Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Chastened Liberal

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Chastened Liberal

Article excerpt

"Bertrand de Jouvenel's Melancholy Liberalism" by Brian C Anderson, in The Public Interest (Spring 2001), 1112 16th St., N.W., Ste 530, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Many of today's enthusiasts for liberal democracy overlook its serious weaknesses. A neglected French thinker named Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-87) knew better. "[His] melancholy liberalism has a lot to teach us," writes Anderson, a senior editor of City Journal.

Born into an aristocratic French family and educated at the Sorbonne, Jouvenel saw the rise of totalitarianism firsthand. A radical socialist in his twenties, he then swung to the other extreme, but rapidly became disillusioned with it, too. As a journalist in the 1930s, he interviewed Mussolini and Hitler at length, and witnessed the Austrian Anschluss and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Jouvenel joined the French Resistance, eventually fleeing to Switzerland with the Gestapo on his heels. By then, Anderson says, he was "the full-fledged antitotalitarian liberal that he remained for the rest of his life."

In exile as the war raged, Jouvenel wrote his first major work of political philosophy, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, examining how the modern state--even in contemporary liberal democratic societies- had become dangerous to liberty. Outside of small communities, the doctrine of popular sovereignty, if taken literally, is absurd, he argued, since the people themselves cannot actually govern. And whoever governs in their name can invoke the doctrine to justify almost anything, from the rounding up of political foes to the bombing of civilians. The notion of popular sovereignty also burdens the state with a host of new responsibilities, all supposedly to secure the people's well-being. By making right and wrong a matter for each individual to determine, moreover, popular sovereignty unleashes a moral relativism that inevitably leads to social disorder and to demands that the state suppress it. …

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