This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Monarchy is more conducive to subsidiarity than democracy

No one should be surprised at the fact that modern democratic regimes are prone to gigantism, with the state consolidating more power within itself each day. An informed look at previous periods would indicate that this must happen in societies that have no structural hierarchy. Nonetheless, moderns are shocked, and this is a result of having been reassured, repeatedly and without any historical basis, that democracy would result in a minimum of government interference. Had they looked toward experience instead of theory, this idea would have been seen as questionable, if not preposterous.

Will Durant wrote: “The state, in feudalism, was merely the King’s estate.” [1]

While Durant’s statement is not surprising to a student of the Middle Ages, it sounds strange to anyone who has been taught to imagine the king as a man of relative omnipotence while presidents are men of moderate influence. But no king could push his people into war as rapidly and with such horrifying efficiency as a George Bush or Barack Obama. Nor can this be dismissed as a technological issue brought about by progress. It stems directly from the configuration of power structures in democracy, which facilitate large-scale social manipulations.

Here we must emphasize the difference between a stratified society and the modern egalitarian regime. In the latter, the state has direct authority over each individual or group, and this is true primarily because all have been reduced to one dead level. Access to one member on any single level implies access to all. In the stratified framework, however, the authority of a man at the uppermost level does not imply access to any other level beyond that which happens to be immediately adjacent to his own. He does not subsume command of all that falls below him in the vast hierarchy. He sits on the top rung, indeed, but his arms aren’t any longer than yours or mine, and so he can only grasp at the next rung down from his own.

The medieval king could command his dukes, but he could not command the dukes’ knights. He could draw taxes from the peasants who lived on his own estate (which was not much larger than a duke’s), but he could not draw taxes from the peasants who lived on his dukes’ estates. In this way the monarch had no effective way of exercising direct dominion over anyone but the dukes themselves. Any influence on the peasantry was indirect, a secondary result of convincing the nobility of the justness of his cause. It was open to them to refuse involvement in a way that no American governor can refuse mobilization of his population for a national military campaign.

[1] Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 565.

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