On Saturday, I touched on some of the sources of Mitt Romney’s failure on 6 November, noting his almost willful alienation of Hispanic voters and his incompetence in executing a get-out-the-vote effort, but emphasizing, above all else, his decision — most evident in his contentless acceptance speech at the Republican convention — to eschew an appeal to first principles, to treat Barack Obama as a decent fellow with decent principles who is merely out of his depth, and to present himself to the voters as a more competent manager.
Of necessity, in that post, I ignored aspects of the situation unfavorable to Mitt Romney’s candidacy that were completely beyond the Republican nominee’s control. One of the reasons that Romney was unable, despite my hopes, to do in 2012 what Reagan did in 1980 is that, in the intervening 32 years a great many of the American citizens who voted for Ronald Reagan had died and been replaced by Americans educated and morally formed in a very different fashion.
This past Friday, thanks to a kind invitation from Paul Kerry of Brigham Young University, I was a guest on the Glenn Beck Show, which Paul was guest-hosting. Professor Kerry’s aim was to showcase my two recent books — Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. He wanted to give me an opportunity to outline in brief the argument that binds the two works together and to show how this argument applies to the world in which we live today.
The program as a whole is available only to those who subscribe to the Blaze Network (it was broadcast on 11/30/2012), but highlights have been posted on www.blaze.com. and Troy Senik kindly embedded them in a post that appeared on Ricochet on Saturday. You may find of particular interest the highlights extracted from segments one and two — wherein I first consider the difficulties associated with sustaining a republic on an extended territory, then outline the means for overcoming these difficulties suggested by Montesquieu, and, finally, explore Tocqueville’s analysis of the contribution that can be made to this effort by civil society before touching on the greatest obstacles to our continued success in sustaining self-government in the United States. This post is meant to restate in brief and then expand upon my televised remarks in such a manner as to cast light not only on the peculiar obstacles that Mitt Romney faced in early November but also on the problems we are likely to face in the future. The cultural crisis that we and our once and future allies in Europe now face is not going to go away in the near future.
Lest I bore you and fail to provoke sound and fury, let me preface my remarks by saying two things: that libertarians should be social conservatives and vice-versa.
My argument with regard to social conservatives is implicit in the criticism that I addressed to the Catholic hierarchy in a series of posts in and after February, 2012, the first and fiercest of which can be found here. It comes down to this: In embracing the administrative entitlements state, as they have, Catholic churchmen and their Protestant counterparts have lent aid and comfort to those who believe that we can establish heaven right here on earth and they have led their flocks to mistake the Machiavellian maneuver of forcefully taking from one citizen to support another for a fulfillment of the Christian duty of charity. Moreoever, their desire to sustain the political alliance devoted to expanding the welfare state caused them to knowingly downplay the enormity of murdering 50 million unborn children, and now their erstwhile allies are rewarding them for their moral obtuseness over many years by making them complicit with mass murder. In sum, they made a pact with the devil, and payment is now due. The proper setting for the practice of Christian charity is a free-market society. The rise of the welfare state and the decline of Christianity go hand in hand. To see this, one need only go to church in Europe.
But why should libertarians be social conservatives? Why shouldn’t they embrace libertinism in the manner of the folks at Reason?
The argument that I make in the first of the two highlighted segments of my presentation on the Glenn Beck show comes down to this. As Montesquieu understood, polities established on extended territories tend to end up as despotisms. They do so for a set of simple reasons. In such a polity, the government is at a great distance from the vast majority of the people it governs. It is out of sight, and, as a consequence, it is largely out of mind. As such, it offers to those in charge a temptation that human beings cannot withstand. They have in their hands Gyges’ ring, and in time it will be used. To this one can add that large polities are subject to frequent emergencies and that this tends to concentrate power in the hands of the central administration.
Montesquieu suggests one antidote and hints at another. He expressly recommends federalism. Federal states can for the most part be governed in the manner of small polities. They leave ample space for citizen participation in decisions of local import. They are also able, because of their size, to defend themselves against large polities. Montesquieu’s prime contemporary example was the Netherlands.
The antidote that he hints at is the separation of powers. Where there are representative institutions, elected representatives can look after the interests of the people. If the legislature is divided between two bodies, they can be set as sentinels over one another. If there is a separate executive power, the man occupying that position can be expected to enforce the laws without prejudice, and this means that the legislators will be subject to the laws they pass (which is a sobering thought apt to encourage prudence on their part). They in turn exercise legislative oversight with regard to the conduct of his ministers in office. Finally, the judicial power (and he has juries first and foremost in mind) protects individual citizens against a tyrannical enforcement of the law on the part of the executive.
All in all the separation of powers — especially that between the legislature and the executive — encourages a healthy conflict within the central government by means of which the two powers guard against one another.
To the British, who were ruled to good effect under such a constitution, Montesquieu attributed no virtue comparable to the passion for the public good required and inculcated in the ancient republics. Instead, he relied on the fact that Britain was a commercial polity — for he believed that the market produces in its participants a simulacrum of virtue. They may not be honest because it is honorable to be honest, but they are honest, nonetheless, because they learn from experience that honesty really is the best policy (and I use this word policy in its 18th-century Machiavellian sense). What I mean is that they are honest on calculation. They learn that, in business, honesty pays — as does frugality, orderliness, caution, and care. Indeed, all of the virtues that constitute civility in its broader meaning appear to be nourished by trade.
Above all, Montesquieu presumes that men in commercial societies will have a long time horizon. Businessmen plan ahead. They do not lose themselves in present pleasures. They habitually forego today’s delights for those of tomorrow. They pursue self-interest, yes, but the self-interest that they pursue is what Tocqueville calls “self-interest rightly understood,” and self-interest rightly understood quite frequently comprehends the long-term public interest. Those who habitually plan ahead are clear-headed about the dependence of their well-being on the well-being of the larger public, and Montesquieu thought that for the most part sufficient.
Montesquieu was, of course, aware that, if a commercial republic like England was wildly successful, it might founder. As I pointed out in the second segment of my presentation on the Glenn Beck Show, the children of very successful businessmen are not educated by experience in the market in the fashion of their parents, and their grandchildren are quite likely to be uneducated to an even greater degree. They are, in fact, likely to surrender to the temptation of self-indulgence. They are apt to forget future imperatives for the delights of the present and to live for the moment. Montesquieu did not foresee a society like our own — where general prosperity has had a propensity to produce a relaxation of the moral discipline encouraged by the market — but he provides the tools for its analysis.
Tocqueville was less confident than was Montesquieu. He lived in an age in which socialism had already reared its ugly head, and he discerned in his fellow Frenchmen a taste for servility. He feared that there might be a general descent into presentmindedness, and he anticipated Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision of the last man — who would be so satisfied with his little pleasure in the morning and his little pleasure in the evening that he would think of nothing else.
In America, he found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy’s natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called “individualism” and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.
Tocqueville’s Americans were also religious. This anchored them morally and gave them a sense of place in a world otherwise in flux. It also directed their attention to the future. Just read today’s Gospel:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
Closely connected with religion was family, and the Americans were devoted to family. Chastity was the norm; adultery was rare and divorce almost unheard of. Families, too, caused men to think ahead. America was the home of self-interest rightly understood. It was the place where women and men planned prudently for their future and that of their offspring.
In short, Tocqueville’s view was that the commercial mentality singled out by Montesquieu (and, before him, by the Jansenist Pierre Nicole and the Epicurean Bernard Mandeville) was reinforced in America by local political experience, by activities in associations, by religion, and by family.
I could say much — and have said much in the two books mentioned above — about the decline of local self-government and of associational life. I could say something as well about American religion and the rise of the drug culture. But I have tried the patience of my readers already — so I will narrow my perspective and come to the point.
The deepest source of our present discontents is the sexual revolution. Our abandonment of chastity as a norm has had dire political consequences. Take a close look at this chart, which I have lifted from a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Focus your attention on the bottom line in green running across it. That line represents the bastardy rate — i.e., the percentage of children born out of wedlock each year. As you will see, in 1940 (before I was born) and in 1950 (shortly after I was born), something on the order of 3% of American children were born out of wedlock. By 1960, the number was up to about 5%. Then, it went up by leaps and bounds. In 1980, it was 18.4%. In 2007, it was 39.6%. Today it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40%. As the editors at Pravda-on-the-Hudson proudly trumpet, bastardy is “the new normal.” In 2009, 53% of all children born to women under 30 were born out of wedlock.
Now think about this. How available was contraception in 1940, 1950, and 1960? Condoms existed, of course, but they were outlawed in many states, and the pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960. Abortions could be had — but not legally — and they were , in fact, exceptionally rare. This should give you pause for thought. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than 50 million unborn children have been killed.
So, what did women do in 1940, 1950, and 1960? For the most part, they exercised an iron self-control. They forced interested men to respect their needs and concerns, and men complied. Now young women do not have it together well enough even to be able to take a pill every morning or a shot every month. As contraception and abortion have become available, as they have become a frequent resort, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births has soared. If the trend continues, bastardy will be the norm, and the family will be regarded as a relic from an earlier, benighted age.
The heart of the matter is this. As a people — thanks in part to our astonishing prosperity, thanks in part to technological change, and thanks in part to the ordinary human propensity for self-indulgence — we have abandoned the notion that impulse-control is a thing both good and necessary, and we have abandoned it in a sphere that is fundamental. We are creatures of habit. In the absence of sexual self-control, there is apt to be very little self-control of any kind. The young lady who is sexually self-indulgent is not apt to be disciplined enough to take a little white pill every day or to present herself at a clinic once a month. That there are a great many exceptions to this rule we all know. But the statistical pattern is nonetheless clear.
All of this began in the 1960s, and it has grown and grown and grown. We now live in a society educated by televisions series like Sex and the City and its successors, and it is in no way surprising that single mothers are almost as common as married mothers — and they now feel entitled to our respect and support. The most astonishing aspect of the November, 2012 election was that the Democratic Party took as one of its slogans: “Sluts vote!” And, by golly, they did.