Friday, 28 September 2007

Authority and Freedom

If and insofar as the common man lacks virtue and self-control, and society lacks authorities, moral strictures, taboos and codes of behaviour for him to follow, and insofar as the state still possesses civilising forces, then censorship and control by the state are necessary for some modicum of civility to survive. The weakness of self-control within men, and of the bonds between them, has made it necessary that the state be stronger, that it assume the control and fix the bonds that bind them together.
Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. [1]
It is true to say that the state has grown upon the ruins of these civilising necessities of society — but it could hardly have done so without the ruination brought in the name of freedom. Institutions and authorities and particularisms that stand against the free exercise of power are attacked as the enemies of freedom, whereupon it is forgotten what freedom they have preserved against the advance of absolutism.
A similar pattern is to be observed everywhere: the institutions which make the survival of the pluralist society possible—the legal system, the school, the family, the university, the market—are attacked by totalitarian forces using liberal slogans, in the name of freedom in other words. Freedom appears as the absence of law and responsibility, in the anarchistic sense, and thus promises all the consequences which European social philosophy has pointed to for several hundred years: unlimited freedom for everyone means unlimited rights for the strong or, according to Dostoyevsky, in the end, absolute freedom equals absolute slavery. [2]
It is funny to observe that the watchword that holds the greater authority over people’s minds is not that of authority itself, but that of freedom. Ministers of the popular state, though they have gathered ever more power over people’s lives — more than any aristocracy by its very nature could ever have gathered — , still prefer to couch the whole process in terms of freedom rather than authority; and, to some extent, they are right to do so: the unlimited state works hard to free people from all other authorities, to level and destroy, until it alone is left standing.
That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word ‘authority’ is even spoken out loud. That is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, of our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end. [3]
The marriage of the ideals of liberty and equality — first consummated in the French Revolution — has put in men’s minds the absurd expectation that something will be born of it that will secure both greater freedom and greater equality for all; but naturally, since there are many men of ignoble mien who, once set free of all civilising authorities and values, cannot conduct themselves decently, such that the state must step in with the most intrusive laws and regulations to guide and restrict them, to proscribe their behaviour and to set them on determined paths, so must every man under the aegis of equality be subject to the same proscriptions that bind these lowest and most ignoble of men to a regulated and legislated life, irrespective of his capability for self-control, irrespective of his dignity of self-determination, and irrespective of his particularistic values.
Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone—that of the state. In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state. In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their abasement before the power of their absolute master—the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man to man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course. [4]
If you are a political libertarian seeking the limitation of the state, alarmed at its pervasive interference in society and aghast at political absolutism in all its forms, then your ideal is ill-served by your also being a social libertarian caring nothing for social order or authority, or even scorning those “stuffy” things that help to maintain it but for which you yourself can see no use and in which you yourself can see no worth; such freedom — or popular licence as it might better be termed — as this attitude helps to foster serves ultimately the expansion of the state and not the liberation of the individual.
[1] Edmund Burke, “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”, 19th January 1791, The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, vol.1, (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834), p.490.
[2] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society”, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.172.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §39, pp. 543-4; preceded by: “The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its ‘modern spirit’ so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called ‘freedom’.” p.544.
[4] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, tr, J.F. Huntington (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.187.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Hidebound Progressives

It is very odd that progressives — those who believe most strongly in the malleability of mankind and who thereupon push for unprecedented change in order to engender a significantly new and better society — are often compelled to express the opinion that some major aspects of society do not undergo any significant changes at all. Thus, if one talks of the decline in civility or of the increase in crime, one gets the stock-moronic response that “it’s always been that way”. One would think that such a response would be the last thing one would hear coming from the mouths of men who profess to believe not only that mankind is very changeable but also that a thing’s always having been a certain way is no justification for acquiescence or complacency in the light of its continuing existence, nor a barrier to its improvement, but rather even a spur to a determined fight against its very existence — and yet it is often the first thing one hears them say! But they are not called progressives for nothing. They do not believe in mere change, they believe in progress, that is, change for the better, as an infallible function of their ideas, and so, whilst their ideas predominate, at least as far as they can see them in policy and practice, they are loath to see any changes for the worse, except, notably, in the behaviour of reactionaries or foot-draggers, those dreadful people who oppose or appear indifferent to the promise of the better society to come.

Difficulty and Complexity

From the easiness or difficulty of a problem, we are accustomed to assume that the thing about which the problem concerns itself must be correspondingly simple or complex in its objective nature. It does not follow, however, that there is necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the degree of a thing’s objective complexity and the degree of difficulty in understanding it, such that we must understand more easily those things that are objectively simpler. If our conceptual machinery is geared a certain way, then we may more easily comprehend more complex matters in that way than simpler matters in another. It may well be that many things that come easily to us are objectively complex, and many things that we find difficult or impossible to understand are objectively simple.

Self-Evident Foolishness

It takes centuries of work by the sharpest and most curious minds to bring to light some particular of knowledge, whereupon it takes only moments for any fool to declare it self-evident. That, say, the blueness of the sky is owed to an unconscious physical process rather than the daily interventions of a god is not at all self-evident. Only presumptuous thoughtlessness or linguistic misusage could declare it so. Hitherto it was assumed that the gods had a hand in everything, and now it is assumed that they have a hand in nothing. Neither can be described as self-evident — except by fools in loose-tonguedness or in receipt of beliefs or facts that they would never have had the wit to decide or discover for themselves.

Advocates of Violence

It is becoming more common to hear a man claim that in no circumstance would he be an advocate of violence. In almost every case this is either humbug or thoughtless talk. Everyone but the genuine pacifist is an advocate of violence; for let us say that I were to break down a man’s door, drink his brandy, and ravish his wife, would he not then be an advocate of violence, even if only by the proxy of the police-force? It should happily go without saying that some violence is justified. The genuine pacifist who argues against this proposition must take the contradictory: that no violence is justified, which, assuming a moralism on his part, means that he believes that violence ought to be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of his brandy.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Nach Deutschland

I am off to Germany tomorrow for a few days, where I intend to be very mindful of local traditions conducive to the happiness of the soul. I must also bear in mind that, when boarding a bus in that great land, if someone wishes me a good trip in English, I must answer him in English, then look a little Scottish and horrified, and then run off. That is one of our traditions.

Crime and Innocence

“Innocence is very far from finding as much protection as crime does.” [1] Thus noted La Rochefoucauld, who hadn’t even read The Guardian.
[1] [“Il s’en faut bien que l’innocence ne trouve autant de protection que le crime.”] François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, tr. S.D. Warner & S. Douard (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2001), §465, p.84.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Young Scallywags

“These young people [gang-yobs] need to be given value and more than that they need to experience economic equality”; [1] for only through the expropriated wealth of others can these misunderstood young scallywags afford to dress themselves in even more expensive sports-clothing, to buy even fancier mobile-phones, and, if old enough, to fit their cars with even wider tyres and exhaust-pipes, because, you know, without these upgrades, they will be forced to be even more violent and unpleasant. Or we could sterilise them — before they start breeding.
[1] Crystal Mahey, “Gang value”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 5th September 2007.