Currently reading Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. It’s a familiar story by now. Increasing the number of people eligible to vote devalues any single individual vote. Western societies have shifted from a morality centered around duties and responsibilities to an obsession with imagined rights. Duty imposes a strict standard of conduct, demands self sacrifice, and encourages humility and gratitude. Rights tend to make people petulant, entitled, and aggrieved.
Morality is a peculiar Western invention that concerns how individuals behave in accordance with a metric that isn’t derived wholly from custom or religion. All societies have moral codes, but these codes are typically grounded in traditional practices and religious dictates. Naturally, Western morality takes much of its material and direction from tradition and religion, but it veers from this course by granting a much wider range of possibilities to individuals in drafting their own rules for how they should act and treat others. Individuals come to be seen in the Western tradition as players in a game, and laws establish the rules of this game. The purpose of a governing body is to insure that the rules of the game are respected by all the players, and to protect those that abide from those that would circumvent and subvert.
Freedom is not an automatic guarantee of certain services or products, it is a space cleared for unimpeded movement, it is the open possibility of creative action and expression in the game of life. Part of what gives freedom its ethereal substance is its purposeful lack of a definite, concrete goal. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness can be defined in a million different ways by different people depending on what they value. To be free is to be protected from oppressive power as you delineate the trajectory of your own life. If happiness for you is the accumulation of material wealth, you may pursue it. If happiness is Epicurean retirement to your garden, conversation with friends and reflection on the ineffable, the way is open to you.
This conception of freedom is gradually transformed into a set of expectations and grievances. People are no longer seen as capable players of a game that they, to some extent, make up as they go along, and instead are defined in relation to their vulnerabilities and defects. Humanity is viewed through the lens of what its most deprived members lack, and social systems are judged by the resources they put towards changing the conditions of their marginal and suppressed constituents. The very social system, Western liberal democracy, that liberated the greatest number of people from destitution and despotism comes under the most exacting scrutiny for its crimes and failures.
The concern with how individuals ought to behave is dismissed as ideology and replaced by theatrical, flatulent theorizing about social conditions. It is thought that people will be good in a good system, and if they act poorly it’s because the current system is corrupt, rigged, unfair, etc. If people are happy with their lives, it’s because they have been conditioned to accept the unacceptable. If they are miserable, it’s because society has unjustly burdened them. Only those in possession of the true science of revolution can transform the will of the people. The democratic model struggles to contain the contradiction between the will of the people and the grandiose, unrealistic aspirations of its governing classes.
Formulated as a paradox, democratic life takes the following shape: The People are considered wise and responsible enough to put certain people in power who will protect and advance their interests, while at the same time people are thought to be so incompetent and ill educated that increasingly restrictive and paternalistic laws must be drafted to corral their behavior and instill in them correct thoughts and beliefs. Elected officials have the power to legislate the lives of people thought to be incapable of responsible behavior and careful reasoning.
The people are contemptuous of their government, and the government is contemptuous of its people. The people expect the government to make life easier and more comfortable with more redistributive services and programs even as they insist on feeling independent and capable. Rights mutate into ease of access and distribution of availability. Now there are thought to be rights to higher education and healthcare. Education and healthcare are not in fact rights, but rather rewards or incentives for certain forms of behavior. Playing the social game with skill and tenacity, and ideally, with some measure of justice, grants you access to these services. To conceive of such things as a right is to cede your own responsibility for achieving, maintaining, and furthering them. It is to put into the hands of the government the power to determine the entire scope and extent of your life.
More to come…