In the light of certain altercations that have taken place recently on our comment pages – less arguments than cursing and mud-slinging – we offer the balm of some words by Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, one of the (few) great moral thinkers of our time. The quotation comes from his recent book of collected essays, Anything Goes. We more than recommend it, we urge our readers, commenters, visitors and critics to read it. You’re unlikely to agree with every word, but every word is worth reading.
The essay we are borrowing from is titled Freedom And Its Discontents.
There are few of us who have never felt the temptation to silence those fools and scoundrels who have views different from our own. They must, after all, be either stupid or malevolent (or, of course, both). If the means to silence them were at hand, we’d be sorely tempted to use them.
Which of us listens without impatience and even anger to the arguments of our opponents? …
Love of free speech in most men is only fear of being shut up. If they were a bit stronger than they are, they would just have monologues, the most pleasurable of all speech forms. …
The threat to free speech does not inhere, therefore, solely in governments, but in our hearts.
We welcome debate. Please put your arguments, the more persuasively the better. Agree, disagree, criticize, give your reasons. The slinging of invective is not argument and never persuades anyone to anything. Mere abuse is not productive, and not interesting to read.
One more thing. Listening (and its equivalent, reading attentively) is an art worth practicing. Ideally, we need first to comprehend, then to test with internal argument, and only then to express ourselves freely.
“Social justice” means injustice: it means money forcibly taken from those who have earned it and given to those who have not. It is the injustice of redistribution, the injustice of socialism.
It is the depraved idea on which the welfare state is founded.
It is a recipe for national impoverishment, discontent, degeneration, and the savagery that has been on display in England this week.
In City Journal that wisest of essayists, Theodore Dalrymple, writes about the rioters in England, confirming our own view of them:
The riots are the apotheosis of the welfare state and popular culture in their British form.
A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice.
It believes itself deprived (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class), even though each member of it has received an education costing $80,000, toward which neither he nor — quite likely — any member of his family has made much of a contribution; indeed, he may well have lived his entire life at others’ expense, such that every mouthful of food he has ever eaten, every shirt he has ever worn, every television he has ever watched, has been provided by others. Even if he were to recognize this, he would not be grateful, for dependency does not promote gratitude. On the contrary, he would simply feel that the subventions were not sufficient to allow him to live as he would have liked.
At the same time, his expensive education will have equipped him for nothing. His labor, even supposing that he were inclined to work, would not be worth its cost to any employer — partly because of the social charges necessary to keep others such as he in a state of permanent idleness, and partly because of his own characteristics. And so unskilled labor is performed in England by foreigners, while an indigenous class of permanently unemployed is subsidized.
The culture of the person in this situation is not such as to elevate his behavior. One in which the late Amy Winehouse — the vulgar, semicriminal drug addict and alcoholic singer of songs whose lyrics effectively celebrated the most degenerate kind of life imaginable — could be raised to the status of heroine is not one that is likely to protect against bad behavior.
Finally, long experience of impunity has taught the rioters that they have nothing to fear from the law, which in England has become almost comically lax — except, that is, for the victims of crime. For the rioters, crime has become the default setting of their behavior; the surprising thing about the riots is not that they have occurred, but that they did not occur sooner and did not become chronic.
We are libertarians – though firmly on the small government (patriotic, conservative) end of the libertarian spectrum, nowhere near the anarchist end. And being so, we fail to see why an elected government should have any secrets from its electors except those which are truly necessary to protect the nation.
If the people running WikiLeaks – Julian Assange is the name of one we are told – have released information that identifies individuals who provide secret intelligence to America (or any Western country) in order to help national defense and security, they have committed a crime. If agents have been killed, the crime is capital.
As far as we know, no such names have been published, and no one has been killed as a result of the WikiLeaks action.
So, with that important exception borne in mind, how in general do we evaluate what WikiLeaks has done?
We do not like the hue and cry for blood. We hear Mike Huckabee’s demand that Julian Assange be executed, and note that it comes from one who, as Governor of Arkansas, commuted death sentences on convicted murderers, at least one of whom was released from prison to murder again. (See our post, The deadly danger of Christian forgiveness, December 1, 2009.)
The two most interesting opinions we have found are in contrast with each other. One is Diana West’s, with which we agree, and the other is Theodore Dalrymple’s, with which we do not agree (though we almost always do agree with, and appreciate, the articles and books of that wise and erudite writer).
Here (in part) is Diana West’s opinion:
I am still working out why I watch the high dudgeon sparked by Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks dump of a quarter-million State Department cables that has given rise to the most heated, bloodthirsty chorus I have ever heard in Washington, notably from conservatives, and feel strangely numb.
I observe the fits over “sovereignty” lost, and note that some of the same people find such emotion in bad taste when the prompt is our unsecured, non-sovereign border. I hear the arguments that our national security is hanging by a computer keystroke, and note the fecklessness of a U.S. government that hides from us, the people, its own confirmation that North Korea supplies Iran with Russian-made nuclear-capable missiles; China transfers weapons materiel to Iran (despite Hillary Clinton’s pathetic entreaties); Iran honeycombs Iraq; Syria supports Hezbollah; Pakistan prevents the United States from securing its nuclear materials; Saudis continue to provide mainstay support to al-Qaida (despite pie-faced denials come from Saudi-supplicating U.S. administrations). Everything good citizens need to know, in short, to see through the dumbed-down, G-rated (“G” for government), official narrative, all “engagement” and “outreach,” to throw the ineffectual bums out – all of them – and start from scratch.
But what we’re supposed to see in Assange’s Internet release of thousands of “classified,” mainly non-sensational, if often embarrassing, documents (something journalists usually call a scoop in the singular) is an act of “terrorism,” say Republican leaders … [It] has drowned out all other news this week, including the murder of six American trainers by an Afghan “policeman.”
These six unnecessary, punishing deaths may well have resulted from the disastrous statecraft and policies that come under discussion in the leaked cables, but as far as news coverage went they just couldn’t compete with the leak frenzy itself. The establishment, right and left but mainly right, coalesced around melodramatic accusations that Assange did have, or would have “blood on his hands.” As I have read my way through some fraction of the leaked record, no evidence for this frequently leveled charge yet appears, certainly none that begins to compare to the blood already spilled to implement a hopelessly misguided U.S. foreign policy that, from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, determinedly ignores Islam in its prosecution of wars in the Islamic world. …
More see-no-Islam evidence comes straight from the leaked cables … but that’s official U.S. policy, as supported from the pro-war right to the Obama left. More than that, it’s part of the shambles WikiLeaks confirms U.S. foreign policy to be. Could this be why the establishment condemns WikiLeaks as the worst thing ever? The Pakistan cables alone [ of which she gives examples – JB] should stop the presses …
But the reaction instead is to kill the messenger – literally, say many. The more I read, however, the more I wonder whether the raging rhetoric is less about blood on WikiLeaks’ hands than about egg on the faces of others, including a secretive Uncle Sam.
And here (in part) is Theodore Dalrymple’s opinion:
It is not, of course, that revelations of secrets are always unwelcome or ethically unjustified. It is not a new insight that power is likely to be abused and can only be held in check by a countervailing power, often that of public exposure. But WikiLeaks goes far beyond the need to expose wrongdoing, or supposed wrongdoing: it is unwittingly doing the work of totalitarianism.
The idea behind WikiLeaks is that life should be an open book, that everything that is said and done should be immediately revealed to everybody, that there should be no secret agreements, deeds, or conversations. In the fanatically puritanical view of WikiLeaks, no one and no organization should have anything to hide. It is scarcely worth arguing against such a childish view of life.
The actual effect of WikiLeaks is likely to be profound and precisely the opposite of what it supposedly sets out to achieve. Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself. This could happen not in the official sphere alone, but also in the private sphere, which it works to destroy. An Iron Curtain could descend, not just on Eastern Europe, but over the whole world. A reign of assumed virtue would be imposed, in which people would say only what they do not think and think only what they do not say.
While we share Dalrymple’s loathing of totalitarianism, and of all government prying into private lives, we do not see how the WikiLeaks action threatens any private citizen, or how it is an attack on the principle of privacy. What a government does should not be private (with the exception we noted above). The lives of individuals must be as private as they desire. We don’t believe that ordinary people’s emails would be sought out and downloaded by Wikileaks, though we don’t doubt that an Obama government might do it. Of what conceivable interest or use can they be to the world at large?
WikiLeaks works to destroy government secrecy, not “the private sphere”.
If it makes government more circumspect in what it communicates, more aware that it is answerable to those it governs, WikiLeaks may have delivered a service to America rather than a blow.
Why do some people want power over the lives of others?
Theodore Dalrymple writes in a discussion of privileged eduction in France and whether the state should provide ‘equality of opportunity’ – which is to say, a discussion of socialist thinking – that he is mystified by this question.
The heart of the problem lies in the unassailability of the term ‘equality of opportunity,’ and the unthinking assent it commands. I was once asked on Dutch TV whether I was in favour of it, the interviewer assuming that I must be so in spite of all my other appalling opinions; and when I said that I was not, and indeed that I thought it was a truly hideous notion, his eyes opened with surprise. I thought he was going to slip off his chair.
Only under conditions reminiscent of those of Brave New World could there be equality of opportunity. But, of course, the very unattainability of equality of opportunity (in any sense other than that of an absence of formal, legal impediments to social advance) is precisely what recommends it as an ideal to politicians such as President Sarkozy, and indeed to most other western politicians, virtually irrespective of their putative political stripe. The fact that, reform notwithstanding, there are always differences in outcomes for different groups or classes of human beings in any society means that there is always scope, in the name of equality of opportunity, for further interference and control by politicians and bureaucrats. Not permanent revolution (to change the communist metaphor from Stalinism to Trotskyism), but permanent reform is the modern western politico-bureaucratic class’s route to lasting power and control.
Why anyone should want lasting power and control is to me a mystery: I suppose it must be the answer to a deep and insatiable inner emptiness.
And Bill Whittle at PJTV (here) seeks an answer to the question: ‘What type of person wants to run for office?’ He cites two men in history who attained supreme power and did not cling to it. Each of them saw his position as a temporary job, the exercise of power as a duty he owed to the people, and when he had done what was needed, stepped down from high office and returned to private life. One was the (5th.century B.C.E.) Roman leader Cincinnatus, and the other was George Washington.
If there are any politicians now who consider taking on elected office only as a service, they would be found (and it’s really not very likely that they exist) on the conservative right. Leftist politicians want above all to command, manipulate, control people, even force them to change their nature. There’s an old and ongoing debate among political philosophers of the left as to whether The Revolution will bring about a transformation of human nature, or whether it is necessary for human nature to be reconstructed first in order for The Revolution to be accomplished. (An infamous example of a Commie who fretted over this artifiical problem is Herbert Marcuse, guru of the 1968 New Left in Europe.)
Right now, ‘progressive’ bureaucrats in New York see it as their business – and of course their pleasure – to interfere not just in New Yorkers’ but the whole nation’s private lives by dictating what people may eat or not eat.
Daniel Compton writes in OpenMarket.org:
On Monday, city officials rolled out an initiative to curb the salt content in manufactured and packaged foods. But the idea behind it — that salt intake has reached extreme levels in America — is a myth, and this “solution” wouldn’t work, anyway.
City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley aims to lead a national campaign to reduce the amount of salt in manufactured foods by 25 percent over the next five years. Cutting salt intake is supposed to reduce hypertension-related health problems. But while doctors may advise particular patients to cut down on salt, the science tells us that this is not a public-health problem. …
In other words, Farley’s trying to fight a problem that doesn’t exist. Worse, his new guidelines say that daily sodium intake for most people shouldn’t exceed 1,500 mg — which is a ridiculous 45 percent below the bottom of the normal consumption range [a] UC Davis study identified, and a full 60 percent lower than the worldwide average. …
The UC Davis study also cites surveys showing that sodium intake in the United Kingdom has “varied minimally” over the last 25 years, despite a major government campaign to reduce it.
Overall, the researchers found, salt intake “is unlikely to be malleable by public policy initiatives,” and attempts to change it would “expend valuable national and personal resources against unachievable goals.”
The New York guidelines are voluntary — for now. But the city’s ban on trans fats started that way, too. And the federal Food and Drug Administration has also been looking to get in on the action — it may classify it as a “food additive,” subject to regulation, sometime this year.
Then he comes to what all this regulation-for-our-own-good is really all about:
But this campaign isn’t about public health — it’s about grandstanding on a pseudo-issue ginned up by activists, when science clearly shows that there’s neither a crisis nor a way for the government to actually alter our salt intake.
All these initiatives do is win headlines for ambitious policymakers (New York’s last health commissioner parlayed his trans-fat activism into a promotion to FDA chief), while making food slightly more costly and leaving a bad taste in the mouths of consumers — literally.
Of course, if (or is it when?) the state is the sole provider of health care, it will claim justification for dictating to us what we may eat and how we must live, on the grounds that as it pays for our cures it has the right or the duty to instruct us to stay healthy. That’s why Obama and the Democrats so desperately want their health care legislation to be passed: not really to help keep us alive, but to have the means and the pretext for controlling us. As always with the left, they will boss us about in the name of a benign intention and an essential need.
The despotic personality is hard if not impossible for libertarians to understand. Individualists are appalled by the totalitarian vision of collectivists. Speaking for ourselves, in no conceivable circumstances would we want to organize a community. We find in the weakness of our unreconstructed human nature that it’s hard enough to run even one life – each our own.
The great essayist (and physician) Theodore Dalrymple writes in the Wall Street Journal:
If there is a right to health care, someone has the duty to provide it. Inevitably, that “someone” is the government. Concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion.
People sometimes argue in favor of a universal human right to health care by saying that health care is different from all other human goods or products. It is supposedly an important precondition of life itself. This is wrong: There are several other, much more important preconditions of human existence, such as food, shelter and clothing.
Everyone agrees that hunger is a bad thing (as is overeating), but few suppose there is a right to a healthy, balanced diet, or that if there was, the federal government would be the best at providing and distributing it to each and every American.
Where does the right to health care come from? Did it exist in, say, 250 B.C., or in A.D. 1750? If it did, how was it that our ancestors, who were no less intelligent than we, failed completely to notice it?
If, on the other hand, the right to health care did not exist in those benighted days, how did it come into existence, and how did we come to recognize it once it did?
When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”
When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.
Moreover, the right to grant is also the right to deny. And in times of economic stringency, when the first call on public expenditure is the payment of the salaries and pensions of health-care staff, we can rely with absolute confidence on the capacity of government sophists to find good reasons for doing bad things.
The question of health care is not one of rights but of how best in practice to organize it. America is certainly not a perfect model in this regard. But neither is Britain, where a universal right to health care has been recognized longest in the Western world.
Not coincidentally, the U.K. is by far the most unpleasant country in which to be ill in the Western world. Even Greeks living in Britain return home for medical treatment if they are physically able to do so.
The government-run health-care system—which in the U.K. is believed to be the necessary institutional corollary to an inalienable right to health care—has pauperized the entire population. This is not to say that in every last case the treatment is bad: A pauper may be well or badly treated, according to the inclination, temperament and abilities of those providing the treatment. But a pauper must accept what he is given.
Universality is closely allied as an ideal, ideologically, to that of equality. But equality is not desirable in itself. To provide everyone with the same bad quality of care would satisfy the demand for equality. (Not coincidentally, British survival rates for cancer and heart disease are much below those of other European countries, where patients need to make at least some payment for their care.)
In any case, the universality of government health care in pursuance of the abstract right to it in Britain has not ensured equality. After 60 years of universal health care, free at the point of usage and funded by taxation, inequalities between the richest and poorest sections of the population have not been reduced. But Britain does have the dirtiest, most broken-down hospitals in Europe.
There is no right to health care—any more than there is a right to chicken Kiev every second Thursday of the month.