Electoral Reform that not only mandates ballot access, but mandates public access to all legislation for 72 hours prior to its being eligible to be voted on.
On page 274 I finally found the “short” version of the entire book, and I quote it here:
“On our part, this will require a great deal of thought concerning particular laws, programs, and policies concerning mores and manners as well.  It will require of us a systematic attempt to bring home to our fellow citizens the dangers they face, a level of civic engagement not previously seen, and a great effort at persuasion–aimed at reminding our compatriots of the central importance that must be accorded within a republican policy such as ours to chastity and fidelity, marriage and family, and religious faith; to local and state autonomy; to the maintenance of a firm and fast distinction between legislating, executing, and judging; to the system of checks and balances; to free public debate and freedom of inquiry; and to the right to life, the rights of those suspected or accused, and the right to retain that which one has earned.  Above all else, however, we must impress upon our fellow Americans the profound dignity and crucial importance of citizenship in the broadest sense.
The author concludes with a few suggestions that are not the equal of the book as a whole,  to wit that we should abolish the Federal Election Commission; end the federal role in education; restore limited government and local self rule, and ultimate adopt the motto, “Don't tread on me” and the belief that virtue is an individual responsibility.
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