The Collapse of Democracy


The Collapse of Democracy, by Robert Moss, New Rochelle: Arlington House Publishers, 1976, 300 pp., $8.95.

In efforts to secure liberty one faces the distinct problem of how to utilize existing political institutions that could make the task successful. No community on the face of the globe is as closely wedded to freedom as it should be. The United States and Great Britain are semi-socialist societies, both heading toward fascism rather than the visionary systems of democratic socialism or communism. Fascism is possible; we know this from theoretical analysis and from history. The others, widely touted, cannot be realized. Where socialism reigns, e.g., in Sweden, India, or the Soviet Union, the trend is toward either fascism or virtual totalitarianism. England is itself heading for a variety of these, and only a superlative effort by good people could possibly avert it. The United States is gradually moving toward the fascist system of massive bureaucracy lording over all the activities of its citizens.

Sure, there is talk now of decentralization, deregulation, anti-statism, and a return to localism. But is this more than election-year rhetoric? Both Reagan and Ford talk as if such goals were viable alternatives, only the bureaucracy's and the electorate's sympathies are elsewhere. Democrats, talking mostly to special interest groups, have the edge: the people, in the main, believe that they have it coming from the government. They believe that the pie must be divided, cut up "fairly," distributed "justly," and otherwise spread around. Indeed, it is difficult to argue with the people about this—the pie has been ransacked so long, with welfare for the idle rich and poor (idle in work, not in political hustle), that today few can spot other ways to make headway in life. The State has grown immensely, and alignment with it appears to be the best bet for most.

Robert Moss' book treats all this with crystal clarity. He knows that "a society that expends its energies in redistributing wealth instead of creating it will succumb to stagnation and eventually fail to satisfy the very expectations of wealth without work that it has encouraged." He is, for one who has impeccable establishmentarian credentials in British journalism, uniquely perceptive:

…The problems created by egalitarian socialism will all be solved, we are told, by more of the same. State-run industries are inefficient, so we'll have more of them. Private investment has been strangled by rising taxation and Alice-in-Wonderland systems of subsidies and price controls, so we'll have more of these too—and if hopelessly unprofitable firms go bankrupt, why then, we'll haul those into the state sector so as not to lose jobs.…It will all be done in the name of Equality and the Rights of Man, but when we are honest about it we will admit, as a leftwing Labor MP was prepared to do in a recent article, that we are doing it because "we are the masters now."

A good bit of this book concerns the realpolitik of contemporary England, but the central theme concerns the nature of democratic communities.

…Liberalism (in its classical sense, of course, and not as applied to sub rosa socialists in the United States) and democracy are clearly very different things. Ortega [y Gasset], one of the foremost critics of the trend toward "hyperdemocracy, " maintained that "liberalism and democracy happen to be two things which begin by having nothing to do with each other and end by having meanings that are mutually antagonistic."…Democracy is a method for choosing (and removing) governments; liberalism is a doctrine for determining what governments should and should not do, and above all for defining the limits of governmental power. As Hayek puts it, "Liberalism is a doctrine about what the law ought to be, democracy a doctrine about the manner of determining what will be law."

With his mind turned to Plato, Aristotle and the thought of classical liberals, e.g., Sir Henry Maine, W.H. Mallock, von Mises, Hayek, Lord Robbins and Samuel Brittan, Moss distinguishes contemporary liberalism from the egalitarian, mass, or totalitarian democracy. He then cites Herbert Spencer, "a radical exponent of libertarian thought in nineteenth-century Britain" who noted what Hayek has reiterated recently, namely that "the great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments."

With his delineation of liberal democracy's descent into mass or totalitarian democracy, Moss sets out to trace the actual demise of his own country. This section of Moss' book will be most challenging to those who value liberty. He describes here how the divorce of civil from property rights and liberties makes the former work only for those who want the destruction of the system that has a central place for civil or political liberty within its core. Even in America's experience it is noticeable how readily and unevenly the socialist/liberal elite will proclaim the civil rights of the enemies of capitalism (or its degenerate form, corporatism). One needs but notice the welcome granted Angela Davis at Stanford University (where she was Visiting Professor for the Spring quarter, 1976) even while she supports the Soviet Union without the slightest qualifications. Compare this to the outrage at the Chilean right-wing debacle. Though in America the problem of massive subversion is not yet so pressing we too face, as Moss observes, the danger of the proliferation of "inverted patriots." "The 'down-with-my-country-right-or-wrong' syndrome is particularly characteristic of contemporary 'liberal' opinion in the United States." I might add, this has become characteristic of some "laissez-fairists" of late, as well.

Moss' observations are as disturbing as the suggestion he later advances. But first he offers us a brilliant dissertation entitled "The Disease of Money."

…Paper money has value only for so long as people are willing to suspend their disbelief that this can be money at all. If confidence wanes, there is a flight into "real values" (Sachwerte is the German word) which will become more and more frantic unless the authorities can find a way of restoring faith in the currency. If they cannot, the flight into gold, jewelry, foreign currency, commodities, property and objects d'art may become a universal rush to buy anything at all that will hold its value as the currency collapses—canned foods or cigarettes or a pair of shoes. The end, in Weimar, was the death of money as a means of exchange. Society went back to the barter system.

Following such rare observations—and many more, backed with sound economic theory—Moss investigates the Friedmanite "first-best device for a second-best world" and notes that "it must also be conceded that the fears of those critics of indexation who think that it serves to institutionalize inflationary expectations—and thus to perpetuate inflation—also seem to be borne out by the Brazilian example. "

Most refreshing in this work is Moss' unqualified acknowledgment of the necessary connection between economic and political liberty. Neglect of one begets neglect of the other, both in fact and in ideologies: "The rejection of the market system is a common link between Marx and Mussolini, Hilaire Belloc and John Strachey, Pope Paul VI and Herbert Marcuse." Then he emphasizes a favorite theme of mine, namely the inadequacy of the efficiency argument for capitalism. He observes that "the inequalities that result through the operations of the market—even the closely circumscribed markets of recent years which bear only a faint resemblance to the Marxist caricature of capitalism—are widely perceived to be arbitrary and 'unjust.' This perception is strengthened when defenders of the market system explicitly deny the possibility of a moral justification for inequality or adopt the gospel of mere utility—[Jeremy] Bentham's view that 'pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends'."

This book is difficult to review because it is so often, even essentially, right. Unfortunately it omits the needed theoretical antidote to the attack on liberal democracy, the moral justification of capitalism. It takes it for granted that such a justification is possible, although the few moral conceptions available within its pages don't provide the clue for Moss' own argument.

What Moss does provide is a program of counter-subversion. Here we face the challenge of the strategist who knows what he is talking about and seems clearly to have the right political values. Moss explains that "the weapons used by those who wish to defend it—not only can, but in some cases must be used if the society under attack is to survive." He notes that

…in the event that a democratic society breaks down irretrievably, it has two alternatives to anarchy [the chaotic type, folks—not to worry!], not one: the choice is then between authoritarian or totalitarian rule.…Under an authoritarian regime, you are forbidden to engage in politics, but you may well be allowed to travel and marry as you please, to set up any kind of business, to live wherever you choose, and to study courses in economics or political science identical to what might be offered in a democratic country (except at Marxist-run universities like Bremen). A totalitarian regime also substitutes the authority of a self-appointed elite for the political process. But here, politics intrudes on everything: there is no escape, in ideas, economics or life-style, from the politico/bureaucratic conformity imposed by the ruling ideology.

These issues are explored in great detail and where readers will find cause to disagree, they will be met with arguments, evidence, consideration of alternatives and whatever else is appropriate in rational analyses. The main problem faced by this book may be indicated by a quote from John Henry Newman: "Deductions have no power of persuasion.…Many a man will live and die upon a dogma. No man will be a martyr for a conclusion." From Moss' discussion we still appear to be faced by this false alternative: irrational dogmas or uninspiring conclusions.

The "respectable" writers in the classical liberal tradition—e.g., von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Nozick today, or Locke, Mill, Spencer, and Maine of earlier times—do not offer a viable moral foundation for the free society. More and more libertarian sympathizers are beginning to appreciate this lack, even in the prominent media. Unfortunately few take a good deal of the growing libertarian literature on this topic seriously enough to fully explore whether there mightn't already be a powerful system of thought by way of which both reason and morality can be shown to support human liberty. Even Moss' call for the last ditch alternatives of authoritarianism could only be of help to liberty if those at the helm were convinced that its protection and preservation are morally required. Only that will inspire its rapid restoration after the collapse of democracy.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan is the author of Human Rights and Human Liberties, among other books. He teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia.