Western Civilisation

The Irresponsibility of Rights

[Extract from The Servile Mind published by Encounter Books. See Keith Windschuttle’s “Introduction to Kenneth Minogue” here…]

Overthrowing Anciens Régimes

European thinkers have often indulged in a flirtation with classical republicanism. It was a doctrine particularly vibrant in the so-called Radical Enlightenment. Modern European states are essentially monarchies, and largely remain so even though their kings and queens may not survive in institutional form. The reason these states are monarchical is that they derive from feudal conditions, and feudal monarchies have generated, through complicated chains of development, an individualist version of the rule of law. Being Christian states, they construed human beings as fallen creatures of limited rationality. Recognising such fallibility, they created tolerant commercial societies based on what Gibbon called “science and taste”. And they inherited, of course, the Christian distinction between God and Caesar, public and private life. In this form, though shaken by many forms of political folly, they have, over many generations, fought off various forms of the totalitarian temptation.

Now this combination of characteristics—monarchy, Christianity and a certain stubborn conservative resistance to extreme radicalism—constitutes (if abstractly considered) a kind of ancien régime, as it featured in the rejections of the revolutionaries in France. Monarchies were understood, in the manner of Roman republicans, as centres of autocracy and tyranny, surrounded by flunkeys. They were identified with servility. The Christian religion was obviously a set of outmoded beliefs picked up from a long-vanished Jewish tribal past. And the conservatism was clearly a dumb aversion among the ignorant to the changes needed to create a better society. Here was a set of imperfections for which a radical package of perfections lay to hand: republicanism, secularism and radicalism. They could plausibly be packaged as the formula for freedom. In the imaginative version of it supplied by Rousseau (in one of his moods), it was the discovery that although we think we are free, we are still in chains. Perfection thus became in some degree the overthrow of real or notional “anciens régimes”.

It is worth pursuing this current form of perfectionism a little further. What does it involve? At one level, an ancien régime might be understood as an image of the oppressions of capitalist life, in the United States for example. But in Britain, more obvious targets are easy to find. The abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords are plausible versions of any project of democratisation. Getting rid of monarchy today, however, is largely a recessive ambition because the political power of the monarchy is slight, and there are powerful reserves of reverence for an institution that stands above politics and represents the unity of the British. Nevertheless, some classical republicans take a close interest in polling data that may register the popularity of the monarchy going up and down. Every decline provokes republican muttering. And as with all radical aspirations, a successful negative popular vote could destroy an institution leading to an oblivion from which no positive vote could restore it. Meanwhile, the House of Lords in Britain has led a strange half life, as projects of reforming it or transforming it hiss and splutter to little purpose.

Then there is the issue of Christianity regarded in this context as the constitutive superstition of the West. The first decade of the twenty-first century was marked by an evident push for a final triumphant secularisation. Evidence-based science should at last be the recognised foundation of our lives rather than superstition.

And then (along with monarchy and Christianity) there was conservatism, often taken by its enemies as no more than an irrational resistance to improvement, a falsity of consciousness generated by no more significant a source than the interests of the rich. Here in the abolition of these elements of European life is a progressive program for building a democratic and secular radicalism that could at last begin to grapple with the real problems of perfecting our society.

I suppose that the best description of this kind of program would be to understand it as constitutional fundamentalism. The problems of human folly are attributed to bad institutions, especially monarchy. The program might alternatively be regarded as an instance of “the Kantian Fallacy”, after the philosopher who thought, in the 1790s, that a Europe of republics could be nothing else but a Europe at peace. How can we be free, asks the progressive, when we are subject to monarchical rulers (even notionally) and dominated by unscientific and outmoded ideas? Monarchy is associated with servility, Christianity with a population on its knees before an imaginary ruler of the universe. And both of these institutions prevent us from taking our destiny into our own hands, standing on our own two feet, and—democratically no doubt—engaging with our real problems, which turn out to be oppressions and inequalities.

As perfectionist aspirations go, this one is not currently distinguished by any great vitality, but the remarkable thing is that it has survived at all. The unavoidable defect of real classical republics is that they spend so much energy being anxious about moral decline. As Montesquieu analysed them, republics depended on civic virtue, and even the noble Catos of Rome failed to avert such a moral collapse. In European monarchies, by contrast, a certain sort of moral corruption is recognised as inevitable. It is to be found, for example, in commercial incentives to virtue, but its real habitat is the sentiment of honour by which Europeans do the right thing not because it is the right thing, but because they would be dishonoured if they did not. This may be, as classical republicans generally think, an “indirect” and inferior form of virtue but it is certainly a form of virtue, and in a world massively given over to corruptions of every kind, it is not negligible.

Among the unrealities of this version of perfectionism is its historical perversity. Without monarchy, no liberal democracies would have come into being. Monarchies in Europe have long been the notional sources of honour, and as a focus of national unity, they enabled party disputes to develop institutionally into a distinction between government and opposition without degenerating into civil war. Certainly no classical state generated our kind of conversational politics. As for servility and dependence of mind, European monarchies (and America of course belongs to this class) are pretty obviously the least servile of societies in the modern world. North European monarchies are the most free and stable states as well as the least corrupt democracies in Europe, and that means the world. It is significant that the overthrow of monarchy in Russia, Spain and Germany in the twentieth century led on to very bad times indeed.

Monarchy, Christianity and conservatism are three institutions that virtually define what all forms of Western radicalism find imperfect in human nature, and in the attacks upon them, we may sniff the curious sense that those who want to overthrow these supposed elements of ancien régime seek a final solution to the basic source of history as a Voltairean story of crimes and follies. This “final solution”—abolishing monarchy, refuting Christianity and overcoming conservatism—is no doubt benign and only marginally to be compared to the famous Final Solution of Nazi dreams, but it has the same mad sense of human megalomania about it. That Christianity, taken abstractly as a belief system, has problems may be easily conceded, but it is also the source of the traditions on which Western openness has been created. And intellectually speaking, setting up Augustine and Christian theology against Marx and his modern successors is to match giants with dwarfs. Again, if the issue is conservative thought, then Burke, Salisbury and their successors need hardly fear being unmasked as bearers of false consciousness. But there is a more substantial point.

It concerns freedom. Perfectionism doctrinally can exist in no other context than that of a dialogue about imperfections. The deepest source of the radical drive in Western states is the conviction that we suffer from concealed forms of oppression which destroy our freedom unless they are unmasked. Rousseau’s idea that we are enslaved was taken up by many radicals of later generations, and (as we shall see) by all intellectuals who had the mobilising ambitions of totalitarianism. What, then, is it that makes a slave? Chains and commands, no doubt, but also the slave’s own recognition that he or she is a slave. To think oneself oppressed is to think of oneself as a slave. It is a step on the way to releasing in oneself that element of servility that lurks in all human nature. And it was this idea of being oppressed that seduced the Russians into Bolshevism, the Germans into Nazism. They wanted to throw off bourgeois chains in the one case, and the oppressions of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy on the other. Neither Russians nor Germans had been notably servile populations before they succumbed to ideological enthusiasm—but they certainly became so.

The mistake of identifying freedom with liberation is evidently a mark of pretty unsophisticated peoples, and it has been a happy distinction of Anglophones that they have usually managed to avoid its nastier consequences. They did not however entirely escape this confusion in universities during the 1960s, which were a textbook example of the destruction of real institutional independence by liberation movements. Suddenly becoming available to unsophisticated and uneducated people, universities succumbed to democratic and liberatory slogans and lost the academic authority that made them distinctive. In succumbing to such servility of mind, they were unprotected against governments bidding to take power over them.

All servility is dangerous. To be even a little servile is to think that whatever is frustrating must be a form of oppression, from which liberation alone will provide release. Often, however, one is frustrated not by “oppression” but by reality, or an instinct for self-restraint. It is a feature of life to which some kind of “rage” is not an appropriate response. Servility is a personality structure with little protection against the temptations of impulse. The search for liberation is a rejection of the responsibilities of freedom in favour of a release into the irresponsibility of rights. And a right is irresponsible because it is a legally entrenched liberty that does not contain within itself the limitations instinctive in a free society. That is why there is a constant moral fussing in current societies about the necessity to match rights with responsibilities. As Jack Straw, a British Minister of Justice, has remarked, human rights are being treated like consumer goods for selfish ends by some people in Britain. “I am really worried about the commoditisation of rights, and the sense that people should see their rights as consumer goods,” he said.

I cite constitutional fundamentalism merely as one familiar form of contemporary perfectionism, one that lurks a little below the surface of our current politics. While not being particularly sophisticated, it has a certain cachet in universities, because it is likely to give less sophisticated academics the pleasing sense that they are being “socially critical”. In this context it is in part a component of the wider doctrine of the intellect as essentially critical, and in part an instance of the politico-moral rejection of our civilisation as failing to confront the evils of the world.

Ignorance, Poverty and War

The politico-moral cast of mind is happy to ally itself with other versions of perfectionism, but its own central focus is to destroy ignorance, war and poverty, both in our own societies and in the world more at large. No small ambition, one might say. These problems have always been with us. Solving them would certainly be a transformation of the human condition. But they clearly raise the most difficult and controversial moral questions. What is to count as ignorance? How is it related to war? The politico-moral transcends the complexities and mobilises our political sentiments for a moral crusade. As always, the question becomes: how can this problem-solution nexus be made plausible? Given that moral integrity and political prudence seldom coincide, how can the politico-moral present itself as both an imperative moral crusade and as politically compelling?

The answer is that the crusade presents itself as both abstract and figurative at the same time, a concept and an image fused together. If we construe these grand problems at the right level of abstraction, then policies become thinkable and imperative in a way that would not survive examination either at the brute level of particular reality, or that of philosophical universality. And it is only by falling into line with a conviction in this form that we can be persuaded to bend all our efforts towards solving these problems as the real expression of our real humanity.

The perfectionist program to conquer poverty is perhaps most plausibly presented in the form of the view that poverty is ipso facto an indicator of injustice. As Thomas Pogge puts it in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: the “massive persistence of severe poverty is the great scandal of this globalised civilisation and threatens its promised gains in peace, stability and prosperity”. Pogge argues that the poor half of humankind consumes under 2 per cent of the global product. Statistically, we are in the world of the poor living on a dollar a day, a proposition hard to make sense of since it depends so much on conditions and currencies, but nothing much rests on this basic feature of the rhetoric of perfection. No one doubts that there are millions of people living in dreadful conditions, doomed to drinking unclean water and poor food in small quantities, living on the edge of survival so that a military conflict, a bad harvest or governmental caprice can kill. Of the facts of the case, there is certainly no doubt.

The moral case for the duties we owe to the poor is analysed by Pogge in terms of the negative duty of avoiding harm, and the positive duty of creating at least some elements of material adequacy to replace the impoverished conditions of the chronically poor. The negative duty is enough for him to suggest that the causes of such poverty lie in the foreseeable consequences of economic arrangements that have been structured by interlocking national and international arrangements set up by Western states. It thus becomes our duty to modify these arrangements so that “everyone has real opportunities to escape and avoid extreme poverty”.

Pogge has little patience with the argument that poverty results from local causes. This is an argument made plausible by the fact that so many states in the Third World have actually learned how to generate wealth. How have Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and other non-Western areas escaped from being doomed by those “interlocking national and international institutional arrangements”? Social scientists, he tells us, feel “emotionally more comfortable” with tracing persistent world poverty back to “national and local clauses” rather than to “global institutional arrangements”. This kind of remark is just a bit of ad hominem flim-flam, and need not be taken seriously.

Mark Fleurbaey, one of Pogge’s contributors, also judges the responsibility for global poverty as lying with Western states, because he thinks that poverty results from oppression. Economic constraint and physical violence both reduce real freedom, he argues, taking as “real freedom” a situation of resource equality between those entering into a transaction—a situation so unusual in the world that it would generate very few transactions at all. People exchange precisely because they are unequal in resources. That is how work, for example, turns into cash. The conclusion Fleurbaey draws is that unequal trade is a form of coercion like physical violence. Poverty, like physical aggression, violates the integrity of the person. Here we have an explosion of analogies designed to reduce all the complexities of economic relationships to versions of the one key concept, oppression.

This sounds like a powerful moral case in terms of rights, and it tempts various writers in this field to suggest some system of global dividends drawn from rich countries and given to poor. Such a global tax would (so the argument runs) begin to deal with global poverty. The thesis is that the poor are poor because they have no money: an irresistible conclusion, indeed. No less irresistible, however, is the judgment that any vast sum of money likely to be accumulated for this purpose would be a magnet for the corrupt, the greedy, bureaucrats on the make and many other undesirables. Large funds of money for good purposes have a way of producing very disappointing benefits, and that has been precisely the history of much Western aid to the underdeveloped world.

Nor need we take too seriously the idea that poverty results from the way the international economy works, rather than from the culture involved. It would hardly be surprising if some cultures were very much more effective at creating wealth than others. Cultural difference has to do with moral probity, corruption, work ethics and similar considerations. Some cultures are undoubtedly less successful than others. Africans seem to find it hard to organise themselves in states in which wealth flows to those who work rather than to those with guns or licences. The Islamic world is another arena of such global poverty such that, like Africans, Muslims are very keen to get out of Islamic states and migrate to richer Western pastures. Indigenous peoples in the Pacific and in parts of Latin America are also notably dependent on money provided by others. Somehow, Mexicans never seem to manage their economy well enough to discourage thousands of their number from trying the desperate expedient of walking across the border into the USA.

The idea that severe poverty is caused by structural arrangements that suit the Western states but are disastrous to others is clearly refuted by the success of Asian states. The positive case that bad government is a serious cause of poverty may be illustrated currently from the Zimbabwe case, in which starvation is a direct result of the folly of rulers and not at all from structural conditions of any kind.

The converse evidence supporting the same principle is that the Chinese, who have all the talents and lack nothing of the enthusiasm to grow richer, could over long stretches of the twentieth century succeed only when ruled by the British in Hong Kong and in Singapore, but not in China. The madness of Maoism was a marvellous stimulus to poverty. These elementary considerations are enough to dispose of the simple view that severe poverty is a violation of a human right, and especially one for which we in the West are responsible. Global poverty is certainly terrible, and it would be good to alleviate it, but making its alleviation a right is merely a form of megalomania among normative theorists.

That we may have a duty to suffering individuals is easily granted; that we have a duty to entire peoples who suffer is also pretty plausible. But here again we face the problem of morality versus the national interest. For one thing, any Western responsibility for feeding the world runs into the difficulty that we embrace an open-ended commitment to deal with a problem largely out of our control. One reason for poverty in the Third World is that the starving populations get bigger generation by generation. A great deal of aid already goes to impoverished countries, but they multiply faster than we can deal with their needs. Some European cultures used in earlier times to adapt to changing Malthusian pressures by adjustments in the average age of marriage: in good times, people married earlier, in bad times later. Third World countries benefit from medical advantages that have reduced infant mortality, but have no cultural mechanisms to deal responsibly with these problems themselves.

Western difficulties in responding wisely to the problems of ignorance, poverty and war take on an even darker complexion if we contemplate a future world in which (unlikely as it seems) these problems would have been solved. We may well envisage a future in which impoverished states become prosperous, and hence active players in the already complicated and conflict-ridden world of international politics. The West is demographically shrinking, and there are vastly increasing populations in Africa, Asia and South America. We would then find ourselves in an international world in which we would be small, weak and probably still richer than these countries.

You hardly need a crystal ball to predict that such nations would be in all likelihood highly aggressive in their claims and demands on us. Whatever we might have done for them in the past would generate no permanent source of gratitude or even of consideration. International relations have no place for the gratitude one might expect in the world of individuals. Britain abolished slavery, but this notably virtuous act exhibited in past times is no barrier to its being the object of many resentful claims by those descended from the slaves.

Kenneth Minogue is emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics. He was born in New Zealand and educated at the University of Sydney. He is the newly appointed president of the international organisation for classical liberalism, the Mont Pelerin Society.

Post a comment