Are we sliding into a tyranny of good intentions?

Posted on October 6, 2010 in Governance Policy Context

Source: — Authors: –  – ‘Nationalizing the moral life of the people is the first step toward totalitarianism’
Published October 4, 2010.   Neil Reynolds, Columnist

Nearly 50 years ago, Kenneth Minogue, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, published The Liberal Mind, his classic study of the dominant philosophy of the 20th century: radical niceness. Rooted in extreme liberal optimism and salvationist aspiration, this triumphant ideology (Prof. Minogue said) tenaciously advanced the notion that history requires the perfection of human society, that governments – in pursuit of this perfection – are obliged “to provide every man, woman, child and dog with the conditions of the good life.” Prof. Minogue ended with a warning: “A populace which hands its moral order over to governments, no matter how impeccable its reasons, will become dependent and slavish.”

Now professor emeritus at LSE, the 80-year-old has published a remarkable sequel – The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. He picks up where he left off, documenting the ways in which democracy (which once expanded freedom) requires strict obedience to the state – and to the bureaucratic moral order that sustains it.

An elegant essayist of the old school, Prof. Minogue advances his argument by small steps that can end abruptly in crisp revelation. “I am of two minds about democracy,” he writes, “and so is everyone else. We all agree that it is the sovereign remedy for corruption, war and poverty in the Third World. We would certainly tolerate no other system in our own country. Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works. One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly. They have overreached. Blunder follows blunder.”

Far worse, traditional democratic theory has been flipped upside down: “Our rulers now make us accountable to them.” Count the ways. “Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes or drinking too much. Most of these governments think we borrow too much money for our personal pleasures and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading bedtime stories to our children.

“Many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.

“Debt, intemperance and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable – but they are vices, and – left alone – they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians and most sensible governments in the past have left moral faults to the churches.

“The point is that governments have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in the exercise of authority. They are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life of the people is the first step toward totalitarianism.”

Actions are no longer morally wrong. The state determines what is “acceptable” and what is “unacceptable” – thereby constructing a new “language of authority” that enforces political morality even as it rescinds everyday moral inhibitions. People are encouraged to be “collectively dutiful and individually hedonistic.”

Prof. Minogue writes from Britain, where the Labour government (2007) began seizing “unacceptable” families and holding them, without consent, for extended periods of behaviour-modification training by cadres of civil servants from eight government departments. These families had a record of drug addiction, child violence and poor mental attitudes. Where, he asks, will this cleansing end? Gordon Brown, speaking this past spring before he lost power, announced his four-year target for these statist interventions: 50,000 families by 2015.

Writing last year in the Daily Mail, Prof. Minogue held the government itself responsible for much of the conduct that it now deems “unacceptable.” Never in its history, he said, had Britain funded so much official compassion. Never in its history had Britain endured so much inexplicable violence. The country once renowned for its great gentleness was sliding inexorably into a tyranny of good intentions.

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