March 9, 2011


The Degradation of Modern Democracy: A review of The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, by Kenneth Minogue (Harveuy Mansfield, Claremont Review of Books)

Thus the fundamental problem in Western democracy now, as Minogue sees it, arises from inequality not in wealth but in wisdom or competence. That is why he focuses on the mind. That is also why he does not speak much of rights. The intellectual elite behind the politico-moral project that he opposes does not say this is the problem they see, but in fact it is. Despite what they say, they do not merely, or mainly, want to equalize wealth; they want to equalize competence, through government programs that equalize power—to compensate for society's (perhaps nature's) unequal distribution of intelligence.

To do this it is not enough to ensure equal rights for everybody, because some will exercise those rights more effectively than others. Offensive differences will remain and become even more intense as merit takes over from privilege. Civil rights having to do with behavior are not enough; nor is the indifference of toleration. One must get to the thinking behind the behavior. The less competent and the more competent must be taught to think differently; and to accept that their own degree of competence comes from external conditions rather than individual merit. Those conditions can be changed, or in the case of natural privilege, compensated for, by government action, so that it is reasonable for government to become responsible for them.

In taking this responsibility, government negates and replaces individual responsibility, by which individuals can be praised or blamed for their merit and behavior. But again, to accomplish this government must first change behavior by taking over the thinking of individuals, by getting them to believe that only the government, not the individual, can be responsible for the fate of individuals. The poor, the deprived, the oppressed must be taught to look to government for solutions to their ills—all of which are social conditions—and the rich and powerful must be taught to submit to government, not grudgingly but in good humor, with "deference." As once Walter Bagehot spoke of the deference of the lesser sort to the better sort, now deference must flow in reverse, from better to lesser. Equalization must be applied to all, the less competent equalized up and the more competent equalized down. Then all will see that no one is individually competent. This equalization takes place in the mind, not merely in society by the redistribution of wealth. Freedom, in the governing elite's view, is a collective enterprise that depends on the creation of the servile mind. The servile mind is one that has learned that there are no free individuals, that everyone is a creature not of God or nature but of society.

There are echoes of Friedrich Hayek in this analysis, but Minogue does not go to the libertarian extreme of supposing that individual responsibility can be presumed, and that morality is superfluous to achieving it. It is not enough to agree on minimal laws and then let "spontaneous order" take over so as to produce a self-regulating society of freedom. Individual responsibility must be nourished with morality, which shows individuals how through acquiring the virtues, they can live in charge of their own lives; and it must be protected against the elite's counter-teaching that virtue is subject to the conditions of society, hence nothing to be proud of.

For Minogue, wisdom is the fundamental problem, but wisdom is shown sufficiently in competence to run one's life and thus in the maintenance of freedom. You don't have to be a philosopher—and not being a philosopher does not doom you to a servile mind (as in Plato's cave). Competent individual freedom is the proxy for wisdom that a democratic society needs, and so the contrary of the servile mind is not the philosophic mind but the free mind that operates by its own free will. Without a free mind, free will is enslaved to the opinion that freedom comes only from government. To free the mind, morality is necessary. Morality is not the end of freedom but rather freedom is the end of morality, and morality must be fashioned politically to make us free as competent, responsible individuals. For the sake of freedom, morality must be wary of justice, especially of "social justice" that empowers only government. Morality must be tolerant of mistakes if they are freely and deliberately chosen democratically, but this does not extend to tolerance for the mistake of denying morality and freedom together, in the project of the servile mind.

"Of course," writes Minogue, the project for achieving freedom through servility does not succeed in its goal. His book is liberally sprinkled with of courses that remind the reader of a reality that stands in the way of the project's goal—a recalcitrance in things that is either democratic or simply human or both. One feature of the servile mind that does not work is its internationalism, which demands that governments transcend borders in order to thwart national majorities. This is the well-known "democratic deficit" evident in the European Union, aimed at elevating government above the democratic prejudice in favor of one's own national democracy, which means elevating government above politics itself.

Another feature of the politico-moral project is the abandonment of trust in the decent conduct of others, replacing it instead with regulation or with lawyers and lawsuits. At the same time there is a loss of belief in the fallen condition of man and of the humility appropriate to it, as well as the consequent need to blame God, rather than man, for human ills. The trust of decent believers is replaced by the optimism of part-time cynics, worldly-wise about morality and delusional about politics.

...that we have the most conformist free society on Earth.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2011 7:20 AM
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