The modern social welfare state was invented by Otto von Bismarck in the mid-19th century.
The idea was simple. Governments required the consent and support of the masses. That was the lesson that Republican France had taught the world and that Bismarck had learned.
You could get a lot more out of “citizens” than you could out of “subjects.” The subjects of Frederick the Great might reluctantly pay their taxes…and might join his armies.
But they would always keep a distance — emotional and physical — between themselves and their masters. War and government were Frederick’s business, not theirs. Monarchs might retain the loyalty of their subjects. They could claim some of their money, too.
But even the Sun King, Louis XIV, the man for whom the term “absolute monarch” was coined, was lucky if he collected 10% of the kingdom’s GDP in taxes. As for his soldiers, every one of them wanted payment. In real money.
In the course of the 19th century, monarchy was gradually replaced by some form of representative democracy or republicanism. Not that democracies were necessarily better in any moral or practical way.
They did not necessarily improve the lot of the people who lived in them, neither materially nor judicially. Why were they such a hit? It may have been that defensive weapons — repeating rifles — had become cheap and effective. It was much more expensive to keep an armed, subject population in line.
Or it may have been a result of the spread of ideas via cheap newspapers and books. Or it may have been merely that because of the Industrial Revolution, people were getting richer and could afford more government.
Readers will find more on the role of government, its growth and efficiency, later. For now, let’s just note that parliamentary, participatory democracy became fashionable in the 19th century. The main reason was probably because it is easier to squeeze and bamboozle a citizen than it is a subject.
The real genius of modern democracy is that it makes the citizen feel that the government and its workings are somehow the product of his own aspirations. If he wants more money for his retirement, he presumes he can get is — provided only that enough fellow citizens share his desire.
If he wants to go to war, that too is up to him and his fellow voters. If he wants to spend more money on space exploration or ban people from saying prayers in bars, the majority — of which he feels he should be part — can do that too.
There is hardly anything he and his fellow lumpenvoters cannot do — just so long as they are of one mind on the subject. That is why you so often hear people say, “If we could only get together on this…” They believe solidarity is the key to success. Whatever the majority wants, it gets.
Even kings had bits in their mouths and a hand on the reins. According to the “divine right of kings” doctrine, a king was a servant of God. A king was subject as well as monarch. God himself had given them the post; they could not refuse it. Nor could they refuse to carry out the job on the terms that they believed God had prescribed. God could pull on the reins whenever He wanted.
Often, monarchs were ridden by those who claimed to represent God. In the famous example from the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII got into a dispute with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry was excommunicated.
How much harm Gregory’s excommunication would do him, Henry might not have known. But he didn’t want to find out. He dressed as a penitent and waited three days outside the Pope’s refuge at Canossa. Then he was admitted and forgiven.
The democratic majority, on the other hand, recognizes no authority — temporal, constitutional nor religious — that can stand in its way. And thus it deludes itself to thinking that it is the master of itself, its own government and its own fate.
“The government is all of us,” said Hillary Clinton.
More to come…
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