Human beings naturally desire to be a cause as well as an effect on the world. We expect to be actors on the great stage of life, and we want our actions to matter. That’s true when we do good, but just as true when we do evil. It may be that, if we commit a crime, we hope not to be noticed or caught; but it is never the case that we hope the crime to be as inconsequential as, say, staying in bed all day. We follow our purposes, and we demand to live in a world in which our actions move us toward these purposes.
That was the core of Aristotle’s moral teaching. Good habits, he believed, led to good actions; good actions made possible the good life. A man was the sum of what he did.
Most Americans still find this perspective congenial. On first meeting we tend to ask, “What do you do?”, and we make best-sellers of books that teach the habits of successful people.
By contrast, the European elites take a more schoolmasterly view of their fellow citizens. “Schoolmasters” is de Tocqueville’s word for the class that would overthrow European freedom. Members of this class believe that adult citizens never really grow up, and must be protected from themselves. They will therefore seek to establish a regime in which consequences are detached from actions: the poisoned sting is plucked from life, but also the possiblity of being a meaningful player in the drama of existence. The ideal is for Europeans to live out their days in a sheltered playground, overseen by their betters.
No one articulates the deepest wishes of the European elite better or more benignly than Timothy Garton Ash. In this article, ostensibly about how Europe-like Canada appears to him, he lists the values that, in his judgment, bind together present-day Europe. (Needless to say, this list is arrived at “by contrast with the United States.”)
We Europeans believe that the free market should be tamed by values of social justice, solidarity and inclusiveness, realised through a strong welfare state. We don’t have capital punishment. We believe that military force should only be used as a last resort and with the sanction of international law. We support international organisations. We love multilateralism and abhor unilateralism. We tend to think that men and women should be able to live more or less as they please with whomever they please, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation. We pride ourselves on our diversity.
Consider that list. Consider the words chosen by Ash. The individual drive to excel must be “tamed” by a “strong welfare state.” That Oz-like power will mandate “solidarity and inclusiveness” but also, somehow, “diversity.” The schoolmaster elite plucks the sting from the marketplace, where citizen-children may hurt one another, and of military action, which is irrevocably tragic, and of unilateral stands — such as Britain’s against the Nazis in the second world war — which leave others feeling unhappy or excluded or cowardly. In every domain of life that rises above individual satisfaction, the citizen-children are held up to a measuring stick and found too small to play.
Not to worry. In the theme park existence of Europe, there are safe rides for even the tiniest of adult tots. Why, they will be allowed to “live more or less as they please with whomever they please, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation.” Why worry about weighty matters of war and peace, or of profit and loss, or of participating in your country’s government, or of individual conscience and unpopular stands, when you can play forever in the happy playground of sexual indulgence?
Consider, too, the elimination of capital punishment. No matter how foul the crime committed, the consequences must be cushioned — not, of course, for the victim, but for the criminal, who by definition is never a responsible party. This goes beyond capital punishment. To an American, the European approach to crime and punishment seems puzzling and bizarre. Murderers often retain the right to vote. Sentences rarely extend beyond 15 years, regardless of the crime or the pain inflicted.
Slobodan Milosevic, who invented “ethnic cleansing,” was given a magnificent stage from which to justify his monstrous behavior, by one of those “international” and “multilateral” tribunals Ash values so highly. Milosevic killed tens of thousands, but lived comfortably after his imprisonment, never expressed regret, and died unpunished.
At a war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Naser Oric, a Bosnian Muslim, has been found guilty of the torturing and killing of Serbs captured by troops under his command. The sentence? Two years imprisonment. But wait: since Oric has spent two years in jail since his arrest, the judges, according to this BBC article, decided that he should be “released immediately.”
Here is a world without consequences, even for mass murder. It is, let me note, a democratic world. De Tocqueville observed that electing one’s schoolmasters maintains the illusion of freedom in the electorate. The theme park existence of everyday Europeans is exactly what they have asked for.
Whether anything more than the illusion of freedom will endure in such a morally neutered environment, can be reasonably questioned. If citizen-children must be protected against their self-destructiveness in every domain of life, sooner or later they will be protected from their electoral preferences. In EU institutions and the fetish for unelected “international” bodies, one can detect the first steps taken by the wise schoolmasters in this direction.