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Books and Culture

Gerald J. Russello
Undermining the Free Society
Kenneth Minogue warns of modern democracy’s threat to individual virtue.
12 November 2010

The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, by Kenneth Minogue (Encounter Books, 384 pp., $25.95)

Winston Churchill may have been right about democracy’s being the worst form of government except for all the others, but he probably wouldn’t have guessed that the bar would fall so low. In his sweeping review of contemporary moral and political life, Kenneth Minogue contends that, as currently practiced, democracy may not be compatible with the moral life as it has been traditionally understood in the West. Minogue, an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and a preeminent political thinker, acknowledges an ambivalence about democracy. It has been the cause of many improvements, he observes, but its flaws are increasingly evident. Democracy is prone to corruption: the immense amount of regulation and bureaucracy it requires to function opens limitless opportunities for abuse. Further, democracy’s inner workings compel it, paradoxically, to undemocratic results. The push for equality and ever more rights—two of its basic principles—requires a ruling class to govern competing claims; thus the rise of the undemocratic judiciary as the arbiter of many aspects of public life, and of bureaucracies that issue rules far removed from the democratic process. Should this trend continue, Minogue foresees widespread servility replacing the tradition of free government.

This new servility will be based not on oppression, but on the conviction that experts have eliminated any need for citizens to develop habits of self-control, self-government, or what used to be called the virtues. Minogue describes the emergence of an ideological outgrowth contrary to the free society—what he calls the “politico-moral”:

At the heart of Western life as we inherited it within living memory are self-conscious individuals guiding their destinies according to whatever moral sentiments they entertain. . . . this moral idiom is being challenged by another, in which individuals find their identifying essence in supporting public policies that are both morally obligatory and politically imperative. Such policies are, I suggest, “politico-moral.”

This “moral idiom” improperly conflates the political role of democratic government with the moral role previously nurtured by a complex of institutions and nonpolitical norms. A new class of therapists, experts, and administrators has assumed this moral role, telling citizens how and what they should feel. Whereas liberal philosophers such as John Rawls had once held up the “neutral state” as an ideal, the new class uses its power to make moral choices for the populace in areas formerly untouched by the state—and without determining whether these policies reflect the consent of the governed. Minogue notes the “remarkable fact that while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them.” They decree whole ranges of activities and pleasures—from smoking to fox-hunting—out of bounds based on supposed “democratic” moral norms. This has the twofold effect of making the governed subservient to the desires of the ruling class while also enervating the individual’s own ability to make moral choices.

The modern tradition of Western political thought acknowledged rights, if at all, in only limited instances, and with due regard for a common moral background. The contemporary democratic state instead has sprouted rights in profusion. Conflict among rights holders becomes unavoidable, which in turn requires the immense apparatus of the state and an expert class to keep different groups at bay, playing one set of rights off against another. Politics therefore becomes not a system to ensure the minimum requirements of freedom, but a zero-sum game among competing interest groups, each claiming a right to act against the others. To Minogue, this explosion of rights represents a step backward, “a reversion to a society consisting of ‘places’ that are enjoyed not quite unconditionally, but certainly irrespective of the judgments of one of the parties to the relationship.” Even in premodern Europe, such a “status” society allowed freedom to exist between the overlapping claims of church and state, and status was a creature not only of law, but of custom and habit. In the modern society, however, the state has overwhelmed the authority of other institutions.

Minogue writes squarely in the tradition of Tocqueville and Bryce in seeing what is new about democracy as well as placing it within the broader current of Western intellectual life. For American readers, his warnings are timely. While the American brand of democracy is not as far gone as Europe’s, our governing elites share many of their European counterparts’ conceptions about the role of government. The American innovation of federalism might provide the solution. It allows government to function within a smaller sphere and thus be more responsive to the voters. Unfortunately, for many American politicians, federalism is a dead letter, broken up on the obsession with equality and rights. Though Minogue does not discuss federalism in depth, The Servile Mind is a crucial book for the task of understanding and reconstructing the proper bases for a free society.

Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.

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