Only in the modern historical era do we find around the world certain democratic regimes founded upon the idea of universal, equal natural rights, and founded for the purpose of protecting the equal, natural rights of all their citizens.
Only in the modern historical era do we find a certain species of tyranny, totalitarianism, that, unlike ancient tyrannies, aims to control every aspect of human life: property, business, family life, education, religion, popular culture, even human thought.
When measured against all of human history, the modern era has produced some of the best regimes ever. And some of the worst.
Curious, isn’t it?
COMMON CHRISTIAN ORIGIN
Strange as it might seem at first glance, modern totalitarian tyranny and modern natural rights democracies spring from a common origin: Christianity.
At least that’s the argument made by both Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Both Tocqueville and Nietzsche considered Christianity to be the dividing line between the ancient and modern worlds. The ancient was the pre-Christian world. The modern is our world influenced greatly by the spread of Christian doctrine, Christian theology, and an overall Christian ethos that shapes politics, culture, and the modern human condition in myriad ways.
Tocqueville and Nietzsche also agreed that the single biggest difference between the ancient versus the modern world is a comprehensive reversal of the most basic social morality.
The ancient world was characterized by what Tocqueville called aristocracy, by which he meant everything human was based on social inequality, social hierarchy, a social pecking order that somehow corresponded to the superiors, inferiors, and in-betweens found among human beings.
This is why, for example, one finds no revolutions in the ancient world based on the idea of universal, equal natural rights: there simply was no concept in the ancient world of universal, equal natural rights.
The modern world, however, according to Tocqueville, is emphatically and thoroughly democratic, by which he meant everything human is based on social equality, which means any and all forms of social inequality, social hierarchy, and social pecking orders have become morally suspect.
In short, where aristocratic ancients celebrated inequality—especially those unequals who rose to the top in terms of power, talents, or excellence—modern democratic people view inequality of any kind as synonymous with immoral, unjust, or unfair. For modern democratic people, equality is the one and only foundation for all morality. And Christianity, according to Tocqueville and Nietzsche, did more than any other movement to fuel the widespread modern passion for equality in all things.
This is why Nietzsche, who agreed with Tocqueville, went even further in his analysis. For Nietzsche, modern constitutional republics, modern democracies, modern socialism, and modern communism are all variants of the modern democratic, egalitarian spirit: What these modern regimes and political movements have in common—a devotion to equality—is far more important than whatever differences might separate them.
Even the political theorizing of Karl Marx, who rejected Christianity and all religions, was nonetheless infused with the modern religious passion for human equality.
THE PASSION FOR EQUALITY
Set aside the rational self-evident truth of natural human equality announced in the American Declaration of Independence. While it is true that each and every human being has a rightful natural claim to his or her own person and private property, and no one else’s, it’s also true that neither Tocqueville nor Nietzsche were much concerned with that self-evident truth. That’s not what they were talking about.
Their focus, rather, was the long-term social and political effects of the religious passion for equality. If one begins with the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God—that all human beings are capable of eternal salvation merely on the basis of what they believe—both Tocqueville and Nietzsche observed, then it’s a short step to believe that all human beings should be equal in all ways.
Tocqueville and Nietzsche saw that Christianity launched a great modern democratic social movement to eliminate or at least minimize inequalities among human beings. Some results of this movement were good, such as Christian abolitionists who fought to eradicate slavery—even if their efforts came late in the day and even if the most strident apologists for slavery happened to be Christians as well.
Also, a Christianized, democratic people are capable of establishing a regime that combines the consent of the governed with the protection of equal natural rights, such as one finds in the American Founding.
But other results were more problematic: In the name of eliminating human inequalities, communism, for example, attempted to regulate all human activities and control all property. Literally, as one form of slavery was being eliminated by the religious passion for equality another form of slavery was being created at the same time and by the same passion.
Today we see all kinds of movements—universal government-managed education, universal government-managed health care, universal government-managed social security, etc.—all fueled by a kind of religious zeal and passion for equality in all human things, even in regimes that are not openly communist or socialist.
This is why Tocqueville advised long ago that in the modern era anything labeled “equality” (whether the label is accurate or not) is likely to succeed, politically, while anything that gets labeled “inequality” (whether the label is accurate or not) is almost certainly doomed to failure.
In the name of “equality,” we should expect to see increasingly centralized administration of all political power coupled with universal regulations, rules, and decrees that ensure democratic “sameness” for everyone. This is the basis of the modern administrative-regulatory state.
After all, what’s the alternative? That some people might receive better educations than others, for example, or some might enjoy better quality medicines, foods, or technology? The modern religious passion for equality will not tolerate such blatant social inequality.
AUTHORITY FROM THE PEOPLE
One undeniable modern trend that springs from the religious passion for equality and that both Tocqueville and Nietzsche identified is the rise of democratic politics. As the ethos of equality spreads, people in the modern world will no longer tolerate kings or anyone else who openly rules with some title of nobility and without authorization from the people, the many, or what the Greeks called the demos.
No longer will Christianized, democratic people swallow the line that God has appointed one man to rule without the consent of the ruled. Rather, Christianized, democratic people argue that if all human beings are created in the image of God, then all people should have a say in who their rulers will be.
For modern non-aristocratic democrats, the plebiscite, a popular vote by the people, is the only legitimate political authority in the modern world. That means that in the modern democratic world, the opinions of the people matter more, much more, politically, than ever before.
A tyrant in the ancient world didn’t care about the opinions of his subjects. He didn’t need to. He simply threatened superior force with a shake of his fist or slash of his sword, demanded some booty usually in the form of taxes or land or both, and otherwise left people alone.
But to establish and maintain a tyranny in the modern world requires large numbers of people to authorize the tyrant’s rule. Even if a modern tyrant has designs to cancel elections at some point, he still needs to be elected. At least once. The democratic path to ruling is the only path to ruling in the modern world, and both Tocqueville and Nietzsche understood this well.
That is why modern tyrannies tend to be totalitarian: Preserving a tyranny requires shaping the opinions of the people so that they support, or at least don’t oppose, the rule of the tyranny. Nothing is off limits for modern democratic tyrannies: Education, religion, political speech, science, family matters, popular culture, etc., are all objects of control for modern totalitarian tyrannies.
The Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, as well as many smaller tyrannies all have attempted to control all areas of human life. This is the same picture of totalitarianism presented, through literature, in George Orwell’s still relevant and still important book, 1984.
This is the paradox and the irony of the modern world, which Tocqueville and Nietzsche understood as well as anyone: The very social-cultural conditions that make possible popular self-government in the service of protecting equal natural rights also make possible the most complete, totalitarian tyrannies the world has ever witnessed. Both would be impossible without a widespread passion for equality, which Christianity did much to fuel, mixed with the power of modern technology.