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Despotic Days?

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

Last month, we published “The Descent into Tyranny,” to which Scott recently Yenor responded with “A More Perfect Tyranny.” In the main, Yenor’s piece complements ours. Yet there are moments in his essay that seem to express a dissatisfaction with our depiction, including his final sentence: “Trying to reform the system that the oligarchic tyrants control, however, is likely a fool’s errand.” So Yenor seems to suggest that we are sending people on a fool’s errand.

Yenor relates concerns about despotism to Aristotle’s thought, and then diagnoses trends in the United States finding a sad drift toward conditions ripe for despotism, summarizing sections with the following “checks”:

Less capable of high thoughts? Check.

Decline of Trust? Check.

Inability to Act? Check.

Such analysis fills out most of Yenor’s essay, providing troubling yet salutary forebodings. Yenor also makes a valuable point in writing about the current descent into tyranny: “no one can name the tyrant. Munger and Klein do not deal with that problem.” Yenor sees an oligarchy of “many heads and centers” yet presumably imbued with a shared spirit that spells despotism. That makes sense to us. In speaking of the descent into tyranny and despotism, we did not mean to imply a sole tyrant or despot at the head of it all.

Despite all the complementarity between the two essays, Yenor presents his thoughts as taking issue with ours: “The question, however, is whether their liberal framework is the best way to understand our situation. Ancient political thinkers see tyranny arising within factional conflict.” Neither explicitly nor implicitly did we speak from a “liberal framework.” Aristotle is fine by us, and our piece explicitly talked of “faction.”

Yenor writes that we imply that “No one is standing up for liberal values—and our authors profess to do so.” We simply implore people to do more standing up for classical liberal values; we did not imply that no one is doing so.

Yenor continues: “A return to neutral liberal institutions is their solution…” We did not, however, use the term “neutral.” Yenor does not elaborate on the kind of neutrality he has in mind, but let us state clearly that we recognize that government institutions cannot be fully neutral as to what people sacralize, and that liberalism is not neutral in that respect. In particular, liberalism stands against turning collectivism itself into one’s quasi-religion, so in that sense classical liberalism is not neutral about those things in which people find meaning and validation. Other than saying: “Don’t go there!” however, classical liberalism leaves the remaining space of higher or sacred things quite open to the individual—“the pursuit of happiness.” Classical liberalism is not a philosophy of life; it is merely a political outlook. The tragedy we see around us is that cultural leaders are abandoning liberal norms, which themselves should bear a certain sacredness or sacrosanctity, so far as they go. Desecration is all around us, spelling a descent into tyranny.

Our central claim was that “What prevents systems from capsizing are the virtues of liberality and liberalism (in the sense christened in the 1770s).” We explicitly invoked “virtue,” and the “liberalism of the 1770s” is unmistakably a reference to Adam Smith’s capacious notion of propriety and individual self-governance embedded in a stable polity. While we said that liberal norms help to check the descent into tyranny (don’t they?), we did not hold out liberal bromides as a surefire solution, nor did we imply that the personal practice of liberal norms and beliefs would be the only way to combat despotism. It is the norms, and the personal virtues, that make the institutions work.

So why the contentiousness?

Our argument, if read charitably, is congenial with the virtue ethics approach. We all understand that healthy, traditional norms of individual self-governance are vital to the prospects and fortunes of liberal institutions. We share Yenor’s skepticism about top-down institutions and the destructiveness of constant experimentation and fine-tuning of “policy.”

Yenor’s final sentence is: “Trying to reform the system that the oligarchic tyrants control, however, is likely a fool’s errand.” Is Yenor saying that despotism’s adversaries should not resist despotism? What is the alternative to “[t]rying to reform the system,” irrespective of who controls it or whether anyone does? What, in Yenor’s view, is not a fool’s errand? He doesn’t say.

Yenor, then, positions his piece as adversarial, but if there is a substantive quarrel, it is yet to find adequate expression. A difference may come in dispositions toward the question of what to do from here. Yenor’s alternative to this approach is unstated and remains enigmatic. With all due respect to practical politics and the sort of statesmanship that Daniel Mahoney rightly celebrates, seeking to persuade others of liberal sensibilities and the traditions and virtues that stand behind them must be the mainstay on the wise ship of political engagement.