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Equality & Servility

There are dangers in the democratic trends of democracy.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By MARK BLITZ
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In place of yesterday’s hierarchy, authority, and deference, we now treat and regard everyone identically. In place of the formality by which we keep our distance, experience independence, and show proper respect, we now revere informality in dress, address, and action. In place of good manners we are intimidated by the tyranny of political correctness. In place of respectability we confess vulnerability. In place of the ambivalence of everyday action and choice we now see ambiguities merely as problems to be dissolved by universal and easy solutions. In place of prudent judgment about human limits we eagerly seek perfection. In place of living our own lives we are conscripted into the lives the state chooses for us. In place of responsible risks and mutual care in the family, we defer to a government that is always ready to take our burden. In place of special concern for ourselves, our loved ones, our associations, and our country, we are pushed or required to distribute resources and power equally. 

In place of individuals with a host of family, professional, and religious obligations, we increasingly have detached “singletons” who are pliable material for politicians’ schemes and needy consumers of their promises and guarantees. In place of self-government we are oppressed by international bureaucracy and lulled by loose talk of governance, stakeholders, and corporate responsibility. In place of life as play, as a game in which we seek success and follow the rules, we see life as the endless filling of expanding wants. In place of healthy competition we are urged toward flaccid cooperation. In place of thoughtful, calculated desire we are mastered by impulse. In place of celebrating our civilization and its achievements we are bullied into bouts of guilt and orgies of apology. 

The fault is always ours. Life for today’s “eudaimonic units” is often easy but hardly alive. Minogue’s indictment would be enough to make one head for the hills, had they not already been flattened by the egalitarian steamroller.


 

Many elements of Minogue’s indictment are familiar, but he brings them out with special force. His book is particularly useful for Americans because his European examples differ from our usual fare, and because Europe’s regress is more advanced than ours. Although we are in some ways tamer than Europe—ours is the land of soccer moms, not soccer hooligans—we, on the whole, remain more aggressively independent. The masters who seek to mold us are still within our power to push aside, not untouchable administrators beyond our control. The familiarity and accuracy of Minogue’s indictment, however, makes it evident that, although we may be a seat or two behind the Europeans, we are descending with them on the same device.

Minogue wishes to describe the unifying core of our concerns, not merely to list them. His worries are not random. The heart of the difficulty is rulers’ attempt to impose a way of life on their citizens. Such imposition displaces individual deliberation and responsibility. It usurps our moral space. In fact, enough such imposition may bring us back to the world of unquestioned habits, practices, and beliefs from which individualism liberated us. We would be even worse off than we were because the rational spirit that engineered the liberation will be unavailable in a political world that thinks it is already absolutely just and perfectly reasonable. 

“Nationalizing the moral life,” Minogue warns us, “is the first step toward totalitarianism.” Rather than supplying “the framework of law,” our rulers are “busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up.”

Minogue’s concern is not with moral rules and pious virtues narrowly understood but with our freedom to govern and organize ourselves. Moral life is the “inner experience in which we deliberate about,” and act on, “our obligations to parents, children, employers, [and] strangers.” In doing this, “we discover who we are and we reveal ourselves to the world.” This “self-management” or “moral autonomy” “emerges from the inner life and is the stream of thoughts and decisions that make us human.” Such individuality is the opposite of servility, for the “classical individualist’s .  .  . moral world” rose “from the coherence of self-chosen commitment. His basic duty was to his own conception of himself.” When political authority appropriates this autonomy it diminishes us, “and our civilization loses the special character that has made it the dynamic animator of so much hope and happiness in modern times.” 

The evidence for this human self-belittling is the group of democratic practices, fantasies, and fears listed earlier. But Minogue’s primary focus is not this or that egalitarian outrage or absurdity but the general loss of freedom to which they contribute. 

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