On November 25, 1994, Isaiah Berlin (left) was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto, an occasion for which he prepared a “short credo”. The text of his address can be read in full here. Read it all. It is about is protecting ourselves from the enemies of our civilisation and the kinds of things we may need to do.
Some of these enemies possess the potential to wield immense power in combination with the conviction that they are not only irrefutably correct but that this certainty gives them the right to do whatever it takes to prevail. So far as they are concerned, the future of mankind is dependent on everyone else understanding and accepting whatever it is they believe. They will therefore do whatever it takes to make their own views ascendant. Here is part of what Isaiah Berlin had to say at the end of a long life spent thinking about these and other similar questions.
“If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used — if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.”
Nothing about our current marauders reminds me in any way of people who are looking for “a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society”. Rather, they evoke memories of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. The overlay of bringing any kind of virtue to the world is obvious nonsense. They could not possibly believe it themselves. That there are leftist misfits and psychopaths who give them cover is part of what Berlin was referring to when his thoughts only ranged as far as Lenin and Pol Pot.
So what should be done? How are we to protect ourselves from such evil? Here is Berlin’s advice:
“I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion.
My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.
“So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march — it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me: one cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction.”
We are able to talk to each other because we are, for the most part, bourgeois and, therefore, prone to compromise while recognising the need to trade off parts of one desired outcome for others which compete and get in the way of each other. This is the world in which we live, will always live in.
There are people who would impose their wills on us by the sword and armed might. If you think you can compromise with such savagery you are wrong. They must be fought every inch of the way. Speaking for myself, I will not put our civilisation, my civilisation, at supreme risk to preserve some individual principle such as the right to say whatever I want whenever I want no matter what harm it may do to myself, my family, my friends, my country and my way of life. Berlin thought he saw a better world coming, but he hadn’t seen what we now confront.
“I am glad that you to whom I speak will see the twenty-first century, which I feel sure can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been. I congratulate you on your good fortune; I regret that I shall not see this brighter future, which I am convinced is coming.”
Well, if such a future is coming, it is not coming yet. In the meantime, we must do what we can to preserve this way of life that, if snuffed out as so many wish to do, will not soon return. It is up to us, we who are alive today, to defend the freedoms we inherited, which, as always, requires us to balance each of our rights against other of our rights in order to preserve what we have.
If our enemies prevail, no one will be talking about preserving rights for a very long time to come.
Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader