"The Sovereign Individual" - Prescription Or Propaganda?

A book review and personal essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"It is the task of the shepherd to convince the sheep that his interests and theirs are the same."

The Sovereign Individual: How To Survive And Thrive During The Collapse Of The Welfare State
by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997 (ISBN 0684810077)

This book answers a very important question.

You might expect me to say that it answers the question of what "sovereign individuals" are and how you can become one, and protect yourself from the "troubled times ahead" brought on by the revolutionary changes in society caused by "microtechnology" and the "information age" that the authors are speculating to be just around the corner. Well, of course, it purports to answer that question, and many people have come to believe that it does. Indeed, this book's purported claim to answer that question has made it a classic of right-wing libertarian literature, and its status as a cult classic of the right-wing is a good reason to analyze it, and is the principal reason this analysis appears here.

But the real question that a careful analysis of it answers, is a much deeper question, a question about the nature of society itself. That question is how is it that large numbers of people can be fooled into supporting a cause that runs directly contrary to not only their own personal interests, but the interests of society as a whole.

How, for example, were a majority of German voters convinced to vote for Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany? Why did the majority of Japanese support that nation's entry into World War II, leading to its eventual destruction? Why is it that otherwise thinking people can be bamboozled into accepting and even passionately promoting ideas that forseeably could end up causing themselves and society as a whole great misery and even national destruction?

The easy answer, of course, is propaganda. Everyone would agree that propaganda has to be the reason, but that doesn't really answer the question, it merely postpones it: Why do people accept propaganda as truth, and allow themselves to become convinced by it?

That question is best answered by the nature of propaganda itself: Good propaganda is designed to have as much appeal as possible. It seeks to become as resonant as possible with its target audience in a way that appeals to their interests, their prejudices, their angers, fears and hatreds, their wants and needs. A good propaganda piece will do that well, getting the audience hooked into the propaganda's "payload," its intended behavior change. And by so doing, the propaganda piece will bring its audience around to whatever point of view that the author intends, even when the author does not hold to that view himself personally, or the view runs contrary to the interests of the audience. In this way, a successful propaganda piece bears a strong resemblance to Richard Dawkins' "meme complexes" - ideas that behave in society like viruses in the body - having an infectivity (being able to spread itself from host to host) and a virulence (bringing about a change in the host that favors the virus).

This book is the most brilliant propaganda piece I think I have ever read. And that is saying something - I have read a lot of propaganda over the years, ranging from religious propaganda, some subtle and some blatant, to political and economic propaganda, with payloads ranging from religious fundamentalism to atheistic humanism, from anarchical social and economic libertarianism to outright tyranny.

So to understand this book as propaganda, you must first understand its intended audience and its appeals, and then analyze the payload it carries.

The Appeal To The Target Audience

In general, the appeals are targeted to those holding to a deeply-held sense of libertarian values; the book carefully but subtly exploits the long-time American cultural charactaristic of "rugged individualism" that has been a part of American culture from its beginning and which was reinforced by the conditions present on the American frontiers of a century and a half ago. By seeking to appeal to those who hold that value as being important to the point of being almost sacred, this book homes right in on that instinct, bred into Americans for generations, that they should stand on their own and not be dependent on others, to the greatest extent humanly possible. The libertarian appeal is that old, well-worn right-wing attitude that government is the problem, not the solution, and that the best answer is to get government off the backs of the people and allow people to govern themselves.

Another appeal is to the belief, widely held in American culture, that property values are the basis of all human rights, and that human rights are non-existent in the absence of property rights. This is also a deeply cherished American belief, one instilled by, literally, centuries of careful propagandizing by anti-egalitarian elitists who base their sense of superiority, and therefore right to govern, on their accumulation of property and the implied superiority of which the ownership of property is presumably evidence. Additionally, the book exploits the fruit of many years, even decades of anti-egalitarian propaganda from such organizations as the conservative think-tanks, right-wing newspapers and magazines, corporate-owned television and radio outlets and others, who have relentlessly propagandized against efforts by liberals in government to equalize opportunity in the United States and the world, by seeking to increase and improve the opportunities for the disenfranchised to the extent possible. The elitist theory here has always been that it is unfair to require the rich to help the poor, and immoral for government to bring about this end by taxing the rich for the purpose of improving the opportunities available to the poor.

How The Appeals Are Made To Work

Most people operate under the mistaken notion that propaganda is a pack of very clever lies. Only ineffective propaganda lies to any real extent. Effective propaganda, such as the book in question, does not lie. It simply doesn't tell the whole truth. Propaganda, to be credible, according to the Central Intelligence Agency psychological operations people, must tell the truth at least 80% of the time, and must tell the complete, even inconvenient truth enough of the time to appear balanced and unbiased. And clever propaganda can be incredibly deceptive, while telling the truth even 100% of the time - as this book does so well. The key, of course, is to not tell the whole truth - by leaving out only the inconvenient parts that get in the way of the payload, good propaganda such as this will tell an incomplete but very convincing story, a story that would be quite at odds with what the victims would understand if they had heard the whole truth. So that is, of course, the liberal use of half-truths is the hallmark of good propaganda. We will see at the end of this essay why the authors feel justified in their use of such half-truths.

The Payload

So, then, what is the other element of propaganda, the payload in this work? What is it that the authors actually want to see happen?

The payload is to create out of its intended audience, an army of footsoldiers lobbying for the policies that enable the reinforcement of rule of, by and for the elite of whom the authors are certainly a part.

The book does this by the clever device of contending that "microtechnology" and the evolving "information society" will somehow erode the ability of governments to enforce their will, and in the process, individuals who are prepared to do so, will be empowered to assume the sovereign roles that governments once had, at least within their own lives. The authors never quite get around to explaining in any detail how they expect this to actually occur. Additionally, the concept of the "job" - a place and situation where one goes to work to earn an income - will also wither away, and with it, the security of steady incomes created by jobs in large numbers by industrial enterprise will also wither away, resulting in widespread poverty and chaos. This will happen, they say, because increasing productivity (again made possible by "microtechnology") will somehow make industrial enterprise obsolete. Those who don't see this coming and prepare for it, will lose. They will become the victims of the chaos in the streets that these changes will "inevitably" create. Those who do understand this and prepare for it (using of course, the resources listed by the authors at the end of the book), the "cognitive elite," or, to use the authors' preferred buzzwords, the "Sovereign Individuals" (that phrase always appears capitalized in the book), will become the winners - the ones who will be able to benefit from the destruction of the "welfare state" and will be able to economically benefit from the loss of jobs in the erosion of the industrial economy as we know it, and the chaos that ensues.

The Half Truths

It is, of course, the untold portion of the story that is the most significant in any work of propaganda such as this. And there are several parts of the story here, not told by the authors, that are so significant that they change everything - that if they were understood and accepted by the book's intended audience, the book would have no credibility whatever.

First, you can't sell something to someone who has no money. This simple, obvious reality is the one that gets in the way of conservative free-market economics, and it is why the free-market fundamentalism, promoted relentlessly by this book, simply doesn't work. It is one of the main reasons free-market economics failed so miserably when it was tried in Chile.

In an increasingly productive society, labor becomes increasingly surplus, and it does so because increasingly more goods are produced by increasingly fewer workers, even though the market for those goods is presumed to remain constant. The more surplus labor that exists within an economy, the more people there are who are unsuccessfully seeking jobs, and therefore, the more wages are depressed to an ever lower market equilibrium. The authors acknowledge this, and say that in the "welfare state," this surplus labor is supported by welfare schemes paid for by taxes on capitalists and by people who are working productively. They claim that surplus labor often bands together to vote in blocs to use the coercive power of government to extract wealth from the capitalists, and also come together in labor unions to coerce the capitalists, who are thereby "exploited by the workers." This, they decry as an injustice (appealing, as it does, to that rugged individualism discussed earlier), and say that as the labor required to produce goods in an economy continues to decrease, so many people will begin "feeding at the federal trough" that the state will simply be forced to collapse under the load, which they see as a good thing, ridding the economy of the huge number of economic parasites.

The authors don't tell you that there is a rub. In fact, there are several rubs. The first rub comes in that the unsupported surplus labor has no buying power, and the more people who represent surplus labor and are not earning a significant income, the more purchasing power the economy loses. A rich person, no matter how much money he has, can and will buy only a limited amount of consumer goods. Therefore, as purchasing power declines (as wealth becomes ever more concentrated in ever fewer hands), because fewer people have money in their pockets, ever fewer people are buying the goods the fancy new machines are producing, and hence, the economy itself suffers from an increasing lack of demand. For this reason, it is in the ultimate interest of the capitalist to share the productivity gains his enterprise achieves, with his workers. Of course, for this to work, all the companies in an economy have to do share these gains, not just a few, who would find themselves at a competitive disadvantage were they to do it on their own. This is the main reason that free-market fundamentalism as an economic policy has failed every time it has been tried. And it is why, simply to keep modern economies afloat, governments, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have had to tax the otherwise excessively concentrated capital to support social schemes, generally designed to improve the upward mobility of the poor and working classes (such as public education, public health, library systems, public transportation, subsidies to extend infrastructure into poor areas, etc.)

John Maynard Keynes, the economist who the authors thoroughly excoriate, realized the importance of this. He suggested (and the data, coming from decades of experience bear him out) that only when the economic gains created by productivity increases are spread widely throughout an economy, can purchasing power be maintained and/or increased. Since purchasing power is such a vital part of the economy, and an economy will decline when the purchasing power within it declines, it is vital to maintain it. The authors do not suggest how this should be done, or even acknowledge that it is even necessary. They must surely realize that this problem is real, since it is such a fundamental part of economic theory - but it is quite inconvenient to the payload of the book, so of course it gets completely ignored. The authors are quite uninterested in the fate of the economy, and only in maintenance and enhancement of the power of the elite, so if the economy goes into the toilet as the result of the policies they advocate, they simply don't care. In fact, it actually benefits them - simply because poor people have poor options, and represent less of a threat to the power of the elite.

Second, political nature abhors a power vacuum. This second glaring omission of the book is completely (and carefully) avoided, and is not even mentioned in the detailed discussion of the decline of the power of sovereign states. Yet it is the most basic, fundamental law of political science, a foundation on which all discussion of political science itself depends. It is a law so fundamental, so obvious as to make one wonder how anyone can read this book and not be awed by the authors' careful dancing around the problem it creates for their thesis.

There has never been a period in all of human history in which the coercive power of government has not been asserted by someone - a tribal chief, the leader of a hunter-gatherer band, a city-state king, a modern political tyrant, a president or prime minister elected by the "people," etc. It is not possible for anarchy to exist anywhere for long - even in Somalia, which has been without a functional government for ten years, sovereign coercive authority is asserted by war lords, criminal gangs and even gun-toting children. But no one can point to an example of a society in which sovereign authority and the power created by the threat of violence, has not been asserted by someone at some point early on. Additionally, another related problem that the authors ignore to the peril of their thesis, is that it is the tendency of those who have power is to leverage it as best they can to gain more power, normally at the expense of the power of others. How this works can be seen in Somalia, for example, where war-lords frequently give the numerous gun-toting street children a franchise on streetcorners at which to hang out and demand tolls from passing motorists. If the child does not comply, he dies violently in his sleep. If he does, he gets a cut of the tolls (typically ten percent) and is allowed to live. And the war-lord has increased his income and extended his coercive sovereignty by yet another streetcorner.

Third, there are two basic, fundamental, and inescapable consequences of the doctrine that property rights (meaning either real estate or wealth or both), are the basis of all human rights. This glaring problem with the doctrine underlying the book, is also carefully avoided by the authors, because to bring it up and discuss it would inevitably draw attention to the real intent and goal of the policies that the book would have its readers pushing for. These consequences are so basic and so inescapable, and yet have such thoroughly unfortunate consequences, that when they are brought up, the proponents of this doctrine (at least those who have thought much about it) invariably evade the discussion that these consequences invite.

The first unfortunate consequence is that if property rights are the basis of all human rights, it follows that those who have no property, have no rights. Of course, elitists have quietly long accepted this view, with the consequence that it has become the moral basis for their exploitation of others, whether through legalized slavery in the 19th century American south, or the effective economic slavery of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, or the Estancia system in Latin America, or the denial of the franchise in the early history of the United States. Indeed, that great champion of the right of property owners to exploit the unpropertied at will, Antonio Samosa, former dictator of Nicaragua, actually came right out and said it. When asked if he was concerned about the condition of the Nicaraguan people, he asked why he should be concerned about his "oxen." The mindset which that comment reveals is telling - elitists have always viewed property rights as the dividing line between those who are fit only to be harnessed to the plow, and those who have the right and the privilege to do the harnessing.

The political consequence of this doctrine is that elitists believe that it is only the owners of property as defined above, who have a stake in the outcome of governance. That notion was and is used as a basis to deny the franchise to the unpropertied. The book does not come out and say this, but it does imply it, and in a number of places Chapter 8. The authors claim, for example, that the fundamental problem with democracy is that when the franchise is extended to the unpropertied, they quickly discover that they can use the coercive power of government to extract wealth from the rich to appropriate it for their own use. The half-truth here is, that of course, no mention is made, of course, of the coercive power of the wealthy, granted them by their economic power, to force the exploitation of the unpropertied by use of the desperation created by destitution. In one place they get close, but never quite get around to it - they talk about the Couer d' Alene mine strikes in Idaho, and pontificate about how the "capitalists were exploited by the workers." They even tell how the union hired a gunman and killed the governor of Idaho, but they never explain just why the workers were that desperate. They don't ever mention that the workers' pay was docked for the cost of medical care necessitated by conditions brought on by working in the mines, or that the workers' deductions for medical insurance were going into the company's pockets instead of actually paying for medical insurance as promised, or that the cost of lost or broken equipment was deducted from the workers' pay, or that there were so many other deductions from their pay that the workers ended up with an average wage of $25 per month for 250 hours of work - ten cents an hour for some of the most dangerous and unhealthy work on the planet. Capitalists exploited by the workers? Give me a break! But the workers, were, after all, without property, and therefore had no rights, so in the authors' minds, the governor was perfectly entitled to bring in the state police to shoot at them, and the capitalists were indeed being exploited by workers who dared demand better treatment.

The second unfortunate consequence is that if human rights are based on property rights, then it follows that the more extensive the property you have, the more extensive the rights you have. This extends well beyond the right to exploit others, as discussed above, but to the very basis of government itself. It was the moral basis, for example, on which Augusto Pinochet oppressed the proponents of egalitarianism during his rein of terror in Chile - an act that Pinochet sincerely believed he had every moral right to do. The moral justification for this is given by the authors in that they imply that the poor and dispossessed are simply incapable of self-rule, and must therefore be governed by the elite for their own good, because they are rabble who would ignore property rights of the elite if they were given genuine power. Of course, the first two centuries of the history of the American republic would refute this; America became both economically and socially more successful (and, ironically, property rights more scrupulously honored) as it became increasingly egalitarian during its first two centuries. The half of the truth that the authors stubbornly ignore (and, of course, privately refuse to accept) is the reality that the only difference between themselves and the rabble with which they are so totally unconcerned is education and opportunity. Therefore, they imply, time and again, that it is a total waste of the elites' money and wealth to take money from them and use it to improve education of and increase opportunities for the poor and disposessed. To justify this, they make the claim that it is morally indefensible to do so. That is a matter of debate; I know of nowhere that it is carved in granite from God himself that it is somehow immoral to tax the rich to increase opportunities available to the poor. Instead, the authors imply relentlessly, time and again, without ever actually saying so that the immorality of such a policy is simply self-evident, on the presumed basis that the foundation of all human rights is property rights, and therefore, taking property from someone and giving it to someone else must be inherently immoral under any circumstance at all. They ignore the fact that by increasing the opportunities available to the poor, the rich actually benefit, by increased demand for the goods their factories are producing. But that is not the real issue; the real issue to the elite is power and control, and making the poor richer, dilutes the power and control of the elite. That is the real reason why the authors actually oppose a policy that would clearly benefit them economically.

Crucial Problems With The Authors' Thesis

The propagandistic nature of the subject work is best exemplified by the essential elements of the authors' thesis, which with little more than easy, casual research, are easily disproven to the satisfaction of anyone bothering to look, such as the discussion above of the Couer d' Alene mine strikes above. The fact that the thesis is riddled with these problems is evidence that either the authors are either ignorant of the facts (quite unlikely, given their education and access to academic resources and research data demonstrated by their level of research), or are simply intending to mislead for their own private purposes. Here are some of the most egregiously erroneous assumptions in their thesis:

1. Free Markets Work Best. The assumption that free markets work best was given the purest and best possible trial it could ever be possible to devise, when the high apostles of free market fundamentalism, none other than Milton Friedman and his "Chicago Boys," as they became known, was handed the economy of an entire major nation, and given a blank check to do within it whatever they saw fit, with the power of a very powerful military dictatorship behind him to make sure his policies happened as he wanted them to. The results of the "Chilean miracle," as Friedman and his allies still call the experiment, was a complete, total and unmitigated disaster, and led to such serious disruptions of the economy that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people went into open revolt, prefering to die by the military regime's bullets than face death by slow starvation. The result was that even as ruthless and brutal a dictator as Augusto Pinochet was forced to back down. Milton seems to have forgotten, and the authors of this book conveniently ignore the fact, that the result was that Milton and company were sent packing and summarily put on an airplane bound for Chicago - or else. The real Chilean miracle seems to have been that the economy quickly recovered - but only when virtually all of the major free market reforms instituted by Friedman were significantly altered or outright reversed.

2. Societies Are Run Best By The Elites, Who Have The Best Interests Of All In Mind. This notion is based on the assumption that the elites really do have the interests of the poor and disposessed as well as their own in their hearts, and that they view their responsibility to the poor as the price that morality dictates they pay in return for their privilege. Of course, the reality is quite different, as anyone who has spent time among the poor of Latin America or the inner cities or rural South of the United States can readily attest. Given the opportunity, the Samosas of the world really will harness the "oxen" to the plow and put us to work - enriching and increasing the power of the elite.

3. Big Business Is Generally Honest And Uncorrupted, And Therefore Is Best Left Alone By Government. The Enron scandal, and the fact that virtually all the major players in the energy business colluded amongst themselves to create and manipulate the artificial California energy "crisis," for their own gain to the considerable pain and disliquidation of the entire economy of the state of California, should easily disabuse anyone of that notion. If that is not enough to do it, go to my website and look at the "Dubya And Dick Scandal Chart," and count up all the Fortune 500 companies that are mentioned there, and figure what a percentage of the Fortune 500 they represent. And then keep in mind, those are just the ones that got caught. How many more are getting away with it, undetected, or, worse, ignored, by regulators and criminal investigators (with whom they are often in collusion)? Because you can't throw a corporation in jail, corporations can and often do calculate that legal fees, fines and sanctions are merely an expense to be factored into the cost of doing business (and even deducted from their taxes, believe it or not!). Having worked for a dozen or more Fortune 500 companies during my career, I can testify that not a single one that I ever worked for was scrupulously honest and/or fully compliant with the law. The simple reality is that the bigger a business is, the less accountable its managers are to the various stakeholders, whether they be customers, employees, communities in which their facilities are located, stockholders or regulators. When a business becomes multinational in character, it becomes truly unaccoutable in totality, and is able to work more or less with impunity, very often to the detriment of all the stakeholders except, of course, for its management, as confirmed by the recent (and deeply worrying) trend for multinationals to simply hire private armies when faced with a threat.

4. You Too Can Become A "Sovereign Individual" By Following Our Program. A quick look at the "resources" listed in the appendices in the back will tell you what the motive is here. Do you seriously believe that the list was drawn up as the result of careful research as to who can best provide the resources to someone who is struggling to leave the middle class and join the elite and become a "Sovereign Individual?" Virtually every one of the resources listed is a company that the authors are involved in, have a stake in, or are run by close friends or allies. It is a piteously obvious example of the dairy farmer milking the herd. The cold, hard reality is that the authors know that the average reader has no hope of ever becoming a member of the elite that is so near and dear to their hearts, and as much as say so in a number of places. In fact, they come right out and say at one point that out of a worldwide population of seven billion, a bit more than one percent, fewer than a hundred million, are ever likely to become "Sovereign Individuals" and the rest will either starve or end up serving the "Sovereign Individuals." Is this really the kind of world we want to build?

5. The Welfare State Will Collapse As The Result Of An Increasing Inability Of Governments To Tax The Rich. Welfare states are collapsing right around the world, alright, but it is the result of changing societal priorities, caused mostly by anti-egalitarian propaganda such as this book, not the inability of governments to continue to tax the rich. Governments are and always will be tirelessly inventive about how to generate revenues through taxation. The real reason that the rich are increasingly escaping taxation is that the governments are becoming less democratic and are increasingly becoming anti-egalitarian, because they are being run by the elite for the benefit of the elite - and do you think that those in power are going to vote to tax themselves? I hardly think so. As money becomes ever more the mother's milk of politics, those who have the gold will make the rules - to benefit themselves and, oh, by the way, to nullify the power of the less-well-off, including especially the poor and disposessed, to oppose their power. The trend to tax the rich less, and tax the poor more, will simply continue as the result of the rich serving their own interests, not because of "microtechnology" or changes wrought by the "information age."

6. The Power Of Governments Will Decline As "Sovereign Individuals" And Their Money Gain More Mobility As A Result Of The Trends Of The Information Age. Here the authors are assuming that most economic power in the future will rest in the hands of those who have and/or control knowledge, which knows no boundaries, and manufacturing will decline into insignificance, so "Sovereign Individuals" can simply take their knowledge and go elsewhere. They conveniently forget that even the most sophisticated computer program cannot, by itself, machine a crankshaft, smelt a ton of aluminum, nor glue together a pair of shoes. All the consumer goods one enjoys were made by someone, in some factory somewhere on the planet. The fact that the factory is now likely to be in the third world, and is therefore out of sight and out of mind, does not mean that it does not exist. Manufactured goods and the services relating to them are just as important a part of the economy as they ever were, and are going to remain so. Since the cost of producing and distributing information is very low and is likely to continue to decline, it will never become as significant a part of the economy as are manufactured goods and services related to them, even as information becomes more ubiquitously available. A machine tool must be programmed to machine a crankshaft, but the program is only written once, while the machine tool continues to turn out crankshaft after crankshaft, year after year. So the vast majority of economic activity always has been and will always remain the manipulation of material goods and services related to them. The authors claim that "microtechnology" will make industrial manufacturing obsolete. Well, I have never heard of a microtechnology that can forge an engine block or roll a two-foot I-beam.

7. The Returns From The Coercive (Violent) Power Of Government Are Declining. This assertion, based on a somewhat flawed analysis of history, is based on the also-flawed assumption that the power of government to assert violence to impose the coercive power of its sovereignty is constant, while the power of the individual or small groups to assert violence is increasing, and therefore, governments are becoming relatively impotent as a result. The reality is quite different. The power of governments to commit violence is rapidly increasing while becoming less costly, and have far outstripped what an individual could ever hope to match, while the power to tax, to increase resources at the disposal of that government, has actually been increased by the "information age" and will certainly be exploited as soon as governments realize that the new technologies have given them that power. The authors assume that governmental power will surely erode because "Sovereign Individuals" will be able to shop around among governemts for the best deal, seeking jurisdictions that tax them the least, and leave behind the governments with confiscatory tax schemes. This conveniently ignores the reality that governments can and often do collaborate to prevent that from being done by people of modest means. Rich people can, and always have been able to shop around for the best deal on governmental sovereignty - nothing new there. The ability to do so has always been written into immigration laws, and most nations have such laws that facilitate the migration of the rich into their territory. The "information age" has changed nothing in that sense, and won't in the future, either.

About The Authors And Their Real Agenda

All of this begs the question of the real agenda of the authors. To understand them, one must look past them a bit, and look at what it is they do and why they do it and with whom they associate. The best clue that I have been able to uncover in that regard is that Rees-Mogg in the United Kingdom and Davidson in the United States have been very close to the center of the "neo-conservative" movement for many years. They count among their colleagues and friends, the most thoroughgoing elitists and apologists for elitism that one could ever hope to find. Davidson, especially, is closely associated with American neo-conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute.

When one examines these institutions and the philosophies these think-tanks promote and who is associated with them, it becomes apparent that these people are anything but social and economic libertarian idealists. In fact, most of the people associated with these groups call themselves "Straussians." The economic and political philosophies of Leo Strauss are so fundamentally at odds with the ideals suggested by this book that the contrast is striking, yet the fact remains that both authors closely ally themselves with these "Straussian" people. That begs the question of what is the philosophy of "Straussianism" and why would the authors ally themselves with "Straussians" if the philosophy of Strauss was so much at odds with what they would appear to be promoting in their book? So a brief digression is in order.

Who Was Leo Strauss And Why Did He Say Those Awful Things?

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a German Jew, and ardent Zionist, who, it is often claimed by his supporters, fled the Nazis in World War II to come to the United States. The reality is that he was actually left for a better position abroad, in part on the recommendation of Carl Schmitt, who along with Martin Heidegger, were two Fascist political philosophers with whom he had studied, and whose work he greatly admired (and whose work greatly influenced the Nazis and Fascists). In 1948, he was appointed to the Charles Miriam Chair of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He taught classicism and political philosophy there until 1967, when he moved to Claremont Men's College where he taught political science until his death. His works on the analysis of classical Greek, Roman and medieval Jewish and Italian philosophers would hardly keep anyone up at night reading with rapt attention, but beneath all the technical analysis of classical political philosophy, there was an agenda. Strauss' agenda was to simply to replace the moral relativism and egalitarian democratization of modern liberal republics with what he considered to be the high-water mark in political philosophy. The classical Athenian model of democracy was, in his view, simply the best governmental system the mind of man has yet produced, and all that has followed it, especially modern egalitarian democracy, has been a corruption. Athenian democracy, hardly democratic in any kind of egalitarian sense, was basically of the elites, by the elites and for the elites, and others, middle class, working freemen or slaves, need not apply. Strauss believed that the rule could and should be based on what he regarded as the right of the elite to rule because they and only they could understand and appreciate, and not be corrupted by, the implications of certain awful truths contained within natural philosophy. These truths were so awful that the rabble simply could not handle them (there is no god to punish evil and reward good; no man's heritage or nation is better than anyone else's; expediency rather than adherence to religious moral standards usually obtains the results being sought, etc.) He set about demolishing moral relativism but without ever succeeding in establishing an adequate replacement in a clearly defined set of referenceable natural laws of morality, or clearly showing how they could be discerned. He believed that neither Athenian democracy nor Christian morality (as near as he ever came to defining the "natural laws" to which he was so fond of referring) set any kind of clear limit to the power of the state, particularly the power of the "wise statesman," men steeped in classical philosophy in whom decisionmaking was best vested. The limits on power of the state itself was set only by "natural law," but nowhere did Strauss ever get around to stating where this natural law could be discerned for the very necessary human purpose of reigning in tyrrany. Strauss went so far as to praise the "noble" efforts of the British Empire to bring good governance to the "uncivilized" world and justified the depradations of Caesar as having been necessary, and in most cases, quite proper in the effort to keep the uncivilized rabble in line. Since in his view, governance by a "wise statesman" serving at the pleasure of the elite, even without the consent of the governed, was somehow enobeling as it was practiced in classical times, and that made it a superior form of governance to the modern republicanism run by and for the rabble, which would, he believed, devolve into an instrument of coercion used by the rabble to rob the rich. Additionally, because classical philosophy carried within it certain awful truths that he presumed the ordinary people could not bear, it would inevitably lead them, through individualism and dissent, down the path of nihilism. The philosophy that discerned "natural law" and governed politics therefore had to be kept hidden from the masses, and should never be "prostituted" by being turned to the service of the common man. This made it necessary for those doing the governing to deceive, even lie outright to the the public from time to time, "for the social good." The rabble were to be controlled by religion, which hobbled them but which did not constrain the "wise statesmen" who simply knew better, and by the distraction of a beligerent nationalism, which would distract the masses with a perceived, if merely contrived threats to their patrimony. This was certainly an odd position for a moral absolutist to take. Murray Rothbard, Strauss' principal contemporary critic, saw a half-century ago the serious potential for harm that could come from a reliance on such policies. Yet Rothbard's warnings have gone unheeded and have been largely ignored by Strauss' many admirers among the neo-conservatives, apparently including even the authors, if one is to judge by their assertions which are so often parallel to those of Strauss.

Strass' appeal to modern conservatives is easy to understand. It thoroughly justifies, with high-sounding reference to classical philosophers, the "natural right," even the responsibility of the elite to govern the masses, using deception if possible but coercive force if necessary. Strauss paid a great deal of lip service to "liberal democracy" (as opposed to illiberal democracy, not "conservative" democracy), while at the same time showing a considerable disdain for the basic human rights of all men, particularly those of lower station. This is why conservatives have chosen to base their Straussianism on the notion that all human rights spring from property rights - those who have no property, as a consequence have no rights, and that fits beautifully Straussianism's program of forcible control of the masses.

When one examines Straussianism in comparison to modern "Ur-Fascism," as defined by the Italian writer, Umberto Eco, the parallels are striking, though, given Strauss' philosophical positions, not surprising - and those parallels even have echoes in the subject book. Both Straussianism and Ur-Fascism are based on the assumption that the elite should govern, beecause the masses are simply incapable of good self government - a view explicitly stated several times in the present authors' work. Fascism, Straussianism and the present authors all express a deep disdain for egalitarianism, and eschew the notion that even the poor have rights, though the authors frequently only imply this without ever daring to come right out and actually say it. That there should be no distinction between the economic and political centers of power is another feature of Ur-Fascism, and which is again echoed by the present authors. They seem to see no need for (and even express their disgust for) regulation of business by government, and they therefore see no conflict of interest in both levers of power being wielded by the same individuals. Of course, regulation of business ends completely when government is indistinguishable from business in terms of who is actually wielding power. The consequences of what that can lead to are clear to be seen from the mess left behind by the collapse of Bolshevism in Eastern Europe and North Asia. The total lack of environmental regulation, for example, has laid waste to whole regions, and neither Straussianism, nor the prescriptions offered by the present authors, offer any palliative that would prevent unregulated private enterprise, equipped with comparable impunity and economic muscle and motivated to externalize as much of its costs as possible, from doing exactly the same.

Additionally, another charactaristic of Ur-Fascism as well as Straussianism is a beligerent nationalism (which is one of the means suggested by Strauss as a means of distracting and controlling the masses). The authors would appear from their writings to oppose this, or, as they frequently suggest, claim that nationalism is about to become obsolete, but the people with whom they associate are the very same think-tanks and people who directly inspired George Bush's war in Iraq and frequent sabre-rattling elsewhere in the region - all exercises in belligerent nationalism if there ever were any. Though the book was written long before the advent of George W. Bush, one cannot help but wonder at the real feelings of the authors about that war and the occupation that ended it. Perhaps they see it as fitting that America should spill its blood and squander its treasure in an effort to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, that country-bumpkin usurper of the power rightly belonging to the elite, and restore "democratic" government of the elite, by the elite and for the elite to its proper position of unchallengable supremacy.

That the authors have had exposure to, and have admiration for Straussianism is evidenced by numerous passages in the book. In the chapter on the demise of democracy, for example, they make frequent, admiring references to Athenian democracy p. 315 and throughout the book, make occasional references to various works on classicism. They refer to modern, egalitarian democracy as "the fraternal twin of Communism" p.310. Throughout the book, they also make unusually frequent reference to "natural law" and "natural rights," both recurring themes in Strauss' works (and code-words for the right of the elite to govern the rest of us). Indeed, the phrase "Natural Right" is part of the title of Strauss' best known and arguably most influential work ("Natural Right And History," Chicago, 1953). There are many other examples of the parallels in the book to the Straussian vision of Athenian democracy of, by and for the elite, but suffice it to say that the parallels are clear if the admiration remains unstated. Indeed, the many Straussian think-tanks with which the authors are associated, alone would offer evidence of their admiration of the man's philosophies. One need only read the book, keeping in mind the nutshell analysis of Straussianism above, to the writings of the authors to understand where they come down on Straussianism, in spite of its evident parallels to modern Fascism, and in spite of the author's frequent, admiring references to Libertarianism.

There are many good reasons the authors would carefully conceal their connection to Straussianism. The principal reason is that Straussianism, with its strong resemblance to Fascism, is profoundly anti-Libertarian, and the authors' enterprise is to appeal to precisely that group of people, the Libertarians, to harness them to the plow to use them to help sow the seeds of a Straussian vision of democracy.

The only question that remains, of course, is where the world would end up if the policies the authors advocate were ever fully adopted. The economic results of the Chilean experiment are, of course, available for all to see and are not encouraging. Neither are the other failed experiments in free-market fundamentalism, imposed by force around the world by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, from Argentina to Zambia. There are many other examples that, in a more honest work, would have been analyzed as well, but were carefully avoided, such as privatization of the money supply (a feature of the American economy that caused chronic bank-fraud scandals and the attendant inflation-depression cycles throughout most of the 19th century). Equally discouraging are the results of Straussian experiments that their colleagues have succeeded in carrying out in foreign policy and economic policy within the Bush administration since the book was written. That the authors say nothing about the Chilean experiment, in particular, or the many other examples they could have cited of the real-world implementation of policies they advocate, clearly indicate that the authors accept the Straussian principle that the public must often be deceived for the "social good," i.e., the smooth, trouble-free running of society by the elites.

Let us hope that the right-wing libertarians, for their own good as well as that of society as a whole, wake up to the real agenda of the authors and their colleagues, and reject this frontal assault on the values of the Enlightenment, so that social and economic progress can and will continue, and "that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

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rev. 6-04