Topic: Political Philosophy

Anthony Burgess on “the Duty to Distrust the State”

Anthony Burgess wrote some 50 books, but he became most famous for one that was made into a hit movie – A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Two years later Burgess wrote an essay reflecting on the book, the film, and their message. But the essay was not published until 2012, in the New Yorker, where it could be seen only by subscribers. Only this summer did the New Yorker open access to its archives, if only temporarily. So at last I have a chance to draw attention to the section of it I particularly enjoyed, on the dangers of the modern state:

We probably have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least conceivable that we have a duty to distrust the state. Thoreau wrote of the duty of civil disobedience; Whitman said, “Resist much, obey little.” With those liberals, and with many others, disobedience is a good thing in itself. In small social entities—English parishes, Swiss cantons—the machine that governs can sometimes be identified with the community that is governed. But when the social entity grows large, becomes a megalopolis, a state, a federation, the governing machine becomes remote, impersonal, even inhuman. It takes money from us for purposes we do not seem to sanction; it treats us as abstract statistics; it controls an army; it supports a police force whose function does not always appear to be protective.

This, of course, is a generalization that may be regarded as prejudiced nonsense. I personally do not trust politicians or statesmen—very few writers and artists do—and consider that men enter politics for the negative reason that they have little talent for anything else and the positive reason that power is always delicious. Against this must be set the truth that government makes healthful laws to protect the community and, in the great international world, can be the voice of our traditions and aspirations. But the fact remains that, in our own century, the state has been responsible for most of our nightmares. No single individual or free association of individuals could have achieved the repressive techniques of Nazi Germany, the slaughter of intensive bombing, or the atomic bomb. War departments can think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it.

It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery. Sinclair Lewis, in “It Can’t Happen Here”—a novel curiously neglected—presents an America that becomes fascist, and the quality of the fascism is as American as apple pie. The wisecracking homespun Will Rogers-like President uses the provisions of a constitution created by Jeffersonian optimists to create a despotism which, to the unthinking majority, at first looks like plain common sense. The trouncing of long-haired intellectuals and shrill anarchists always appeals to the average man, although it may really mean the suppression of liberal thought (the American Constitution was the work of long-haired intellectuals) and the elimination of political dissidence. Orwell’s “1984”—a nightmare vision which may conceivably have prevented the nightmare fact from being realized: no one expects the real 1984 to be like Orwell’s—shows the unabashed love of power and cruelty which too many political leaders have hidden under the flowers of “inspirational” rhetoric. The “Inner Party” of Orwell’s future England exerts control over the population through the falsification of the past, so that no one can appeal to a dead tradition of freedom; through the delimitation of language, so that treasonable thoughts cannot be formulated; through a “doublethink” epistemology, which makes the outside world appear as the rulers wish it to appear; and through simple torture and brainwashing.

Both the American and the British visions conjoin in assuming that the aversive devices of fear and torture are the inevitable techniques of despotism, which seeks total control over the individual. But, as long ago as 1932, Aldous Huxley, in his “Brave New World,” demonstrated the submissive docility that powerful states seek from their subjects as being more easily obtainable through non-aversive techniques. Pre-natal and infantile conditioning makes the slaves happy in their slavery, and stability is enforced not through whips but through a scientifically imposed contentment. Here, of course, is a way that man may take if he really desires a world in which there are no wars, no population crises, no Dostoyevskian agonies. The conditioning techniques are available, and perhaps the state of the world may soon frighten man into accepting them. 

The whole thing is worth reading, with its reflections on freedom and conformity, good and evil, Orwell and B. F. Skinner (he was big in 1973).

Undercurrents of Liberty in China

BEIJING, CHINA—Everything in China is big.  Including the battle over its future.

I recently returned from the People’s Republic of China.  It’s always a fascinating place with a future as yet unresolved. 

The country is growing economically, but no one really believes the government’s statistics.  The “one child” policy has created a birth dearth that may leave the PRC old before it grows rich. 

The PRC’s future is not yet determined.  Politics remains authoritarian, and it isn’t obvious that democracy would yield a meek Beijing. Nationalism could become an even more dangerous force without the current government’s power to close off discussion. 

Nevertheless, the young are restless.  Those I met had little patience with the Chinese Communist Party. 

Many hoped to go to America for school, for both its educational opportunities and personal freedoms.  Moreover, they weren’t afraid to speak out in front of others.

Hold Pakistan Accountable For Blasphemous Oppression

In a world aflame, religious minorities are among those who suffer most.  Pakistan is notable for its failure to protect religious liberty, the most basic right of conscience.

The State Department recently reported on Pakistan that “The constitution and other laws and policies officially restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government enforced many of these restrictions.  The government’s respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom continued to be poor.”

Minority faiths frequently face violent attack.  Although Islamabad does not launch these assaults, it does little to prevent or redress them.  This failure, the State Department explained, “allowed the climate of impunity to continue.”

The most common tool of persecution may be the charge of blasphemy which, explained the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is used to “target members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently result in imprisonment.”  The blasphemy laws are made for abuse:  “The so-called crime carries the death penalty or life in prison, does not require proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and does not include penalties for false allegations.”

With evidence unnecessary, the charge is routinely used in personal and business disputes.  Penalties are not limited to the law.  Since 1990, at least 52 people charged with blasphemy have been killed before reaching trial.

Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

Federal Follies 200 Years before Ex-Im

Anyone who thinks that Washington waste is something new should examine the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This essay discusses the mismanagement, corruption, and failures of the BIA since it was created in 1824.

As early as 1828, Indian expert H. R. Schoolcraft concluded: “The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme. One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork … there is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.”

By the 1860s and 1870s, New York Times editorials were railing against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau,” and arguing that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful.”

In their recent book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, Burton and Anita Folsom describe the failure of a major Indian policy even before 1824. Here is the basic story:

• Unhappy that British fur traders were out-competing American traders, Congress appropriated $50,000 in 1795 to create frontier posts stocked with American goods to trade with the Indians for furs.

• These government-run fur “factories” were supposed to earn a return, but they “were so poorly run that many Indians held them in contempt and refused to trade there.” Congress had to heavily subsidize the system to keep it operating.

• Rather than respond to the market demands of the Indians, as private traders did, the official running the government system, Thomas McKenney, tried to push products on the Indians that he thought they ought to have.

• The government set up its trading posts at substantial distances from Indians. By contrast, private fur trader John Jacob Astor had his agents build close relationships with Indians, and he made trading easy for the tribes.

• Astor instituted pay for performance, while the government paid its fur bureaucrats fixed salaries.

• Astor watched international fur markets closely and adjusted his operations and marketing accordingly. The government ignored markets, and simply dumped furs in Washington for auction.

• Thomas McKenney was embarrassed by the government’s falling market share and the huge success of Astor. So, in 1818, McKenney began lobbying Congress to ban private fur traders. When that attempt at monopolization failed, McKenney lobbied to impose large fees on private traders and to boost taxpayer subsidies for the government system.

• Despite a new fee on private traders in 1820, the government system was falling apart because of plunging sales. An official report exposed the huge inefficiencies of the government system, and Congress finally voted to end it in 1822.

Long before Solyndra and the Export-Import Bank, politicians should have learned some basic lessons about why Washington ought to stay out of business. Unfortunately, each new generation of politicians are tempted to believe that enlightened federal planners can run the economy better than businesspeople and markets. Rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars as it did two centuries ago, Congress blows billions of dollars today on new versions of its fur-trading folly.

Hobby Lobby Demonstrates That Expansive Government Is Religious Liberty’s Worst Enemy

The federal government has taken over ever larger swaths of American life, most recently health care.  ObamaCare demonstrates that as state dictates expand, religious liberties recede.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was extremely narrow but also extremely important.  Religious liberty is the first freedom and must be protected from government.

The Founders chose not to create a church-based government.  Previous experiments had turned out tragically for both human liberty and religious faith. 

Religion’s relationship to politics has become more important as politics has swallowed more of American life.  In 1789, the new national government was minuscule.  Moreover, in America’s early days, there was a shared Biblical worldview, if not faith, and a common belief in the value of civil religion. 

However, that world has disappeared.  Today there is little government does not do, pushing ever more aspects of life into the public square.  Equally important, Americans have increasingly divergent views of the transcendent. The First Amendment simultaneously guarantees individuals the right to practice and denies government the right to impose.  There may be no more tortured area of federal jurisprudence. 

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