How Political Moralism Leads To Despotism

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Posted: Jan 01, 2021 9:00 AM
How Political Moralism Leads To Despotism

Source: AP Photo/Andy Wong

A brief book entitled Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue explores the changing scope and character of politics by tracing its history through its classical, medieval, and modern stages of development as analyzed by a handful of great political thinkers. The book is a succinct commentary and critique of the ever-expanding scope of politics. The ancient Greeks understood politics (from polis, meaning "city-state") as a system of collective citizen participation in public affairs. It is contrasted with despotism (from despotes, meaning "master"), a centralized system of magisterial rule over subjects or slaves. Historically,

Politics has been the business of the powerful: citizens, nobles, property-owners, patriarchs – all had power and status. It was essential to the idea of the state, in all its forms, that it should be an association of independent disposers of their own resources. The rights of this élite were, over the centuries, generalized to become the modern rights of universal citizenship, but they first became operational as the status enjoyed by the powerful few. It was precisely because the state was composed of masterful characters that it could not turn into a despotism. Having projects of their own, powerful individuals of this kind had no inclination whatever to become the instruments of someone else’s project.

Beginning with Magna Carta, powerful leaders have established strict constitutional limitations to contain the zero-sum games associated with René Girard’s mimetic rivalry because this “theater of envy” otherwise generates a politics of legal plunder and class legislation that embodies a Nietzschean "will to power." St. Augustine observed this same libido dominandi [lust to rule] in ancient times. Thomas Hobbes argued that political conflict results from people grasping for advantage – due to scarcity, distrust, or a passion for glory.   This description suggests a paraphrase of Parkinson’s Law about work: "Politics expands to fill whatever medium (or receptacle) is available to it." It is unlimited and imperialistic in character.

Political actors have a natural desire to simplify collective life and reduce its unpredictability by asserting greater control over any marginal factors that might deflect them from their goals. Thus politics – individually and collectively – oscillates between a grasping for ever-greater power and pushback against those who might gain the upper hand. This resembles the lawless state of nature that Hobbes described: “From this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can so long till he see no other power great enough to endanger him.” Hobbes believed that only a powerful state could control such endless strife.

Shakespeare wrote that "all the world is a stage." Our quarrels tend to concern who writes the script or who directs the play. Politics prospectively gives voice to all individuals, groups, and interests within a civil society. Yet a flourishing civil society is a rare achievement. Independent voices are easily muted by fear, silenced by derision, or ignored as unnewsworthy. Despotism is history’s default position. Although the Athenians prided themselves in their self-government, they struggled with home-grown tyrants, plundered their own allies, and persecuted principled critics like Socrates.

For the reader’s convenience, Minogue formulates a “pure theory of ideology,” which tracks the Marxist model. “The first stage reveals to us that the past is the history of the oppression of some abstract class of person.”  Ideologies typically feature a taxonomy of oppressors (“them”) and victims (“us”). While mobilizing the oppressed class to struggle against the system, an ideology tends to harden into a militant secular religion that offers a comprehensive explanation of the world while imposing intellectual straitjackets of political correctness on their devotees. Instead of attaining a fully just society, liberation usually means exchanging masters. In Leftism (1974), Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn warned that the us-ness of modern “identitarian” politics is especially conducive to the despotic temptation.

Minogue’s discussion of despotism and politics comes full circle in the present day to a Hegelian synthesis of the two. Political moralism, as he calls it,

takes the independence of citizens not as a guarantee of freedom but as a barrier to the project of moralizing the world. Independent individuals disposing of their own property as they please are identified with selfishness and taken to be the cause of poverty. A socially just world is thought to require a rational distribution of the goods which pour so abundantly forth in a modern society. But states whose constitutional authority is limited to ruling by law are imperfect instruments for the immense task of rational distribution, and of the resulting necessity of rectifying the attitudes on which injustice is founded. The entity called ‘the state’ could, however, become adequate to this formidable task if it were to change its character. And this character does in fact tend to change with every access of central power to dispose of the wealth an economy generates.

The ranks of independent disposers of their own resources have been depleted in face of the voracious administrative state that reduces all to a state of dependency. Edward S. Corwin once distinguished the original Constitution of Rights from a wartime Constitution of Powers superimposed upon it. As Robert Higgs shows, constitutional limitations today are just as likely sacrificed to domestic crusades. Further, as Zachariah Montgomery showed more than a century ago in Poison Drops in the Federal Senate (1886), the ability to disguise innovations and amass power by redefining our constitutional language is a great boon to policy entrepreneurs.

Modern politics is thus generating a remarkable dilemma. Moralizing the human condition is only possible if we can make the world correspond to some conception of social justice. But it turns out that we can only transcend the inequalities of the past if we institute precisely the form of social order – a despotism – which Western civilization has immemorially found incompatible with its free and independent customs. The promise is justice, the price is freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville and Francis Lieber warned against “democratic despotism” and “Rousseauism.” Michael Polanyi, Michael Oakeshott, Eric Voegelin, Thomas Sowell, Gerhart Niemeyer, and Roger Scruton made similar diagnoses in more recent decades. Liberal moralism thrives on a disregard for constitutional restraints. The unjust taking of Naboth’s vineyard exemplifies the moral hazard this entails.

The political class displays a missionary zeal for correcting historical imbalances while remaining self-interestedly secure in the protective coloring and privileges of power. Our social media and universities channel Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” as they purge views and values that run contrary to the new orthodoxies. As Minogue put it: “When social justice meets political correctness, the old liberal idea that relations between individuals are a purely personal matter is overridden. There is a right thing to do, and the state will make sure it is done.” The resulting political chimera resembles Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s imaginative parrot/chameleon hybrid.