Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind has much in common with A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. Both see the fundamental difference between the political left and right as deriving from a “conflict of visions.” This conflict springs from differing perceptions of the human condition that Sowell calls “unconstrained” on the left and “constrained” on the right. The unconstrained vision is that man is perfectible if only the right set of social and political circumstances prevail. The constrained vision views human nature as unchanging, self-interested, and dependent on institutions that reflect human nature. James Madison said it best in Federalist 51.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
While Sowell’s thesis is that understanding the role of visions in shaping world views helps to make sense of opposing views, Minogue’s is expressed in the subtitle, “How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.” However, this is not a screed against Western Democracy, but rather a spirited defense and an analysis of democracy’s corruption by the left.
Minogue explains the distinction between democracy as a political arrangement and its transformation by the left into a moral, social, and political ideal. The Utopian ideal is a cooperative society in which helpfulness and compassion replace competition and greed, and all imperfections are overcome.
Minogue’s writing is crisp, insightful and laced with a wry humor that keeps the reader engaged in a book with a profoundly serious message.
His definitions of the right and left partner well with Sowell’s analysis. In shortened form, Minogue’s name for the right is conservatism. He defines conservatism as caution in changing the structure of society based on an understanding that all change is likely to have unintended consequences. He calls the left radicalism, which covers most ambitious projects for changing the basic structure of state and society. Radicalism encompasses Fascism and Communism, popularly thought to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but understood by almost everyone as despotic. Radicalism views man as malleable. If individuals have problems, it is because society has failed them. All anti-social behavior, crime, poverty, addiction, mental illness are attributable to society’s failings.
In the radicalism view, government exists to improve, what the left sees as a morally deficient society. This is the opposite of believing that the business of government is to supply the framework of law within which each person may pursue happiness in his or her own way.
Minogue contends that Western Democracy (by which he means Europe and the United States) was conceived as a system in which government was accountable to the electorate, but it has now been corrupted so that the electorate is accountable to government.
Over-weaning government is a result of what Minogue describes as the “civilizational self-hatred of the West”. This self-hatred is led by the “pedagogic, the communicative, and the administrative classes. It seems significant that these are not people directly involved in the production wealth. …What distinguishes the critics from the rest of society is that the critics have salaries largely paid by government and other bureaucracies. The minds of social critics are largely concerned with ideas. ‘Ideology’ is their trade.”
For the sake of our health, government instructs us to eat less and only healthy foods. Ostensibly in an attempt to protect the environment, toilets and light bulbs are regulated. In the name of compassion, the government legislates how individuals interact in private discourse and arrangements. Under the rubric of equality, groups the government designates as disadvantaged and/or discriminated against in some way enjoy special preferences. This list is not exhaustive. It can always be enlarged by the discovery of other groups that have acquired the status of victimhood, and therefore require special consideration. The civil rights movement now includes gays and lesbians and there is a movement to add pedophiles.
However, Minogue points out, not all minorities qualify as victims. Jews and Asians are generally not on the list. Indeed, there is some evidence to indicate that Asians are the new Jews when it comes to college admissions. For many years, there were limits to how many Jews could be admitted to elite universities. It appears now that such quotas apply to Asians. Their admissions, like that of the Jews, far exceed their percentage of the population.
In addition to the drive to eliminate discrimination of any kind, moral or political, is a second effort to eliminate poverty and “disadvantage.” But because modern technology and rising standards of living constantly produce new forms of advantage, that designation, too, is elastic. As William Voegeli observed in his book, Never Enough, “If the economic trends of the past seven decades continue for the next seven and beyond, however, then it’s only a matter of time before the vast majority of poor people own second and third homes equipped with broad band Internet access, and can drive their SUV’s to get to them.” The old definition of what it means to be poor no longer applies.
The result of such thinking is a whole new panoply of rights that procure benefits enforced by judges and government. This is very different from establishing an area in which government is forbidden to meddle. No benefits were attached to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “They are the rules of the game of life.” They express the way free people live.
Freedom as we have noted, is essentially doing any of the infinitely many things that are not sanctioned by law. Rights threaten this understanding, for after a generation or so, peoples living under a schedule of rights are likely to think they care only to do those things they have been given as rights. In other words, rights have a tendency to slide into being understood as permissions, and this is a cast of thought appropriate to servility, not freedom.
Minogue posits that such policies, loosely called social justice by proponents, degrade morals and manners and have both cultural and political consequences. Families, that once were prudent in their expenditures, now can devote their resources to diversions, secure in the knowledge that the state will provide. The extension of the state has diminished self-responsibility, and transformed potentially hardworking and self-reliant citizens into dependents. It has transferred to the government and courthouse those responsibilities that were formerly the purview of families, churches and schools serving in loco parentis.
The author points out that although earlier generations may have struggled against prejudice and injustice, “they had the benefit of a powerful incentive structure that led them to overcome the obstacles put in their way… Their successors in the anti-discriminatory world of today lack this incentive structure, and are much more likely to succumb to querulous discontents if they do succeed.”
He calls such policies “political-moral” because they moralize politics and politicize moral life. Moral conduct, however, is personal not collective. It is the judgments of free agents who may or may not always do what, by their own lights, they believe to be the right thing. But now the moral is subsumed within the social, and whereas morality has always been subject to reflection and discussion, it is now a set of social imperatives that brook no debate.
The problem is that the ideal democracy may not correspond to what the people believe or want. Attitudes, therefore, must be changed, consciousnesses must be raised, and incorrect thoughts dispatched by labeling them as greedy, lacking compassion, selfish or, the label that trumps all, racist.
Minogue finds the complex of demanded attitudes, popularly known as political correctness, a significant imposition on freedom. “To the extent that this element of our humanity has been appropriated by authority we are diminished, and our civilization loses the special character that has made it the dynamic animator of so much hope and happiness in modern times.”
The traditional balance between evils that we may change and evils that are part of living in a free society, no longer exists. “One consequence of this development has been the propensity of politicians to curry favor with the electorate by promising to solve every day problems.” This “readiness to accept external direction in exchange for being relieved of the burden of a set of virtues such as thrift, self-control, prudence, and indeed civility itself” is what Minogue calls the servile mind. He warns that individualism and the ability to respond creatively to the exigencies of life is what fuels Western Democracies. The ideal ordering of society into a right way of thinking and behaving “throws away the basic dynamism on which our world is founded.”
However, even the “ideal” state falls short of perfection. Minogue explains, “In intellectual circles and among the elites, a cosmopolitan allegiance to an ideal world has replaced the necessarily ambiguous love for and allegiances for real western states.”
Nations are viewed as too self-interested to exercise the compassion and cooperation necessary for all the peoples of the planet to have equal shares in the planetary nirvana. Only “disinterested” international bodies can bring about universal peace and the required environmental sensibilities. In this context, Candidate Obama’s 2008 Berlin speech in which he repeatedly declared himself a “world or global citizen” was no mere oratorical flourish, but reflected a view of trans-national obligations on such things as income distribution, education, the environment, poverty…fill in the blanks.
Minogue has performed a great service by mapping the road to serfdom. It is up to us if we wish to travel it.