A Future for Freedom

I could be forgiven for thinking freedom has no future, with the upcoming generation so schooled to despise it. Daniel Hannan thinks differently and made his point in a conversation Zoomed to the faithful this evening.

The Anglosphere was to be much in evidence, and the norms we have taken for granted over generations: as Mr Hannan was born outside it, in Darkest Peru, and spent much of his career outside it, in Darkest Brussels, he may have a better perspective then those of us sitting comfortably in our homes.

The norms and shared assumptions of the Anglosphere are not inevitable nor is an open society a given any more even within the English-speaking world. There is more hope though than we think. This formed a theme to follow.

However, just as for years every political conversation turned out to be about Brexit, now it was all COVID-19 for the first half-hour or so. I began thinking that it took away from the big topics of the world, where freedom is imperilled, but as it went on, the reason became clear – the lockdown restrictions (which Daniel Hannan has always opposed) and the sheep-like compliance of the nation are very much a practical outworking of the state of personal freedom in the land. As he said at one point, it is so utterly unlike all we have understood of British attitudes that we wait for the government to tell us what we should do.

Personally, I have largely ignored the lockdown, though I am in a fortunate enough position to be able to do so.

A key point for the future is whether and how the government’s new, extraordinary powers will end. The Act that imposed them has a sunset clause, though a generous one. Mr Hannan recalled that wartime emergency measures were largely continued in peacetime, and some restraints on commercial freedom begun in 1940 just for the duration were not if fact lifted until Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. There is too much temptation upon governments, in particular strong governments, to hold on to those powers. Mercifully we have a Prime Minister who believes deeply in personal freedom and has written about it throughout his career, so his every personal instinct should be to let go of those powers and maximise personal freedom. Imagine if it were Tony Blair in Number 10 now.

Throughout the discussion on the lockdown, it came down to the philosophy of freedom, and that infuses the whole topic.

(I am bound to quote Hobbes here in a cynical frame with the reminder that “The Libertie, whereof there is so frequent, and honourable mention, in the Histories, and Philosophy of the Antient Greeks, and Romans, and in the writings, and discourse of those that from them have received all their learning in the Politiques, is not the Libertie of Particular men; but the Libertie of the Commonwealth“, but with that puissance of the state assumed, it defends the freedoms of its subjects which we would not enjoy were there no Commonwealth, which is to say no state.)

Freedom is in peril if too few care about it. The upcoming generation, we are told, have been schooled out of belief in freedom or free thought, and certainly many despise it. There is hope that this is a minority. There is something desperately sad about these pupils, after so much has been spent nominally educating them and taking up their childhoods, and that is that if they do not know how to think alternative thoughts then they do not know how to think at all, so that in real life, when it hits them eventually, they will fail and drop to the bottom of the heap, while those who ignored that form of education, who can think, will rise and thrive. Those politically activist teachers have betrayed hundreds of thousands of children in their care and damned them to the scrapheap.

Moving ahead on the same theme of distorted philosophy, the talk could hardly fail to look over the bizarre antics around the street protests we saw last month, the logic of which does not stack up. However as Daniel Hannan observed, there will be this sort of soixante-dix-huitard protest in every generation – the dangerous aspect is the obeisance of the broadcast media and even the police.

Even so, there is hope in the darkness, because in reality there is only a small patch of darkness – it is just managing to suck all discourse into it. If it is seen for what it is – a small number of very loud voices who should be ignored or mocked, then we can get on with our lives. the question is how to convince the woke-obsequious media of that.

There is a future for freedom, even in the absence of such heroes as the irreplaceable Roger Scruton. I struggle sometimes to convince myself of it. What I know is that the Anglosphere has a better chance for it than foreign lands without that heritage.

See also

Books

Blaming China

Just a few weeks ago a newspaper published the headline result of a survey about the coronavirus epidemic that the majority of Britons blame China. This got a headline, but is useless.

You have to ask what ‘blame China’ actually means, and what it means to different people.

Blame is not a fixed word. It is a general disapproval but has no set meaning. If a fence falls down, someone looks for the blame: the builder who put it up, or the person who should have maintained it (or the structure of ownership that left it without a responsible owner), or the children who keep falling against it in their rough games of football, or the lack of space for them to play elsewhere, or the developer who should have provided that space, or the high wind the other night. It is not a moral judgment as you cannot condemn the moral failings of the wind or dumb luck: in that case “blame” just means identifying the cause.

You could have stopped the fence from falling had you kept the boys inside that afternoon, had you not gone for the cheaper option, had you paid attention to the lean it had developed, had you put another inch of concrete round the post. The guilt grows not from actual responsibility but fear of the word ‘blame’.

The word sounds like condemnation: casting ‘blame’ is an assault, and the one blamed will bridle and protest. Blame suggests responsibility, moral failing, even legal liability. Court proceedings have been started by outraged parties not for compensation, but just to have the power of the state declare that blame is to be attributed to their opponent.

In the context of a global pandemic, the protest rises to a deafening roar and demands that blame be attached to someone or something. China is to blame, but that means something different in every mouth. To some, ‘blame’ is a high threshold to be attributed only to clear, actual moral culpability; to others it just means the cause lies there.

Then there is China. What does it mean to blame China? That is a tract of ground encompassing more than two billion acres, scoured by more rivers and winds than you can count in a lifetime: are the mountains and meadows and wastelands able to answer a charge of negligence? The disease started there, and that as the location of the cause is enough for the lowest-rung meaning of ‘blame’, for some.

We can assume that those who blame China mean specifically the People’s Republic of China not Taiwan or Hong Kong, but even then is it just noting that the contagion began there, or is an accusation pointed at the government of that country? If the latter, it might mean no more than that the outbreak began on their watch (which is rather like blaming the local policeman for an assault that happened when he was at the other end of the village). Maybe an accusation is levelled at a culture which does not consider hygiene as we do.

The Chinese government is culpable in its way. It did not cause the disease nor its spread, and they did not determine for it to escape their borders and infect the world, but they took it with their usual approach which prioritised suppressing the news and not the epidemic, and thus ensured that the infection could not be kept in check. Maybe it would not have spread outside China if they had behaved better. Then again, the infection broke out in one of the largest cities in the world, Wuhan, so it might have escaped in any case. There are further stories: in January Australian companies celebrated major domestic sales of gloves and facemasks, which were promptly shipped to China, depleting Australia’s stocks – they knew what was coming. When it all started we cannot tell – such is the secrecy in Red China and such is the fear of authority felt by everyone who might otherwise have alerted the country and the world. Yes, the Chinese government is culpable of cynical neglect, though not malice. They did not start it: it just happened. In a crowded sub-continental landmass like China, new, horrid diseases often appear and will always do so.

Blame is needed because if it is just dumb luck then we are powerless in the face of the universe. Modern life is about control, and about man’s mastery of nature, but here is a disease, primal, a primaeval timeless event, and we cannot grasp it unless someone is at fault: there must be blame.

The word ‘blame’ is like an infection itself. It may start as the lower end, with just an acknowledgement that events began in China so there is the cause. Then having fixed that impersonal blame, it grows into finding a moral fault. The Chinese government is not without moral fault in the matter but they still did not cause it, but if they are not guilty, it means that we are the victims of untamed nature and that will never do, so the light blame must grow: the tinge of turpitude in Peking is enough for resentment to grow. That may be why conspiracy theories have appeared with fantastical claims of deliberate, even manufactured diseases. It beats the mundane reality.

We come back then to those two words “blame China”, and see they are meaningless – no two people have the same understanding of the word ‘blame’, and how blame, by whatever definition, gets attached to the amorphous concept of ‘China’ is a mystery even to those thinking it.

See also

A hard rain’s a-Cummin’

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed SpAd?
Oh, where have you been, my eager young lad?

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve hundred pointless quangos
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six moribund ministries
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad offices
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead committees
I’ve been ten thousand miles in lost worthy intentions

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, (yes, I heard you the first time) it’s a hard, and it’s a hard (now it’s getting indecent)
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed SpAd?
Oh, what did you see, my eager young lad?

I saw a newborn policy with wild wolves all around it
I saw trillion-dollar bills lying on the street to be picked up
I saw an FDA branch with bile that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with no purpose in meeting
I saw a career ladder open to no one
I saw ten thousand talkers who knew only cliché
I saw powers to cancel in the hands of young children

And it’s a hard – rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed SpAd?
And what did you hear, my eager young lad?

I heard a branch chairman who roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of the public who could drown the whole state
Heard one hundred lobbyists whose hands were hidden
Heard ten thousand voters to whom nobody’s listenin’.
Heard one person ask, I heard many people scornin’
Heard the sound of a good idea dead in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the Cabinet Room

And it’s a hard – rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed SpAd?
Who did you meet, my eager young lad?

I met a Permanent Secretary flogging a dead horse
I met an old Tory who talked like a Red
I met a young woman scolded for thinking
I met a junior assistant, demanding I wear a rainbow
I met one manager promoted for failure
I met another manager demoted for tryin’

And it’s a hard – rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed SpAd?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my eager young lad?

I’m a-goin’ back out to make the rain fall
I’ll walk through depths of the most wasteful offices
Where the people are busy but their work is no value
Where mistakes of the past are poisonin’ their practice
Where the expected knighthood meets the cold face of sackin’
Where the executioner’s face is one they are seein’
Where workload is fiction, where souls are forgotten
Where red is the tape, where none is achievement
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And straight from the Cab’net Office all souls can see it
Then I’ll dry up the ocean of worthless bureaucrats
So they’ll know my song well before I start singin’

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

A cabal of its enemies

Hercules diverted a river to clean the Augean Stables, so a Hard Rain is quite a modest response.

Still, it will have to be a very hard rain indeed to change bureaucracy. Standing outside, it is incomprehensible but one feels a slight guilt at doubting the dedicated work presumed to go on behind the walls of Whitehall and of endless agencies and offices the purpose of which is unknown even to those who work there.

Robert Conquest’s Laws of Politics notes cynically that “The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

To prove or disprove Conquest’s observation, the lid is to be ripped off the obscure world of bureaucracy, and what it reveals may be embarrassing or may correct misassumptions.  The senior civil servants reassure us they are misunderstood, but that is itself misunderstanding the complaint: the target is a system, which is the collective network of individuals, who are individually dedicated to their roles, but somehow collectively getting things wrong and spaffing the taxpayers’ money up the wall as they do so. The test is not good intent: it is good achievement.

Governments have tried for decades to get over failures by hiring more brains. It has not worked, so it must be something else going wrong.

One thing observed, by one who is preparing the rain machine, that there seems to be no sanction for the individuals whose failures they are – just move on and up to another position, and watch it fail too. That cosy system will be opened up to the hard rain. On the other hand, you have to ask why someone with a head full of brains and a team working with them will goof so disastrously as we have seen so often. That may come down to the inability to handle novelty, because novelty is outside the expertise of the person entrusted with it.

The obvious response to novelty outside ones expertise, and the criticism that will descend, is to establish systems and practices in place of actual action: and therefore the biggest efforts are in risk-avoidance and back-covering, not achievement of allotted tasks.

This looks not like Conquest’s rule, but very like the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

Invoking the Peter Principle leads me on, for what happens in Whitehall is a mystery to most of us, glimpsed only through satire.  There is Parkinson’s Law too, starting with “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, but Parkinson went a great deal further in his book about the rise of increasingly bulbous bureaucracies, and is worth dusting off and re-reading.

I hope that these satirical observations are just that, but each example of failure appearing in the press, and each interaction I have with the higher levels of bureaucracy seems to suggest they are accurate.

The obligatory COVID-19 reference comes in here. There is a two-edged sword reaction to the Civil Service’s response in lockdown: firstly they showed that speedy action is possible, but secondly that they can work perfectly well, and arguably better, when they have sent most of their staff home and restricted themselves just to urgent work.  This suggests that the people are not at fault but that the system which the senior officers impose on those people is at fault, as the problems are eliminated when it is lifted. Further, the ability to work better with a skeleton staff suggests a major redundancy in capacity.

Recently this blog carried an analysis of one systemic failure in bureaucracy, which (if I can summarise so briefly) is the tendency, through natural means, to ossify into a homogenous block with no variety in character nor accordingly much breadth of thought.  Many similar observations have been made by commentators: another ‘law’, by Robert Michels, is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, or a version by John O’Sullivan, one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers), that “Any organization not explicitly rightwing sooner or later becomes leftwing” (presumably because those of a conservative mind are willing to hire anyone who can do the job, but those on the left-wing will hire only other left-wingers). Perhaps the Little Hobb version would be that “Any organisation will coalesce into a small range of character-traits”.

The point of the civil service however is not to make jobs for the sort of people who coalesce there: it is to achieve the ambitions of the elected politicians. If they are unable competently to handle novelty then they must give way to those who can, and that means leaving the service to do the bare minimum clerking work and going outside for actual expertise. That immediately hits a bigger wall: the Civil Service is unable to procure contracts competently, so they cannot go outside.

The result of all these factors suggests that the Civil Service is dedicated indeed and full of highly intelligent men and women but for solid reasons is unable to do what it is there to do. Bureaucracy in indeed controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

See also

Books

Of the Difference of Manners – 2

Continuation from:

By MANNERS, I mean not here, Decency of behaviour; as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the Small Morals; But those qualities of man-kind, that concern their living together in Peace, and Unity.

And From Love Of Arts

Desire of Knowledge, and Arts of Peace, enclineth men to obey a common Power: For such Desire, containeth a desire of leasure; and consequently protection from some other Power than their own.

Love Of Vertue, From Love Of Praise

Desire of Praise, disposeth to laudable actions, such as please them whose judgement they value; for of these men whom we contemn, we contemn also the Praises. Desire of Fame after death does the same. And though after death, there be no sense of the praise given us on Earth, as being joyes, that are either swallowed up in the unspeakable joyes of Heaven, or extinguished in the extreme torments of Hell: yet is not such Fame vain; because men have a present delight therein, from the foresight of it, and of the benefit that may rebound thereby to their posterity: which though they now see not, yet they imagine; and any thing that is pleasure in the sense, the same also is pleasure in the imagination.

Hate, From Difficulty Of Requiting Great Benefits

To have received from one, to whom we think our selves equall, greater benefits than there is hope to Requite, disposeth to counterfiet love; but really secret hatred; and puts a man into the estate of a desperate debtor, that in declining the sight of his creditor, tacitely wishes him there, where he might never see him more. For benefits oblige; and obligation is thraldome; which is to ones equall, hateful.

But to have received benefits from one, whom we acknowledge our superiour, enclines to love; because the obligation is no new depession: and cheerfull acceptation, (which men call Gratitude,) is such an honour done to the obliger, as is taken generally for retribution. Also to receive benefits, though from an equall, or inferiour, as long as there is hope of requitall, disposeth to love: for in the intention of the receiver, the obligation is of ayd, and service mutuall; from whence proceedeth an Emulation of who shall exceed in benefiting; the most noble and profitable contention possible; wherein the victor is pleased with his victory, and the other revenged by confessing it.

And From Conscience Of Deserving To Be Hated

To have done more hurt to a man, than he can, or is willing to expiate, enclineth the doer to hate the sufferer. For he must expect revenge, or forgivenesse; both which are hatefull.

 Promptnesse To Hurt, From Fear

Feare of oppression, disposeth a man to anticipate, or to seek ayd by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty.

And From Distrust Of Their Own Wit

Men that distrust their own subtilty, are in tumult, and sedition, better disposed for victory, than they that suppose themselves wise, or crafty. For these love to consult, the other (fearing to be circumvented,) to strike first. And in sedition, men being alwayes in the procincts of Battell, to hold together, and use all advantages of force, is a better stratagem, than any that can proceed from subtilty of Wit.

See also

Books