Britain’s new-model serfs

Without question, City Journal has the best stable of writers of any American publication – and, while the choice isn’t easy, I would award Theodore Dalrymple the laurels for being the most riveting author at City Journal.  Dalrymple (a pseudonym) writes sparingly about himself:  we know he’s British though his mother was German, he is some sort of physician, probably a psychiatrist, and he lives in an unnamed city in the UK, almost certainly not London.  He has treated prisoners and other members of the underclass, mostly young people, and his description of them is first-person factual, humane, and despairingly dark.

One would like to know more about the man.

In the Spring issue of City Journal, Dalrymple takes as his point of departure F.A. Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, the first great assault on socialism as a religion of the intellectual class.  Writing in the darkest hours of World War II, Hayek oberved that the state can’t monopolize the means of production without also monopolizing all power of moral decision, ultimately becoming a kind of arbitrary God, a terrifying object of worship and obedience.  Here’s how Dalrymple characterizes the argument:

Hayek pointed out that the wartime unity of purpose was atypical; in more normal times, people had a far greater, indeed an infinite, variety of ends, and anyone with the power to adjudicate among them in the name of a conscious overall national plan, allowing a few but forbidding most, would exert vastly more power than the most bloated plutocrat of socialist propaganda had ever done in a free-market society.

Hayek believed the choice was between despotic socialism and freedom as represented by liberal democracy.  Socialism, of course, has failed and faded from the scene, but Dalrymple, ever the pessimist, discerns a third possibility unforeseen by Hayek.  The people can keep their political freedom, while the welfare state corrupts the exercise of moral freedom so that one’s decisions don’t matter much either way, and nothing can be found worth living for greater than one’s desires.

The state action that was supposed to lead to the elimination of Beveridge’s five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness has left many people in contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves, even in their own private spheres. They are educated by the state (at least nominally), as are their children in turn; the state provides for them in old age and has made saving unnecessary or, in some cases, actually uneconomic; they are treated and cured by the state when they are ill; they are housed by the state, if they cannot otherwise afford decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.

No wonder that the British have changed in character, their sturdy independence replaced with passivity, querulousness, or even, at the lower reaches of society, a sullen resentment that not enough has been or is being done for them. For those at the bottom, such money as they receive is, in effect, pocket money, like the money children get from their parents, reserved for the satisfaction of whims. As a result, they are infantilized. If they behave irresponsibly – for example, by abandoning their own children wherever they father them – it is because both the rewards for behaving responsibly and the penalties for behaving irresponsibly have vanished. Such people come to live in a limbo, in which there is nothing much to hope or strive for and nothing much to fear or lose.

When reading Dalrymple, one invariably believes him:  the personality immanent in the style conveys great moral authority.  Still, I’d like to imagine that he exaggerates.  Cops are cynical to the core.  Psychiatrists have high suicide rates.  Sometimes the world one works with overwhelms the world one inhabits; I want to think that is the case with Dalrymple.  Why?  Well, none of the many Brits of my acquaintance fit his image of corruption.  They work hard and raise families.  Worthless anecdotal nonsense, you say?  True enough.  It’s all I can muster.  In truth, like every red-blooded American, I just want someone to reassure me that there will always be an England.



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