Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

[Amazon Link] Paul Rahe is a professor at Hillsdale College and an occasional pundit on current events in the dextrosphere (most recently at Ricochet). This 2009 book has been highly recommended by the good folks at Power Line. It was available at the library of the University Near Here, so I checked it out.

The book's subtitle is "Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect". Rahe's project here is a deep examination of the thoughts of these three French political philosopher/historians and show how they illuminate today's slow march of modern Western democracies into a gray, comfy despotism.

Large sections of the book are devoted to each thinker in turn. It's (frankly) tough going for the casual reader, more so with Montesquieu and Rousseau than with Tocqueville. Rahe's prose doesn't help, as his explications are broken up with many "short quotes from the authors' works", sometimes only one "or two" words "long." In addition, some words and phrases are annotated with the actual French used by the author [auteur]. And there are occasional coded pointers back to the original works (TBpptht, II.iv.3. pp.243-44,11,1) which might be useful to someone who wants to check out the reference, but otherwise not.

So large stretches seem of the book seem to be written in order to satisfy a particularly pedantic thesis committee; I think many general readers would find this a twisty slog full of potholes. (I have to admit I'm one of them.) But things even out in the last stretch of the book, that contains Rahe's comments on America's "drift" over the last century from a limited constitutional, commercial, republic into a administrative state whose central control continues to seep into more and more of its citizens' daily lives. Rahe provides a sweeping conservative critique of this, showing how (in particular) Tocqueville was prescient in detecting some of these trends in the early 19th century. (And others not so much.)

I found an interesting tidbit, given President Obama's recent slagging of GOP budget proposals as "thinly-veiled social Darwinism." That was claptrap, of course, but check out this quote:

[G]overnment is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick cooperation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day of specialization, but with a common task and purpose. Their cooperation is indispensable, their war-fare fatal. There can be no successful government without leadership or without the intimate, almost instinctive, coordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.

Emphasis added. The writer goes on to dismiss the Constitution as written as hopelessly "Newtonian".

Now that's real (and unveiled) Social Darwinism. The promulgator of this odiousness statism? Why, none other than that "progressive" darling, Woodrow Wilson.