The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes The Moral Life, Kenneth Minogue, Encounter, 374 pages

By Paul Gottfried | December 8, 2011

Kenneth Minogue is a distinguished figure for serious students of political thought. A longtime professor (now emeritus) at the London School of Economics, president of the Mont Pelerin Society, and the author of provocative works on nationalism, ideology, and egalitarian democracy, Minogue is one of the most illustrious representatives of what survives of the European classical liberal tradition. A disciple of

Michael Oakeshott and an incisive critic of public administration, Minogue has been open about expressing his views ever since he left his native New Zealand, first for Australia and then for England. He is for whatever social democrats are against—bourgeois culture, free-market economics, and as strict a separation as possible between the administrative state and civil society.

In The Servile Mind, Minogue makes clear where he stands. He does not view the democratic experiment as it has gone forward in his lifetime—he was born in 1930—as favorable to freedom. He believes our current politics are driven by a popular demand, fed by intellectuals and politicians, for the imposition of ever greater equality. This demand for “fairness” or “social justice” nurtures the soft totalitarianism of political correctness and redistributionist policies.

A major problem of democratic welfare states, according to Minogue, is that they turn citizens into slaves. They produce what he considers “servile minds” that fit into what Hilaire Belloc a hundred years ago described as the “servile state.” Modern states manipulate and transform onetime members of families and communities into fragmented subjects addicted to state control. In the name of equality, political authorities reshape the moral development of increasingly isolated individuals.

Minogue clearly does not set out to praise democracy in its contemporary form as humanity’s greatest blessing. Nor does he wish to inflict our late modern regime on the entire world. He would agree with a judgment that Milton Friedman expressed in a Liberty Fund interview shortly before his death, that economic and civil freedom usually suffer with the advance of political freedom. By extending the franchise too far and by making too many human arrangements subject to “what the people want” or “what they think is just,” we destroy our economic liberties and right of free association. Minogue gives his work the suggestive subtitle How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.

He is in favor of well-ordered freedom but not necessarily the democracy to which liberty is often tendentiously linked. Minogue is more sober in his judgments about democratic regimes than were two of his heroes in Austrian economics, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. These otherwise astute economists generally assumed that democracy was the only form of government that protects economic and civic freedoms. When Hayek noted that the match didn’t work out as well as expected, he attributed this failure to not having the right kind of democracy. If only democratic countries would take the model of Swiss republicanism at its best, then our freedoms, according to Hayek, would be secure.

Minogue, by contrast, does not cherry-pick his examples. He deals with democracy as it has developed most widely over the last century. The colonization of the family by state functionaries and public educators, government inroads into our earnings and business enterprises, and the state-sponsored cult of victim groups are for Minogue the predictable outcomes of modern democratic rule. They are the state’s attempts to satisfy the demand that government itself incites for greater equality of condition.

This process began, we are told, with a change in the size of the electorate, the ultimate effect of which was to turn “democracy as denoting a kind of political arrangement” into democracy as a “moral, social and political ideal.” By the 20th century, a “relatively slight change in electoral practice” had led to a “comprehensive critique and, in many cases, a rejection of the inherited mores of European states.”

All of this became more acute when Labour parties and other social-democratic forces entered the scene. English Labourites often began with “a small technical change in the constitution” and ended their rule with the “remarkable idea of democracy as a critic of an entire civilization.” As mass democracy progressed into social democracy,

ranks, classes, and formalities, forms of respect, habits of clothing and much else were swept aside in what one might in retrospect call an ‘orgy of informality’ and elections became forms of voter seduction, in which specific classes of voters were promised concrete benefits resulting from the use of political power to redistribute wealth from those who had acquired it in the economy.

Perhaps Minogue’s most noteworthy contribution to political analysis—albeit one that runs counter to what American conservatives have been taught to accept—is an understanding that the left has strong moral values. The problem is not that the left is run by moral relativists but rather that it is driven by a yearning for social justice. Unlike equivocating Republican operatives, the left believes all too passionately in what it says. In fact, it is trying to “politicize everything.” The “bigots for justice” on the multicultural left see all human interactions as opportunities for manipulation. It just so happens that their project requires them to get rid of bourgeois civilization to clear the field for imposing their vision. But this certainly does not mean that these reformers lack all conviction. As Minogue explains in an earlier work, Politics:

In this new sense of politics, there are no limits: where people cut their wrists or children are beaten, or lesbians are not fully accepted, political action ought to be taken, and what it requires is that attitudes be changed in order that, ultimately, harmony will prevail. Politics becomes, in a famous formula in political science, ‘the authoritative allocation of values.’

In that same work, Minogue evokes a nightmarish picture in which normal political life becomes impossible because of the compelling power of the leftist demand for social justice in all aspects of our existence. In The Servile Mind he focuses particularly on the “great project” that informs the leftist transformation of politics:

The politico-moral idealist clearly commands the high moral ground … Ordinary human concerns about making ends meet and dealing with difficult human associates look insignificant in comparison. Some exponents of the grand project these days go on to criticize foreign holidays or indulging in an extra bottle of wine over an elaborate dinner as mere selfishness.

In comparison to the project of ending poverty and discrimination, at the trivial cost of bourgeois liberties, what can the left’s opponents present as showing a comparable degree of “moral seriousness”? Thus the ordinary person, who is brought up by the democratic state, is convinced that he must sacrifice his “morally frivolous” interest to the greater good of the world’s poor and of those groups still marginalized at home. In this moral blackmail, which comes to envelop civic life and finally international relations, people rush to accept what they are made to believe is the proper way to speak and act: “How can they pass as ethical unless they are told what words they may or may not use in describing fellow-citizens, the way their children ought to be educated, what ethnic distribution of friends they ought to have and what benevolences are required for them?”

Minogue points out that the architects and enforcers of the Great Project need never say they’re sorry. Purity of intention is enough to justify any social experiment gone awry: “Our civilization has long been rather soft on good intentions, even though most of us realize they pave the road to hell.” Equally relevant, Minogue sees the acceptance of pure intention as related to the belief that the “politico-moral idealist” holds the “high moral ground.” Because of his presumed concern with egalitarian goals, this reformer is perceived as being pure as the driven snow. Indeed, it is not good taste to dwell on well-intentioned failures, just as it is unfair to hold designated victims accountable for their misdeeds.

There are however three small points in Minogue’s work that call for clarification. Was it really a minor step that led from restricted to universal (manhood) suffrage, a widely celebrated reform that was soon extended to women in Western countries? A voluminous polemical literature by 19th-century conservatives and classical liberals, including the French premier of the 1840s Francois Guizot and many of the (actually liberal) subjects of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, warned against this leap into the dark.

The other query is terminological and may have no ready solution, given the poverty of our fashionable political vocabulary. Minogue refers to the government of Great Britain before its extensions of the electorate as being “democratic” but less ideologically and programmatically so than it would later become. Describing a monarchy with limited popular representation and an aristocratic component as a “democracy” may be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, calling that form of government what it was, a balanced pre-democratic regime—and a good one at that—may be unimaginable to many readers.

Minogue also provides a panegyric to “liberal democracy” from pages 121 and 124, and one wonders why it was inserted. Certainly in view of everything else he writes in this book about democracy creating servile subjects, it is hard to contextualize his statements about how we have seen the “triumph of personal freedom” unequaled in human history. Further: “people have at last escaped the tutelage of their governments.” Are we speaking here about “democracy” before it lapsed into politico-moralism and continuous social engineering? Or is this meant to be a description of the existing Anglo-American regime, which neoconservatives see as the best of all possible worlds? Perhaps these pages are intended to soften the harsh tone of a work that is not likely to attract the in-crowd. In any case, it is not related to the rest of Minogue’s splendid work.

Paul Gottfried is the author of the forthcoming Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.