My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.I don't think that's a place for the right to take a stand. It's true that nearly all of the right, including traditionalists like myself, want a smaller and less intrusive government. So on that point we find agreement.
No philosopher can contemplate this interesting situation without beginning to reflect on what it can mean. The gap between political realities and their public face is so great that the term “paradox” tends to crop up from sentence to sentence. Our rulers are theoretically “our” representatives, but they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up. The business of governments, one might think, is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves. Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches. But democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority—they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.
But Minogue seems to be sailing close to something like a classical liberalism in the sentence that I bolded. It's an image of a society in which the government merely sets a framework of laws within which individuals then pursue happiness as they see fit.
What's wrong with that? I think it's a political orientation that is doomed to failure, for three reasons.
First, we humans are moral creatures. We wish to think that we are not just acting selfishly for our own happiness, but that we are acting rightly and upholding the good. After all, if it were just a case of my own individual happiness I could easily justify adultery, or neglecting my children, or any number of dishonesties.
So there are two problems with the idea that government should stay out of our lives so that we may "pursue happiness on our own account." First, it's likely to lead to a self-serving hedonism (which is unlikely to be entirely corrected by life as a teacher of virtue). Second, and just as importantly, it will fail to connect to the normal and healthy orientation that people have to what is right and good.
The left has been very successful in connecting to this orientation. The left has been superbly talented in taking people on an emotional journey centred on moral ideals of justice, equality and freedom. They have won conscientious people this way, in fact they have even managed to shift the moral imaginations of many serious Christians away from Christianity and toward liberalism.
A successful right-wing politics cannot abandon the field of moral idealism to the left and expect to prosper. We too should be asserting an understanding of justice and of public virtue (such as loyalty or piety or prudence etc). Unless we do this we allow the left to triumph unopposed.
Second, we humans are social creatures. This means that we are strongly influenced by the culture surrounding us and by the institutions of society. Realistically only a minority of people are able to act against the stream of society.
The left understands this and so has made a big push to influence the larger culture of society and to control the leading institutions of society. They've been highly successful in their aims; for instance, the schools and the universities are now probably 90% incubators of a leftist world view.
A successful right needs to be equally determined to hold on wherever it can to institutions and to influence over the culture of a society. If that means tenaciously rebuilding influence at the local level, then so be it. But the idea of just having people acting individually is no match for a left which understands the influence of culture and institutions; again, it leaves the left unopposed in a critical area of politics.
Third, it is misconceived to think of people acting only at an individual level to secure their happiness. Much of what is important to us requires a social setting that has to be defended at a public level. For instance, if we want to form a family successfully, then we need a culture of family life to be defended at a public level. Similarly, if our identity and our sense of belonging depends on the maintenance of a communal tradition, then we need that tradition to be defended at a public level.
It's no use having a view of life which focuses only on the things that people do individually for their own happiness. If you limit yourself to this, then what really have you got left to complain about? In practice, you're likely to be left complaining about the state interfering with your right to gamble, or smoke, or drink, or drive fast. In other words, you'll be left to complain about the existence of a nanny state - but you won't have the political vocabulary to take on the really big issues effectively. You won't be able to challenge the left when it comes to the larger social settings which make a full and complete human life possible.
For all these reasons, an effective right cannot limit itself to the idea of a neutral state maintaining social order whilst individuals go off and do their own thing. It leaves out too much and misunderstands the real driving forces of both the individual and society. It abandons critical areas of politics to the left.