After World War I signaled the end of government by aristocracy in Europe, a lot of debate ensued regarding alternatives to replace them. As autocratic dynasties were relegated to history, the next generation of leaders and academics argued the question of how nations should be governed in a post-aristocratic era.
In 1932, Benito Mussolini wrote about fascism, seeking to distinguish it favorably from other systems, including democratically structured governments. In doing so, he conflated democracy and classical liberalism. He wrote: “Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation… Fascism has taken up an attitude of complete opposition to the doctrines of (classical) liberalism born in the political field and the field of economics…”
Mussolini’s initial comments are accurate—pure democracy or ‘majority rule’ cannot effectively “direct human society”. But he later seemingly equates democracy with classical liberalism by using the terms more or less interchangeably. In truth, classical liberalism is the antithesis of majority rule. Classical liberalism is a moral and social philosophy standing for strictly limited government. Government authority should be limited to the protection of individual rights, ensuring security from outside and internal threats, and administering civil and criminal justice.
America was founded on classical liberal first principles and the governmental system the founders thought best to safeguard these principles was a constitutional republic—a representative government which, though it would operate on democratic principles, would be constrained by the Constitution’s strict limits on government power. The reason America was not a country where the majority attempted to “direct human society” was because the government was so effectively limited. Only when the Constitution has been disregarded, has American government slid ever closer toward the conditions Mussolini describes—a democratically instituted government attempting to direct all of society.
Mussolini also made a prediction which proved sadly accurate, but not in the way he anticipated. “(F)or if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism (liberalism always signifying individualism) it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism, and hence the century of the state…” We now know that Mussolini’s particular brand of fascism failed upon defeat in World War II. But communism and socialism gained an ever larger foothold through much of the 20th century and fascist principles are often employed by governments without regard to the manner in which leaders are selected or otherwise established in office. Further, the American government slowly but consistently metamorphosized from a constitutionally constrained republic founded on the principles of classic liberalism to representative majoritarianism as the Constitution’s constraints on the government’s power were systematically diminished over time. This didn’t happen because it was inevitable, or because classical liberalism doesn’t work. It happened because we permitted the Constitution to be too much and too often disregarded, rendering it weaker and less effective as a constraint on government.
Viewed from the turn of the millennium and beyond, the 20th century proved to be “the century of the state” as Mussolini predicted, not through the despotism he expected, but at the hands of democratic governments with powers too broad to allow classical liberal principles to thrive. Liberty and statism are inversely correlated. One only expands by displacing the other. At the turn of the 20th century, America was a stalwart of classical liberalism. As a result of the diminishment of our Constitution throughout remainder of the century after Mussolini’s comments, America devolved into an ever more statist country. Though it is now perhaps one of the last fields upon which the battle for strictly limited government and unalienable individual rights is still waged, that battle is now mostly confined to the arena of ideas. Our political reality is that nearly all of our elected representatives now embrace the use of unconstitutional power and expansive state authority far beyond what our first principles contemplate or our real Constitution authorizes.