Almost everyone who’s been in a movie theater over the last half-century is familiar with the great iconic image that closes the film Planet of the Apes: a loinclothed Charlton Heston falling to his knees as he comes face to face with a shattered Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand and realizes that the “planet of the apes” is, in fact, his own—or it was. In fact the shattering of Lady Liberty recurs throughout popular culture, as the most easily recognizable shorthand for civilizational ruin: most recently, in the eco-apocalyptic film The Day After Tomorrow, the Statue of Liberty gets flash-frozen in ice after sudden catastrophic climate change apparently brought on (warning: plot spoiler) by a speech from Dick Cheney. But you can go back beyond that to an 1887 edition of Life and a story called “The Next Morning,” which was illustrated by a pen-and-ink drawing of a headless Statue of Liberty with the smoldering rubble of the city behind her.
But Liberty is not a Statue, and that is not how liberty falls. If it were, it would be easier to rouse the citizenry. The Statue of Liberty will still be standing in the harbor even as true liberty shrivels—just as the more assaults that are made on real, core human rights, the more the advanced social democratic state brags about the new pseudo-rights that a benign government graciously confers on us. If you smash liberty in an instant—as the space aliens do in Independence Day—we would all have our Charlton Heston moment and fall to our knees. But, when it happens incrementally, and apparently painlessly, free peoples can be seduced away from freedom very easily. The story of the Western world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and government “security,” large numbers of people vote to dump freedom every time—the freedom to make your own decisions about health care, education, property rights, what you can do on your land, what you can eat, and what you can say. In the United Kingdom, in Canada, in parts of western Europe, we’re approaching the tipping point, the moment when genuinely free societies evolve, partly by accident and partly consciously, into something else. The withering of freedom in Britain, once the crucible of liberty, is a particular tragedy.
If I sound like I’m over-egging the pudding, let me give a couple of small examples: There is a pastor, the Reverend Stephen Boissoin, who is under a lifetime speech ban imposed by the Province of Alberta. He wrote a letter to his local newspaper objecting to what he called “the homosexual agenda.” He opposes gay marriage, as did the Liberal Prime Minister and the governing party of Canada less than a decade ago. But, unlike the Prime Minister, the Reverend Boissoin didn’t change his views and get with the program. So the Alberta “Human Rights” Tribunal convicted him, imposed a fine, and ordered him never to say anything “disparaging” about homosexuality ever again for as long as he lives, not only in letters to the local newspaper and public speeches and radio, television, and the internet, but also in the pulpit of his church and in private email communications. Note, by the way, the interesting legal concept underpinning his lifetime speech ban: He’s banned from saying anything “disparaging.” Not anything “illegal” or even, as is the fashion in this pseudo-jurisprudence, “hateful,” but nothing “disparaging.” He was also ordered to write a public apology recanting his previous position. The enforced confession and public recantation was previously the hallmark of the justice systems of Pol Pot, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. In this case, it was done in the name of Her Majesty The Queen. Ezra Levant calls the Boissoin judgment the most revolting legal decision he’s ever seen in Canada. Yet, for the most part, the Albertan and Canadian political establishments are entirely cool with it: They can’t see what the big deal is. They are comfortable with the notion of the state as social engineer and thus the legitimate regulator of public and even private discourse.
Now let me turn from as primal a concept as free speech to bovine flatulence—which seems comparatively peripheral but is, after all, as near as your average Holstein ever gets to exercising free speech. To comply with emissions targets, several European countries have been considering a tax on bovine flatulence. For the Americans in the room, you heard that right: not a flat tax, a flatulence tax. Ireland has been pondering a tax thirteen euros per cow, while in Denmark it may be as high as eighty euros per cow. This is to offset looming penalties each nation faces from European Union legislation to combat “global warming.” The Danish Tax Commission estimates that a cow will emit four tons of methane a year in burps and flatulence, compared with 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide for an average car. The Times of London reports: “Agriculture, transport and housing are not included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which enables industrial companies to buy and sell permits to emit carbon dioxide. Instead, E.U. member states are obliged to cut the emissions from non-ETS sectors by 10 percent overall by 2020. While Romania and Bulgaria will be allowed to increase emissions, Ireland and Denmark are each faced with cuts of 20 percent in farming sector emissions.”
Even allowing for the regulatory yoke under which Europe’s cowed citizenry labor, the bureaucratic logic here is hard to follow. Why is some Bulgar’s Jersey allowed to increase his flatulence while the poor Jutlander’s polled Hereford has to put a stopper in it? Is there a dearth of flatulence in the Balkans but a Code Red alert over the North Sea? Couldn’t the European Union introduce flatulence offsets? Perhaps the excessively flatulent Irish could trade some of their flatulence to the Balkans.
Go back to medieval times: The gnarled old peasant is in his hovel, and one day a pantalooned emissary shows up in the dooryard and says he’s come from the palace to collect His Majesty’s bovine flatulence tax. It’s just three groats per cow, nothing to make a big deal about. But, if we pay the flatulence tax, then the very heavens will bless us. Even the most simpleminded peasant would respond, “Aaargh, sire, I dunno. The King’s flatulence tax? That don’t sound right.”
Two centuries ago, Tocqueville wrote: “There was a time in Europe in which the law, as well as the consent of the people, clothed kings with a power almost without limits. But almost never did it happen that they made use of it.” True. The king was an absolute tyrant—in theory. But, in practice, he was hundreds of miles away, and, for the most part, you got on with your life undisturbed. As Tocqueville put it: “Although the entire government of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the emperor alone, and although he remained, in time of need, the arbiter of all things, the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” Just so. You were the mean and worthless subject of a cruel and mercurial despot but, even if he wanted to, he lacked the means to micro-regulate your life in every aspect. What would happen, wondered Tocqueville, if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”? That moment has now arrived. And, because the outward indices of democracy remain in place, the citizenry shrug and say, “A flatulence tax? Sure, why not?”
Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton famously said, “The era of Big Government is over.” What we have instead is the era of lots and lots of itsy-bitsy, teeny-weensy bits of small government that cumulatively add up to something bigger than the Biggest Government of all. Because all the big ideas failed, culminating in 1989 in Eastern Europe with the comprehensive failure of the biggest one of all, the statists retreated to all the small ideas—to a web of micro-tyrannies which, in their overbearing pettiness, ensnare you at every turn. What they discovered is that free peoples will surrender liberty piecemeal with remarkable ease. There is almost no limit to the bureaucratic impositions of government. My assistant received a form the other day from the Department of Labor demanding to know whether we work with uranium. We were tempted to answer, “Yes. The bottom’s dropped out of the whole writing business, but fortunately the Iranians have outsourced their nuclear program to us,” just to see if anybody in the vast bureaucratic machine noticed before our form got shoveled into whatever basement paper pile it will be resting in.
Do you work with uranium? Do you know anybody who does? How many businesses do they ask that question of before they get a “yes”? Multiply that a thousandfold and you have the micro-management of those Tocquevillian “details of social life and of individual existence.”
If you go back 800 years to Magna Carta—or Magna Carta Libertatum, to use the full title—human rights meant rights for humans and restraints upon the King. The modern world has entirely inverted the concept: human rights are now rights given to you by the King, the state, the government—the right to health care, the right to a college education, the right to government-funded daycare, so-called “positive rights”—and accompanied ever more explicitly by assaults upon the citizenry’s real rights, fundamental rights. In 1215, human rights meant that the King was restrained by his subjects. Today, in the name of entirely specious so-called “human rights,” the subjects get restrained by the King. I liked it better the old way.
How did this happen? When Sir William Beveridge laid out his blueprint for the British welfare state in 1943, his goal was the “abolition of want.” It seems never to have occurred to him to wonder, if you succeeded in abolishing want, what sort of citizenry you’d be left with. At one point, The Sun used to run a Shop-a-Sponger Hotline, fingering the likes of Susan Moore of Burythorpe, North Yorkshire, a so-called welfare “super-sponger” who “has not done a day’s work since dropping out of college in 1988.” For two decades, she has received the weekly “Jobseeker’s Allowance,” even though she does not seek a job, and never has. She was offered one by a supermarket, but it was five miles away so she wasn’t interested. Ryedale Jobcentre put her on a “New Deal” course and, to make sure she attended, sent a taxi for her every morning. But one day the cab didn’t show up, so Susan gave up the course. Maybe they should have sent a limo. She lives with her divorced mum, who’s also on “Jobseeker’s Allowance,” although she hasn’t sought a job since giving birth to Susan in 1969.
But then my eye fell on the amount “scrounger Susan” had managed to scrounge: £2,000 per annum. Forty quid a week. She and her mum get another £45 housing benefit to live in what looks like an attractive and spacious home, and she’s trying to claim “income support” on medical grounds, because she suffers “monthly painful spells.” But if an average £40 a week is the best a “super-sponger” can do, it should remind us of a basic truth: The greatest crime of welfare isn’t that it’s a waste of money, but that it’s a waste of people. Forty quid wasn’t enough for a “welfare queen” to queen around on, but it was just enough to enable her to avoid making anything of her life, enough to let her sit around all week “listening to CDs and watching videos.”
It’s hard to think of anything capitalism red in tooth and claw could have done to Susan Moore that would have left her worse off than the great sapping nullity in which Her Majesty’s Government has maintained her for her entire adult life. When welfarism—the abolition of want—becomes the organizing principle of society, as it is in much of the west these days, the danger is that a Susan Moorish inertia descends on the entire state. In Britain, five million people—a tenth of the adult population—have not done a day’s work since the New Labour government took office in 1997. One fifth of British children are raised in homes in which no adult works.
A nation that demands the government take care of all the grown-up stuff is a nation turning into the world’s wrinkliest adolescent, free only to choose its record collection—like Susan Moore “listening to CDs and watching videos.” The state has gradually annexed all the responsibilities of adulthood—health care, child care, care of the elderly—to the point where it’s effectively severed its citizens from the need to function as grown-ups. What LBJ’s Great Society did to the black family in America and what British welfare did to the family more broadly is a natural consequence of those policies, not an unforeseen side effect.
Health care is a game-changer, the permanent game-changer—because it’s less about “health care” than about a view of the relationship between the citizen and the state that is profoundly hostile to individual liberty. A recent report in Le Journal de Montréal revealed that severely incontinent Quebeckers (that’s to say, those who go to the bathroom twelve times a night) wait up to three years for a simple half-hour procedure that could give them a decent night’s sleep. That’s not merely a health issue. It’s about the acceptance of the proposition that a government bureaucrat has sovereignty over your bladder—that you’ll be getting up twelve times a night, seven nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year for three years simply because the state has so decreed. A Quebecker who dissents from the bureaucrat’s ruling is free to go to the United States and pay however many dollars to have that incontinence procedure done in Fletcher Allen Hospital in Vermont or Dartmouth Hitchcock in New Hampshire, driving flat out with his legs crossed all the way. But it is illegal for him to have the procedure in his own country until the bureaucrat rules that he can. In British Columbia, they’ve just announced a 15 percent cut in “elective surgery”: That means you can elect to have the surgery but they won’t elect to give it to you.
What does the acceptance of the state’s annexation of the individual’s responsibility for his own health—the nationalization of your body, so to speak—say about the broader society? When you agree to let the state provide you with “free health care,” you acknowledge implicitly that the state has an interest in the claims you make upon that free health care system. So health care licenses the government to regulate the choices you make about your life—and, if you don’t comply, you may not get the free health care anyway. Patricia Hewitt, the former British Health Secretary, says that it’s appropriate to turn away patients on the basis of “lifestyle choices,” so, for example, smokers in Manchester have been denied treatment for heart disease. Any state that guarantees all your basic needs—your “freedom from want”—will become increasingly comfortable with regulating your behavior.
This January, the Province of Ontario passed a law making it a crime for you to smoke in your own car if a minor is in the vehicle, and said anti-smoking police units would be enforcing the law rigorously. In March, twenty-year-old Tory Ashton was pulled over in Port Hope for smoking in the presence of a fifteen-year-old passenger. While the officer was writing up his ticket, Mr. Ashton’s fifteen-year-old passenger got bored, stepped out of the car, and casually lit up a cigarette. It’s illegal in Ontario for a fifteen-year old to buy cigarettes but entirely legal to smoke any they happen to have been given. So Tory Ashton wound up being fined $155 for smoking in the presence of a smoker—and on his own property, too. “At some point, somebody’s going to snap,” predicted Sgt. Bryant Wood of the Port Hope Police. “The problem is people believe they have the right to smoke. It’s their vehicle, it’s their free will to be able to have a cigarette. Generally speaking, I think we’re going to run into a lot of bad attitudes when we pull people over.”
Oh, I wouldn’t worry. You’d be surprised at how few people snap. Free peoples who were once willing to give their lives for liberty can be persuaded very quickly to relinquish their liberties for a quiet life.
Once you have government health care, you have a justification for regulating almost everything the citizen does with his body: his diet, his leisure activities. If you then add another great progressive cause—the environment—you have a pretext for regulating everything he does with his property. So, between health care and the environment, you have handed the government a ratchet for the incremental seizure of your property rights and your most basic freedoms.
If they can’t get you on grounds of your personal health they’ll do it on grounds of planetary health. Not so long ago in Britain, it was proposed that each citizen should have a government-approved travel allowance. If you take one flight a year, you’ll pay just the standard amount of tax on the journey. But, if you travel more frequently, if you take a second or third flight, you’ll be subject to additional levies—in the interest of saving the planet. Isn’t this the very definition of totalitarianism-lite? The Soviets restricted the movement of people through the bureaucratic apparatus of “exit visas.” The British were proposing to do it through the bureaucratic apparatus of exit taxes. And the interesting aspect of this assault on liberty was that it came not from the Labour Party but the Conservative Party.
It wouldn’t be possible to assault so many fundamental freedoms if we weren’t getting something in return. So what’s the pay-off? The Toronto Star runs a column for members of “the LGBTTIQQ2S communities.” (That’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Intersexual, Queer, Questioning and 2-Spirited, the last of which doesn’t mean too spirited, as in Anne of Green Gables, but is apparently some burgeoning Native American sexual identity.) The other day it was devoted to the problems of flying with sex toys. Apparently, putting large pointed objects powered by batteries in your carry-on can attract extra scrutiny from Homeland Security. Who knew? It’s good to know that The Toronto Star, otherwise so insouciant about property rights, the right to free expression, and much else, is on the case about the human right of sex toys to travel in dignity. One was struck by the tone of those quoted in the piece, militant and indignant and implacable in the face of this assault on a cherished right, if entirely indifferent to the loss of so many others. The right to cross-border sex-toy mobility seems an appropriately infantilized resting place for radical theories of personal autonomy.
The developed world’s massive expansion of personal sexual liberty has provided a useful cover for the shrinking of almost every other kind. Free speech, property rights, economic liberty, and the right to self-defense are under continuous assault by Big Government. But who cares when Big Government lets you shag anything that moves (even if it has to be battery powered) and every city in North America hosts a grand parade to celebrate your right to do so? I warmed to that much-mocked mayor in England who recently announced that he wanted to stop funding for the Gay Pride parade on the grounds that, if they’re that proud of it, why can’t they pay for it? He’s making a rather profound point—even our so-called celebration of sexual individuality depends on the validation of the state.
Finally, in much of the Western world, we have the complicating factor of Is- lam. Modern social-democratic governments preside over multicultural societies which have less and less glue holding them together, but they’re quite at ease with the idea of the state as the mediator between different interest groups. Most of these governments haven’t a clue what to do about their turbulent, surging Muslim populations, but they have unbounded faith in their own powers, so it seems entirely natural to manage the problem by regulating freedom in the interests of social harmony. As we saw with the French headscarf ban and the accompanying proscription of yarmulkes and crucifixes, the state is incapable of even modest obstacles to Islam’s advance without blurring it within more universal restrictions.
I return to the central point. What kind of citizenry do you wind up with in such a world? In 2004, Wired ran an interesting feature about a fellow called Hans Monderman, a highway engineer in northern Holland for the previous three decades. A year or two back, he’d had an epiphany. As Wired’s Tom McNichol puts it: “Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” In other words, all the street furniture actually makes driving more dangerous. The town of Christianfield in Denmark embraced the Monderman philosophy, removed all the traffic signs and signals from its most dangerous intersection, and thereby cut the number of serious accidents down to zero. So now, when you tootle toward the junction, there’s no instructions from the Department of Transportation to tell you what to do. Instead, you have to figure it out for yourself, so you approach it cautiously and with an eye on what the other chaps in the vicinity are up to. Mr Monderman’s insight is that by creating the illusion of security you relieve the citizen of the need to make his own judgments, even in his own interest.
A few months ago, Charles Murray gave a speech in Washington on “the European model,” and its principal defect: “It drains too much of the life from life,” he said. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs.” Government social policy is intended to take “some of the trouble out of things”—getting sick, having a kid, holding down a job, taking care of elderly parents. But, when government takes too much of the trouble out of things, it makes it impossible to lead a satisfying life. “Trouble”—responsibility, choices, consequences—is intimately tied to human dignity. And thus the human dignity in working hard, raising a family and withstanding the vicissitudes of life has been devalued. Society has become just a matter of passing the time.
When government prioritizes security, it does so at the cost of satisfaction. In life, there are choices and consequences. But, if the government makes all the choices and absolves you of all the consequences, is what’s left “life” in any meaningful sense? William Beveridge’s goal for the modern British welfare state—the “abolition of want” was supposed to be accomplished by “co-operation between the State and the individual.” In attempting to insulate the citizenry from the vicissitudes of fate, Sir William succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons and Europeans “want” to work, “want” to marry, “want” to raise children, “want” to lead a life of any purpose or dignity. “Co-operation” between the State and the individual has resulted in a huge expansion of the former and the remorseless shriveling of the latter.
In much of the developed world, we are slipping past the point of no return. These days I often think about my state’s motto: “Live free or die.” It’s on the license plates in New Hampshire. When I first heard it, it seemed like a battle cry. But in fact it’s something more prosaic, a bald statement of a simple reality: You can live as free men, but, if you choose not to—as we see in America, Canada, Britain and Europe to differing degrees—your society will surely die.
James Piereson: Someone once said that American life is a race between decadence and dynamism. All of my neighbors in Westchester County, a very prosperous area, voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama. So did the great majority of people on the most prosperous and elite college campuses. Resistance to the welfare state seems to come from lower-middle-class—less elite and less educated, probably more religious—sources. The sectors in America that are most often linked to the global economy—urban, coastal, highly educated, and institutional—seem to be accepting, indeed welcoming, the process that Mark has described.
Herbert I. London: While I happen to agree with the argument that has been made by Mark Steyn—though it is distressing for the future of American society and Western civilization—I am not sure there is a comparison between Europe and the United States. We are a far more complicated entity. When we endorse the idea that the character of the United States has been affected adversely, there’s an element of truth to it. But there are also a great many Americans who have spine and determination, and I have had the opportunity to speak to them at a number of “tea parties,” one in South Dakota and one in Iowa (in the heart of the heartland) and I’ve found that there are Americans who are deeply dissatisfied and will to demonstrate that dissatisfaction publicly. It’s very difficult to generalize about what has happened in the United States. I am not entirely without hope for the future.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 5, on page 10
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com