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The Souls of Free Men

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

“And this is freedom!” cried the serf; “At last
I tread free soil, the free air blows on me;”
And, wild to learn the sweets of liberty,
With eager hope his bosom bounded fast.
But not for naught had the long years amassed
Habit of slavery; among the free
He still was servile, and, disheartened, he
Crept back to the old bondage of the past.

In this poem by Lucy White Jennison, the servile state is a state of mind. Bodily freedom — free soil and free air — doesn’t by itself produce a free spirit, which turns out to be not as free-and-easy as it sounds. Maybe it’s better to speak of a spirit fit for freedom, for fitness requires rigorous training. Freedom is mentally and morally demanding; bondage is easy (painful and miserable, but easy). Kenneth Minogue agrees. As he says, “it is the emergence of freedom rather than the extent of servility that needs explanation.” All the more remarkable then that freedom did emerge, and not just in a few dissenting souls, but more widely throughout Western lands.

Whereas the poet lamented the internal obstacles facing the newly emancipated (the Russian serfs and American slaves of the late 19th century), the political scientist considers the fate of those long free — both the peoples of Europe and the English-speaking peoples who, over the course of centuries, developed political orders in which citizens were remarkably at liberty to speak and act as they chose. Minogue’s verdict on this singular Western achievement is more depressing than Jennison’s: These formerly free spirits are inching back into bondage, not quite the old bondage, but rather a new “dependence of mind” compatible with the outward forms of freedom. Moreover, they are being conducted into servility by the very force (democracy) that was to rescue them from inequality and injustice. The title says it all: The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. Maybe not quite all, since 350 densely argued pages follow; nonetheless, the title is especially well chosen, for it warns of both the result and its cause.

Minogue’s historically and theoretically rich analysis hinges on the shifting relationship between the political and moral realms. In traditional societies, morality is tightly fused with religion, politics, and culture. Doing the right thing requires obedience to established ways. Beginning with Socrates (but only beginning, since many other elements enter and overlap), the Western experience diverged, to such an extent that “the moral aspect of things has been uniquely able to disentangle itself from both religion and custom.” Thus, in modern liberal democracies, there emerged a vast arena of moral independence (in which individuals can attempt, and can fail, to do the right thing by their own lights). This moral freedom has been secured and protected by political freedom — essentially, the rule of law. Liberty of the individual and equality before the law are linked concepts.

This relatively autonomous moral life presupposes “individualism” — individuals who take responsibility for themselves. Minogue does not want individualism to be mistaken for self-indulgence or selfishness. The individualist displays the virtue of self-control. He is a self-starter who is guided by rational self-interest. He willingly joins with others in self-government and other joint ventures. Although Minogue aims to be purely descriptive, he clearly admires the traits of character and social consequences that he associates with individualism: personal integrity, a strong sense of duty, flexible and efficient cooperation with others, economic dynamism, and technological creativity.   

For the past half century at least, this system of divided sovereignty (in which the moral life in all its complexity was distinct from the strictly delimited realm of public policy) has come increasingly under threat from what Minogue terms “the politico-moral.” This neologism attempts to capture the way politics and morality are being unified (or really, reunified), as the political expands to annex the once-independent moral life. “Political correctness” is one widely recognized facet of this centralization of moral authority. Orthodoxy returns. There is only one right thing to do, as specified not by religious revelation or the ancestors but by social activists, celebrities, media elites, and bureaucrats. Save the planet; eradicate poverty; end war; celebrate diversity; don’t discriminate; reduce your carbon footprint; eat more fiber; think globally, act locally. One feels churlish objecting.

And yet, as Minogue shows, there are serious costs when correctness is determined socially rather than individually. When government becomes the agent of human improvement, coercion and bribery replace self-discipline and good manners. Projects of social control proliferate; behind the “rhetoric of rights and freedoms” is “a reality of attitudinal engineering.” Imitation replaces deliberation or judgment (hence the mania for “role models”). Education morphs into propaganda. Power shifts from representative institutions to unaccountable international bodies (the NGO is another hallmark of the politico-moral movement). Sentimental moralism — the moral posturing of the woefully uninformed — gives rise to disastrously unsustainable public policies (Minogue singles out immigration as particularly worrying). 

Servility takes a double form: “On the one hand, human beings are mobilized . . . to be the instruments of the social purpose of perfecting the world. On the other hand, as the beneficiaries of free-standing rights, they have been liberated from most frustrations and inhibitions on their right to satisfy all their own impulses. They are, in other words, to be collectively dutiful and individually hedonistic.” Both attitudes entail servility. One’s ideas and pieties are acquired through social osmosis. One follows along, obeying or at least mouthing the right slogans. Meanwhile, one’s day-to-day behavior is impulsive, not under the guidance of long-range reason. To mention just one instance: “Saving for a rainy day” (the practice of delayed gratification) is not imperative, or perhaps even possible, when the state taxes you for the provision of all needs. Consumption, debt, impulse-buying, and gambling are all officially encouraged. The servile mind is enslaved to society without and the passions within.

Minogue gives wonderful examples of the politico-moral at work upon our language and practices. He astutely observes the new vogue for the words “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” Beliefs and acts are not wrong or sinful anymore; they are “unacceptable.” This is “today’s language of authority” — a language that puts social conformity (just ask yourself “Acceptable to whom?”) in place of any higher, objective standard of right and wrong. Minogue points also to the ubiquity of the adjective “social,” as in “social justice,” “social capital,” and “social responsibility.” In the case of “social justice,” the qualifier upends justice, reversing its meaning. Justice involves respect for legal ownership (your right to the bread you earn by the sweat of your brow). Social justice, however, is radically redistributive; it operates by the formula “You work, I’ll eat” — a formula that Abraham Lincoln decried as the epitome of despotism, whether practiced by masters who live off the unrequited labor of slaves or by the many poor who expropriate the few rich through confiscatory taxation. “Social capital” is sociology-speak for the moral virtues, but the abstractness of the usage does damage to the truth: “Moral virtues are the fruits of the moral will, whereas social capital is merely a feature of the world, causally derived from social conditions.” As Minogue explains, “this flight from the moral to the social . . . has fostered the illusion that our vices can be reformed if governments send the right ‘messages.’” Thus, “the moral has been transposed into the manipulable.”

In his exploration of the attitudes and sensibilities of contemporary democratic life, Minogue brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville. Like Tocqueville, Minogue gives an ambitious and coherent explanation of how the elements of modern life (elements that at least some of us find disagreeable and troubling) fit together and what they portend for the future. Minogue, however, is not Tocqueville redivivus. In fact, the two analysts present rather different accounts of the servile mind, especially in its provenance.

Almost two centuries ago, Tocqueville noted the inordinate power that the majority within a democracy exercises over thought: “The majority is vested with a force, at once material and moral, that acts on the will as much as on actions.” As a result of this tyranny of public opinion, Tocqueville declared he did not “know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” Democracy in America, of course, was a harbinger of democracy elsewhere. Now, this phenomenon is not precisely the same as Minogue’s “politico-moral” (as Tocqueville shows, peer pressure is often exerted without resort to government), but it isn’t the autonomous moral life either. I doubt that the moral realm has ever been as independent of politics (or religion or culture) as Minogue asserts. Political correctness is not the late fruit of democracy’s devolution, but was present at the beginning. As examples, Tocqueville mentions the striking absence of either irreligious or licentious books in America. America accomplishes what the Inquisition could not. The law does not need to punish such works because public mores suppress “even the thought of publishing them.” As Tocqueville admits, “here the use of power is doubtless good.” But he adds the sobering caveat: “This irresistible power is a continuous fact, and its good use is only an accident.”

If Tocqueville is right, the servile mind is neither new nor a regression from a liberal heyday of independent thinkers. The servile mind is the democratic norm (and, truth be told, the human norm). Given that most of us will be followers, the beliefs to which we collectively adhere assume great importance (and are not necessarily incompatible with political liberty). It was for this reason that Tocqueville placed such emphasis on religious belief in America. Religion anchored the moral life. The separation of church and state meant that religion “never mixes directly in the government of society”; nonetheless, because religion makes men and women moral, religion “singularly facilitates” political freedom. Tocqueville goes so far as to call religion among Americans “the first of their political institutions.” Thus, Tocqueville suggests a rather different articulation of the moral, political, and religious than Minogue, who usually relegates religion to the Old World version of dependence that was superseded by Enlightenment liberalism. There is thus a real debate between Tocqueville and Minogue about the terms and conditions of the moral life. This dispute between two genuinely independent minds is vital for anyone interested in discovering resources with which to resist the “politico-moral” — whether in its entirety or only in its bad use.

– Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Jill and Boyd Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.