Saturday, September 20, 2003

Marie Antoinette and Me

Be brazen enough to assert that democracy is not perfect and you get lumped together with Marie Antoinette or dubbed "nostalgic" or a "paleo-con." Mention that democracy has its defects, and be prepared to be accused of defending "autocracies." Express some hope that democracy can learn something from aristocracy and your democracy-loving interlocutor becomes so frazzled that he compares the object of his affection to the New York Yankees, the most aristocratic or oligarchic team in all of baseball and likely in all of professional sports. Undoubtedly, the perennially blazer-clad and notoriously deep-pocketed Mr. Steinbrenner has been compared to many things in his colorful career as generalissimo of my beloved Bronx Bombers; but surely democracy has not been one of them until now. I can see the Boss chuckling over this one.

More seriously, David Adesnik (scroll down after clicking the link) objects to my associating flattery with democracies. Flattery, after all, occurred in courts. Although Adesnik thinks he's putting aristocracy in a bad light, the truth is that nobody understood the depth of the corruption of the French aristocracy as well as Tocqueville who still thought that arisocracy had a lot to teach democracy. That there are corrupt aristocracies doesn't prove anything, for aristocracies have their defects and undergo their own kinds of degeneration. I don't remember calling aristocracy perfect; I only said that Tocqueville could teach us that it is unusually useful for helping us understand what democracy's defects are.

Democracy's main defect is that the majority wants to have its way, sometimes regardless of the law. Certain ambitious leaders would appeal to or flatter this desire in an effort to gain honor for themselves. Of course, this problem exists potentially in all regimes, but democracies have a special animus toward formality and the rule of law which serves to keep the majority in check. Therefore, it is the formality of aristocracy that can help democracy.

Forgetting about flattery or demogoguery for a moment, among the other things that Tocqueville teaches us about the risk of democracy or the equality of conditions is that it lends itself to a psychology of depenence on a powerful central state which, in the end, threatens liberty. Such an administrative state "does not break men's will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins but often inhibits action. . . .it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd." Max Weber echoed these thoughts as well. This hasn't quite come to pass yet, but Adesnik should acknowledge it as a real risk.

As for Adesnik's mention of Bismarck, Carnes Lord has recenlty remarked that Bismarck created what Hitler exploited -- a pan-Germanic national identity and rapid modernization. Democracy becomes totally corrupted when we move from a Bismarck to a Hitler, for Hitler was the demagogue par excellence. Aristocracy didn't create Hitler; a corrupt democracy did.

Very often a single or supreme ruler can be closer to the people than an aristocracy. That leader and the people can corrupt each other in ways that aristocracies and people usually do not. Due to his excessive attachment to democracy, Adesnik tends to lump all non-democratic regimes together, preventing himself from seeing these things.

Finally, regarding John Locke's alleged conservatism, one must remember that Locke taught us about man in the state of nature. Joseph de Maistre, a real conservative arguing against the state of nature teachings which he viewed as radical, said, "I have met many men, but I have never met man." That about sums it up.


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