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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.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: European Right 
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  1. cortesar says:

    An intelligent ,hard working and decent man cannot help but feel enslaved,helpless and disgusted by what has been imposed on him under the present democratic welfare state
    Wherever I turn i find those who utterly discouraged crumble under heavy load they carry not being able to name that burden or to point to its main source -democracy
    On the rotten foundations you cannot build a solid house,
    Swiss or any other for that matter
    Try hard as you may it is only a question of time before it crumbles

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The idea that purity of intentions somehow represents an impregnable shield wielded by liberals is quite common. Is this just an excuse that conservatives use to explain their inaction and failure to drive the world in the right direction? If it is such an all-powerful shield, then why not simply take it from them? Expose the catastrophic results of liberal social programs as having malicious intent from the start. The results of their programs are so consistent in harmful effect that, certainly, the results are deliberate. No? Deliberate destruction of poor families. Luring trusting people into endless dependency. Destroying the hopes and dreams of millions of children. Magnifying inequality. Creating unfairness. Giving people diabolically bad advice. Setting up the young for a life as a repeat customer of the justice system. Instead of excusing liberals, much better to necklace them with their misdeeds.

  3. nathan says:

    But the same thing happens on the “right” or what passes on the for the right does it not? Look at so called “compassionate conseratism” which is neither compassionate nor conservative. There was Rick Perry telling those who opposed in state tuition for illegal alien children that they were heartless even though it wasn’t about the kids, it was about what the parents had to pay, and that by granting the benefit to just one group, Perry and the state of Texas were breaking federal law and raising costs for every everyone who attends the universities there.

    We have the neocons and their insistence that we go out “democratize” the world, more or less a democracy jihad, even though in Iraq and Afghanistan it resulted in a sharia based government they themselves wouldn’t live under.

    In the case of the Bush/Cheney government as they trashed the Constitution in the name of “saving the country”, we were told to judge not their thoroughly unconstitutional and sometimes illegal actions, but similar to their leftist counterparts, their “good intentions” only which had widespread support from among a populace who had no knowledge of the principles the country was founded on or simply didn’t care any more. Who from a “democracy” standpoint were more than willing to ignore what Franklin had said about sacrificing essential liberties.

    The Founders created a republic for a reason but today that has been totally lost. Today even republicans refer to this country as “democracy” playing directly into the hands of the left. Even the leading “conservative” talk show host, Rush, refers to himself as the “doctor of democracy” which says volumes about his credibility doesn’t it?

    People get the governments they deserve. As we see the rise of Newt, the man who would be king (for THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE ROOM nothing less will do) combined with McCain’s Fifth Amendment destroying actions,we’re going to find out exactly what that means.

  4. Reading this, I get the impression that Mignone lives in some sort of alternative reality. In the world that I live in, liberals hardly control the discourse. Indeed, the word “liberal” (never mind “socilalist” or even “social democrat”) itself is now almost never heard, as it is simply assumed that most of the country is conservative, or, at best, “center right.” But in his distopian fantasy world, It is as if the Soviet Union won the Cold War and we are now living in the American Soviet Socialist Republic!

    “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?’”

    That’s funny, because, again, in the real world, rather than “rushing to accept” these notions, there is a strong and I daresare dominant backlash against them, with them being lablelled “PC” and violated with relish. Folks may be “told” what terms they can use in describing their fellow citizens, but plenty of them don’t use those terms.Moreover, they go out of their way to mock them. As for educating their children, millions of them are sent to conservative private or religous schools, or home schooled, and non public schooling exists all the way up to the graduate level. And, even in the public schools, there are vast swaths of the country in which “liberal” notions like the scientific theory of evolution or the opinion that the USA has not, in all cases and circumstances, acted justly, cannot even be mentioned. “Ethnic distribution of friends?” I don’t even hear the PC folks making any real claims in this regard, and certainly, if they are, they are being disregarded, as most folks have friends predominantly, if not exclusively, from their own ethniciity. And yet all or most of the folks either ignoring or actively fighting against this supposed straightjacket of PC opinions seem to have no problem whatsoever in defending the ethicality of their actions and views. And, as far “international relations” go, the main thrust seems to be to kill as many foreignors as possible with the flimsiest excuses one can imagine, all to the benefit of a select group within our own society.

    And what does “moral blackmail” mean, exactly? That someone expresses their opinion about what is moral? Great, that explains the “moral” part, but where is the “blackmail?” What is the consequence of ignoring or defying the blackmailer? With real blackmail, nefarious or embarassing secrets are disclosed. What is the equivalent here? That someone may publicly disagree with you or your actions?

    “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.”

    Right, because those activities and concerns (working for the greater good of the poor at home and abroad) is clearly the value that is driving our society! We don’t have Bloomberg, and CNBC and Fox Business News, which are all about making money for oneself, rather we have a plethora of cable networks devoted to charity! There aren’t a half dozen networks devoted to shopping, but to volunteering to work in soup kitchens and the Peace Corps. Really, the poor at home and abroad completely control and dominate our poltical, cultural and social agenda. Every year, millions of our citizens, brainwashed by the “democratic state” since birth, sell all of their goods and give the money to the poor (like someone or another said they should a long time ago). That’s the hallmark of our society, excessive concern for the poor. Poor folks just sit at home and hold court while the rich and middle class wait in line to shower them with beneficences as they have been indoctrinated to do by the “democratic state.” Politicians, although in reciept of vast amounts of campaign contributions from the rich, nevertheless simply fall all over themselves to make the lot of the poor better and better each year.

  5. Kill Bill says:

    “He believes our current politics are driven by a popular demand, fed by intellectuals and politicians, for the imposition of ever greater equality”

    Populist rhetoric, and thats all it is, is handy for votes. The national debt, however, shows this assumption [equality] to be false.

    We are all in debt. If the contrary position were true, that we are all wealthy, were true then equality would not be a question.

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Citizens United V SEC, The Great Recession and Wall Street Greed, A Health Care System perpetuated by lobbyists including Pharma and AHA, Neoconservative Unfunded Wars with poor people dying, A bifurcated distribution of wealth where 1% own more than the other 99%, the poor sure control the discourse in this country

  7. Gil says:

    Admit it, Democracy is two sheep and a wolf deciding what’s for dinner – it’s unnatural. The Founders knew only entrepreuners should vote and decide the fate of society and had no problem with slavery as some are only good for working and taking orders.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Much of Mr. Minogue’s philosophy appears to stem from the idea that guaranteeing civil liberties and pursuing human equality unequivocally erodes “bourgeois liberties” when this premise is not an established fact at all. I would like to see universal examples of this, not just a few cherry-picked instances designed to support his very vague assertion.

    And to the poster Gil, slavery is okay because some people are only good for taking orders? You must be quite the charmer at cocktail parties.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I agree with freemansfarm. Today society in England and America,and probably others, is far less equal than was the case from the 1940s to the 1970s. Those years were the golden age of social democracy.

    Today the world is becoming more like the pre 1914 world of super wealth and privilege. The rich are building what looks like an international community of their own in which their contact with the world of ordinary people is kept to a minimum.Domestic service, which had all but vanished by 1950, is now returning as a source of employment.

  10. No, it is not an inclusive franchise to vote that necessarily enslaves.

    Rather, slavery results from the abusive sophistry of egalitarianism and manipulation of language and power by oligarchs and other would be tyrants who want to preserve their own unwarranted status or prestige, and (often unearned) wealth, through unjustly administered, unmerited rule over the citizens.

    The contemporary use of the term ‘democracy’ to designate a republic that maximizes political participation based on true equality grounded in justice and rule of law is fully acceptable, so long as it is purfied of the deadly virus injected by self-serving elites who bastardize the common good solely for themselves and their similars.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    How many people who commented here, read the ENTIRE book!

  12. Prof. Minogue’s chapter on ‘The Project of Equalizing the World’, and all that such implies, comes close to echoing some of the traits of ‘ideological democracy’ made by M. Oakshott.

    But this is distinct from the concrete development of coherent implications of what participatory democracy implies (for example, eventual full disavowal of any form of slavery, or disenfranchisement of women) within our own concrete political tradition, which is rooted in the Constitution (and at least its original amendments), Bill of Rights, and the Declaration.

    Democratic ideological egalitarianism is a hammer that has been successfully used to augment power on the part of self-serving politicians who love to wield it, in collusion with ideologically defined ‘sectors’ of the citizenry, both of whom mutually benefit and support one another, at the expense of the common good.

    Procedural democracy that aims to maximally include all who are capable of using intelligence, reason and the passions to make certain contributory deliberative decisions affecting the common good is not one with such, nor does it imply a denial of true diversity and difference in merit and perfections.

  13. Gil says:

    Freesmanfarm – Libertarians would agree and disagree with you. They would argue the Communism is like a cancer. A large tumour called the U.S.S.R. was destroyed but cancer has fully metastasised across the globe. The U.S.A. (as most former Capitalistic countries) is a shell of its former self and riddled with Communism.

  14. @Leon Berton, thank you – a very cogent distinction, “procedural democracy” vs. “democratic egalitarianISM.” And you make the rather crucial point that the disenfranchisement of women and people whose ancestors were slaves ultimately ended for the same reason slavery did – both were so clearly antithetical to the values which informed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I really couldn’t quite escape begging the question, throughout my reading of this review, whether the reviewer and author believe we should roll back those extensions of suffrage.

    Otherwise, the contents of the book, if correctly described by the reviewer, are prima facie a poor fit for American politics. Britain is different, much much different! (I lived there for a time.) For one thing, I know of few folks more supportive of intrusion into private matters than our so-called “social conservatives” – a category that does not have the same prominence in Britain.

    And in a time where the U.S. faces dangerous, growing IN-equalities, children die regularly at the hands of their “care-givers,” and we do not a sufficient apparatus to prosecute blatant and egregious acts of fraud which have decimated our economy…well. @Gil, can’t agree with you that restricting the vote to “entreprenuers” would solve them – so you’re really prepared to withdraw the vote from everyone who works for someone else? And that would benefit us how? Not only that, but seems to me hedge fund managers, investment bankers, and such – surely very entrepreneurial fellows all – are not suffering from a lack of influence in our politics!

    Now if we could just withdraw the vote from stupid people…but that’s a dynamic characteristic which everyone has now and then…

  15. Can’t…resist…correcting…
    “we do not HAVE a sufficient apparatus”

    And to be clear, by “stupid people,” I do mean those who willfully blind themselves to the most obvious contradictions and unquestioningly slurp up the latest emotional propaganda from their chosen sources on both “sides.” That’s a broad-based and shifting group, but one which is – happily – not well-represented on this site.

  16. The history of conservatism, dating back to its founder Sir Edmund Burke, was counter-revolutionary and the revolution that they were against was the French Revolution with its overthrow of feudalism, advancing towards modernism and extension of the franchise. Burkian conservatism took up for poor Marie Antoinette and the monarchy.

    In this article by Minogue, I hear many echoes. Freemansfarm has it exactly right.

  17. There is nothing wrong with Democracy.
    Its just about people making decisions about leaders making decisions.
    Democracy demands one persuade enough people but it demands everyone has to do this.
    Thats why ideas are important and criticism of ideas important.
    Democracy is a faith in the intelligence and morality of enough people in enough time.
    Its okay.

  18. Simon says:

    You paleo-cons are a bunch of whiners. The life expectancy in the US is for most the higher than at any other time in history. You have access to a huge range of cultural goods and social opportunities that are to your liking. You are free to practice your religion as you see fit. Your complaints are that the government allows others to get abortions, permit marriages between two people who love eachother, even if they both are the same sex, and mandates that Business owners must serve people without regard to race. Hateful speech towards people with identities that they can not voluntarily discard is discouraged. I’m sorry your so angry that women have the opportunity to have their voice heard in the political spear. Get over it.

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