Slipping Back into Tyranny

Article excerpt

Are we succumbing to decadence? Its signs surround us. Vices have taken over from virtues, shame no longer restrains behavior, the perverse is celebrated, and truth has been abandoned for propaganda.

Jacques Barzun is a pre-eminent cultural historian. In his recently published 800-page summing-up of the modern epoch, "From Dawn to Decadence," Mr. Barzun says decadence is our fate. This is because the ideas that launched our modern civilization have been carried to their logical conclusions and become used up. Exhausted, they have no more to offer.

That is one way to look at it. If Mr. Barzun is correct, we face a far more serious threat than an external enemy armed with weapons of mass destruction. If the ideas and purposes that have given us meaning are exhausted, decline is unavoidable.

Ideas do become exhausted. This is true even in science where the struggle to grasp reality is, perhaps, most intense. Neither the American public nor its leaders understand the threat of decadence. On the whole, people think of cultural decadence in terms of art, literature and sexual behavior. They see a lot of bad examples for children and teen-agers, but they don't think of decadence in terms of slipping back into tyranny.

But that's what decadence means. The ideas and purposes of the last 500 years lifted us from tyranny: the tyranny of superstition, of imposed religious dogma, of status-based legal privileges, of arbitrary and unaccountable power.

Mr. Barzun notes that the Inquisition has returned with political correctness, thought police and sensitivity training. These practices reflect a deeper decadence -the abandonment of constitutional protections of free speech and an intrusion into the freedom of conscience that is the basis of a liberal social order.

Decadence and the reappearance of tyranny are manifest in law, as my colleague Larry Stratton and I show in our just published book, "The Tyranny of Good Intentions." In the Anglo-American legal tradition, law shields the individual from arbitrary government power. …