- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOOK REVIEW:

SOFT DESPOTISM, DEMOCRACY’S DRIFT: MONTESQUIEU, ROUSSEAU, TOCQUEVILLE, AND THE MODERN PROSPECT
By Paul A. Rahe
Yale University Press, $38, 280 pages
Reviewed by David C. Acheson

It is not easy, and perhaps not advisable, to attempt to combine a serious treatment of a political philosophy classic with a modern political polemic. This is what Paul A. Rahe, a professor at Hillsdale College, has sought to do. In my opinion, it is a jarring mismatch to put forward the writings of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and other European political philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries as an attack on the 21st-century welfare state.

For a devoted academic audience, the first 200 pages of Mr. Rahe’s book could be interesting reading, condensing, as it does, considerable exposition of the writings of Tocqueville and his predecessors about political freedom and democratic government, particularly with regard to Britain and America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

But for the general reader, I could not recommend it. The examination of Tocqueville’s earlier sources is sprawling, very detailed, not sharply focused and rich in lengthy independent clauses. The reader is drowned in marginally relevant detail and in sentences that cry out for a more ruthless editor. For example: “The uneasiness, the fear, the anxiety, the impatience, and the restlessness that contribute to the spirit of obstinacy and vigilance which enables the English to defend their liberty might take another, less salutary, and quite ominous form should they fail, by chance, to succeed in that defense and should their failure in this particular deprive them thereafter of the sense of sturdy independence that has hitherto sustained their courage.” (Page 59)



Throughout, I found the book dense in grammatical construction, hard to read and leaving me to doubt the need for such a long windup before the pitch, i.e., the point that Tocqueville anticipated the danger that democracies might tolerate excessive state intrusion on their liberties in the form of the welfare state and that this has happened in America, France and Britain and is starting in the European Union.

What Mr. Rahe calls “soft despotism” another person might call the state’s response to needs of the population with reasonable trade-offs between benefits and restrictive conditions. The critical point is the balance between the trade-offs; the fact of a trade-off is not, in principle, all that new or shocking. In medieval times, the landlord granted food, shelter and protection to the tenant in exchange for work and assistance in defense.

A critic could call this a compromise of liberty, and so it was, but the benefits were thought on both sides to be worth the deal. A critic would have to come up with a better way of achieving stability. Mr. Rahe goes over the top when he characterizes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interventions in the 1933-34 Depression period as devices calculated to extend government control of our lives.

To be fair, I think Mr. Rahe contributes to our understanding of the intrusions upon liberty in France, where the “grandes ecoles” have created a permanent governing elite of public servants totally removed from accountability. That elite took a heavy hit in June 2005, when the proposed constitution of the European Union, crafted by the archelitist Valery Giscard D’Estaing, was submitted to a national referendum and rejected by the voters.

Mr. Rahe is eloquent on the economic paralysis at which France has arrived in its addiction to unfunded state benefits and to which the European Union may well be headed. Mr. Rahe states an interesting fact, new to me, that 25 percent of the French work force is employed by the state.

The last few pages, dealing with “mores, manners and religion,” are little more than a repeat of the familiar charges of some conservative commentators, including the often-repeated claims of the corruption of judges and lawyers and the decline of American ethical and cultural standards generally. True or not, it seems an unfitting end for a book that started out on a path of serious philosophical inquiry.

Possibly there is a built-in force in academia to write with a mind to strengthening peer approval. Hillsdale College has a reputation of conservative scholarship, so it seems possible that this force entered into play in Mr. Rahe’s book. However, if one were to set out to write a book to rebut the aims of the paternalistic state, I think one could find more persuasive material in modern economics than in the speculations of 18th-century political philosophers.

David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign-policy analyst in Washington.

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