A fascinating article in The New Criterion by Kenneth Minogue, on “Morals and the Servile Mind.” Minogue, professor emeritus of political science at the London School of Economics, sets up the problem thusly:
I am in two minds about democracy, and so is everybody else. We all agree that it is the sovereign remedy for corruption, tyranny, war, and poverty in the Third World. We would certainly tolerate no different system in our own states. Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works. One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly. They have overreached.
He goes on:
My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.
The government, writes Minogue, is “crowding out” the moral life of the individual: politicians expect preaching to be part of their jobs. In fact, the most satisfying aspect of politics today may be right to chide one’s fellow citizens for their shortcomings, and to assume the pose of a person of superior virtue while doing whatever the hell one wants. Al Gore can serve as a model of the type.
There are those – and they include some of the most intelligent commenters of this blog – who believe the government must intrude on private morality, because of a civilizational decline in self-restraint. And, as Minogue rhetorically asks, “Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking” – the kinds of behaviors the state now ruthlessly polices?
The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority — they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.
The state can usurp morality because of the “servility in modern Western societies,” Minogue argues. Such servility reflects a fundamental change in how democratic nations view their own societies.
In the past, Western societies considered themselves to be “associations of self-moving individuals.” Increasingly, however, they have become associations of “vulnerable people whose needs must be met and sufferings mitigated by the power of the state.”
From this argument, Minogue leaps to a rather drastic parallel between “the moral order of Western societies” and “slaves in the ancient world.” I confess I found this to be the least persuasive portion of an otherwise brilliant essay.
Minogue offers no solutions. His purpose is to explain and to warn. He believes modern democracy is being corrupted by the electorate’s wish to be treated as children by a protective schoolmasterly government – De Tocqueville’s metaphor, far more apt, in my opinion, than ancient slavery.
To some extent, of course, Minogue is correct in his assessment. Lobbies for new taxpayer-funded entitlements can be found by the dozen, but nowhere in Europe and only rarely in the US do we find anyone advocating greater individual responsibility or accountability.
I do have a disagreement with Minogue which is slightly more than a quibble. He believes the fault to lie in democracy itself. In a representative government, however, the voters can only pick among the choices placed before them. The political and intellectual classes generate those choices. Today, in Europe and the US alike, both classes have been infected by powerful illiberal tendencies: many politicians and thinkers have come to despise the electorate in the manner so effectively described by Minogue.
The nationalization of personal morals doesn’t flow from servility in voters. It’s an attempt by elites to accrue power and moral authority for themselves, decoupled from those pesky democratic elections. The voters are resisting – and don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.