- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (April 16, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 030014492X
- ISBN-13: 978-0300144925
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #293,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect Hardcover – April 16, 2009
All Books, All the Time
Read author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more at the Amazon Book Review. Read it now
Customers who bought this item also bought
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
From School Library Journal
Rahe (history & political science, Hillsdale Coll.; Republics Ancient and Modern) has actually written two books in one: the first three quarters are a detailed reading of the great 18th- and 19th-century political and social theorists Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville on the nature of government, the glue that holds the polity together, and the difficulty maintaining political virtue and, with it, individual freedom, in a democratic republic. The threat to liberty and civic virtue, as Tocqueville saw it, lay in the elimination of intermediate bodies (like townships) that directly involved citizens in governing. Without such intermediate bodies, democracy would drift into soft despotism, with a central government regulating the smallest details of the citizen's life. This part of the book is tightly reasoned, relying on a thoughtful reading of texts that still have great merit for our own age. The final section of the book is an impassioned, occasionally intemperate, but largely successful attempt to describe the malaise gripping democratic governments today, combined with a plea to limit government's intrusion into our lives. (The author quite evidently holds libertarian views.) Many scholars and serious readers will find this essential reading.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top customer reviews
There is also a polemical part to Rahe's book. Paul Rahe is more than concerned about the administrative state here in the United States which he believes erodes our liberties as a result of bureaucrats exercise greater control of our daily lives. He finds that this shift occurred as a result of the Progressive Era's devaluation of our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Although that may be a part of the analysis, it would appear to be somewhat incomplete. As I understand the Progressive Era, it was a reaction to political corruption in which it was believed that the political system could not be trusted. Instead, it was believed that solutions to political problems could only be solved outside of this corrupt system through neutral expertise. The failure of the Progressive Era was that it did not see that the neutral expert would become vested in the system or bureaucracy that he or she created.
In his conclusion, Paul Rahe somewhat softens his rhetoric against the administrative state. Although there are clear excesses under these Federal bureaucracies, his argument reminds me of Huck Finn's father. I would have liked him to take a more difficult case to analyze from the administrative state such as the EPA which is to protect the environment or the FDA which is to make sure that ethical pharmaceuticals and/or medical devices are safe and effective. He also does not address due process which allows individuals to challenge these bureaucracies as a means of exercising individual liberties.
All in all, it was an excellent read and an impressive achievement. I look forward to his next book on Montesquieu which is also to be published this year by Yale University Press.
It is useful to review a quote from de Tocqueville that the author puts in his conclusion:
"Certain peoples pursue liberty obstinately in the face of all sorts of perils and misfortunes. It is not the material goods that it offers them that these peoples then love in it; they consider it itself as a good so precious and so necessary that no other good console them for its loss and that they find, in tasting it, consolation for everything that occurs. Other peoples tire of it in the midst of their prosperity; they allow to be snatched from their hands without resistance: for fear of jeopardizing by such an effort the very well-being they owe to it. What do they lack with regard to remaining free? What, indeed? The taste itself for being free. Do not ask me to analyze this sublime taste, it is necessary to experience it. It enters of its own accord into the great hearts that God has prepared to receive it: it fills them, it inflames them. One must renounce making mediocre souls understand what they have never felt."
In short, de Tocqueville is stating Rahe's hypothesis that with time and prosperity, free societies allow their Liberties to be selectively chipped away, which the author sees as having been happening to the United States for the past 75 years.
Rahe breaks his book down into four distinct parts; the first three dealing with the works and political insights of the philosophers mentioned above. In this he provides a valuable service for people who are interested in *why* these philosophers are important to the history of political thought and of Liberty, but don't necessarily want to slog through the large amount of material produced by them.
In this, the author is similar to others like Karl Popper, who digested Plato and Hegel in his _The Open Society and its Enemies vols I & II_, Allan Bloom, who provides for an excellent review of Nietzsche in _The Closing of the American Mind_, and Francis Fukuyama, who does similar work for Hegel and Koejeve in _The End of History and the Last Man_.
The last section of "Soft Despotism..." synthesizes the political insights of these authors in support of Rahe's conclusion that democratic society essentially harbors the seeds of its own destruction. That a drift towards a centralized administrative "soft despotism" is a natural part of the life-cycle of a free society and must be actively resisted. His arguments are not new, but they are convincing, and he has done a great service by demonstrating that the fear of democratic drift is not a recent phenomenon. In fact the three great French philosophers that are the focus of this book had no trouble in discerning the possibility of it.
A key concept that runs through each of the philosopher's thought is that of "uneasiness" (inquietude) that all three mark as a characteristic of all free societies. It is this uneasiness, about one's place in society, one's future prospects (the treadmill effect to be more modern about it) that is the force that drives free men to slowly proffer up their Liberties to an administrative despotism that convinces them it can relieve their insecurities.
Rahe's remonstrances against gently accepting the administrative despotism in which one could argue we are currently living is an important clarion call for all those who are interested in the cause of Liberty. Backed up by serious political philosophy and analysis, it deserves to be widely read.
Although it is a scholarly work, it effectively demonstrates the slippery slope the US and other Western democracies have been on as they've slid semi-consciously towards depotism and tyranny at the hands of an ever more powerful nanny state. While this is clearly be the author's personal belief, the most compelling testimony comes from the likes of Alexis de Tocqueville, who anticipated today's trends over a century ago. Seeing today's reality as the manifestation of the worst fears of yesterday's best minds proves to be a powerful message.
The book is full of wonderful quotations from Tocquevill and others, including one of my favorites: "...finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd". If you've never been exposed to the likes of Montesquie or Rousseau, their thoughts will prove haunting when you think about them in today's context.
Unfortunately, while Dr. Rahe's work is well-written and no doubt meticulously researched, it's not likely to be subject matter for some mass-market TV series. His important message is therefore likely to remain unheard, until perhaps it becomes too late to reverse the trends he speaks about. That is the real tragedy of our times.
Recommended without reservation.
Most recent customer reviews
The Lessons of History
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past