Western Civilisation

Nice People and the Servile State

Mark Steyn, After America: Get Ready for Armageddon (Regnery, 2011), 400 pages, $45.95

Reading the word Armageddon in the title of a book brings an expectation that the author will be discussing a sudden disaster of catastrophic proportions. But in Mark Steyn’s new book on the future of America and the West, After America, what he describes has less of the sudden and dramatic about it and more of the slow and the agonising. Whereas once Steyn believed that Europe was headed for perdition and that America would survive the massive shake-out of the twenty-first century, now he proclaims that America under Obama is headed for the same fate as Europe, with disastrous effects for the world as we know it.

He puts it down to two big Ds, debt and demography, and the big C, comfort. The scenario goes a bit like this. America, like the rest of the West, especially that part of the West that goes by the name of the Anglosphere, was built on the basis of individual exertion, responsibility and energy, but as the state has taken over more and more, these capabilities have evaporated. What has replaced this emphasis on the hardy individual is a culture that emphasises comfort, security and especially niceness. We all now want to be nice to each other and prevent bad things happening to nice people. In a democracy this means the state allocating billions of dollars to prevent harm and to give everyone the opportunity to live a nice life. For reasons that are still not properly understood, living a nice life does not encourage people to have children. Ultimately, not having descendants is a threat to comfort, especially in countries like Italy and Greece with very low birth rates. Greeks might like the idea of early retirement but, as Steyn argues, with four grandchildren for every ten grandparents it is difficult to see how they can possibly afford it.

Steyn’s portrayal of the modern West is profoundly disturbing. The strength of any community rests on its capacity to create vigour and self-confidence, which in turn helps to stimulate social co-operation and a sense of belonging. To paraphrase Ernest Renan’s definition of a nation, it is necessary to believe that the community has done great things in the past if it is to do great things in the future. Recently Peter Turchin resurrected Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiya to describe this capacity for social co-operation and group cohesion. Turchin argues that groups and nations that possess such cohesion are capable of overcoming those that do not, and, according to Khaldun’s argument, what destroys solidarity are the sweet breezes and soft living that come with comfort and luxury.

Political communities that possess asabiya are capable of doing great things. Think of Athens, or republican Rome, or America after independence, or Britain. A people needs to believe in itself; when it loses that self-belief all that remains is belief in one’s self, the avoidance of the unpleasant things in life and the urge to take refuge in what pleasures one can find.

Writing almost 120 years ago Charles Henry Pearson discerned that Western countries like Australia had reached the pinnacle of their achievements, achievements spurred on by individualism. Pearson argued that it was the values of liberalism, of the quest for fairness and the need to help our fellow human beings that would bring about the demise of modern civilisation. State socialism, he declared, was the logical outcome of liberalism and the values for which it stood. As the state became more powerful so would there be the decline of the individual, family and religion. Individual endeavour would decline but there would be compensations. There would be a measure of comfort for all. One might have to live under grey skies without much hope for improvement in the future but one would be guaranteed a modest measure of comfort.

Pierre Manent has more recently argued that we in the modern West have given up the pursuit of the Christian ideal of humility and the classical ideal of virtue. Instead we accept the more modest goal of avoiding bad things happening to us. We have been caged within the state. But the bars of the cage are not iron but gossamer. We accept restrictions on our lives because we are seduced by the security and stability that the state appears to offer us. As the state does more and more so the sphere for individual activity is circumscribed. The point is that following ideals such as humility and virtue can be uncomfortable and irritating. They make demands on us that perhaps we would rather avoid. If we wish to achieve great things we must follow difficult paths that may lead to great pain.

The modern Western individual generally does not have a lot to fear in his or her life. The world of pain and disease is largely absent, they do not have worry about finding their next meal. There is regularity about the world, marked by security and sufficiency. If modern Western humans do not take too many risks they should live to a ripe old age. Men no longer expect to go to war and women no longer expect to die in childbirth. We surrender our capacity for individual exertion and gain security in its place.

Steyn points out that in 2011 this sort of scenario is a lousy deal. Why?

• The price of comfort and security is simply too high. The costs of the welfare state are unsustainable.

• The other cost of state growth is the inexorable decline of asabiya and its replacement by social disintegration.

• Between the two above one of the primary consequences is the collapse of the birth rate. There will be no one around to pay the bills in future.

• State security provides us with a sort of sedative that makes us happy and contented but which will not prepare us for what might be hard times ahead. We increasingly inhabit a culture of niceness. Comfort makes us superficial. 

Western individualism has always operated within a framework of social co-operation. Western individualism could not have been sustained without asabiya. Whatever Hobbes may have thought, and he wrote Leviathan in the wake of the English Civil War, Western individuals have never been isolated agents engaged in the war of all against all. They have always been members of associations and corporations and have developed their individualism within a framework of laws and rules. Competition amongst individuals in the West has always presupposed a scaffolding of co-operation that is built into Western culture. That scaffolding may often have seemed invisible but it is still there.

The biggest paradox relates to the role and place of the modern state, one of the most potent creations of the West. The state came into being to ensure that those living within its borders could live peaceful lives. The state came to enjoy a monopoly over violence and coercion because under such an arrangement individuals turn over their power to act when a criminal act is committed. In a stateless society the normal way to respond to an act of violence is to be violent in return. This can lead to a cycle of violence; stateless societies have a very high rate of death by violence. The great virtue of the modern state is a safe and civilised existence for those who live within its boundaries. One has only to look at the misery that exists in “failed states” to see the advantage of living in a state that has the rule of law and is able to enforce that law.

A civilised existence, however, requires more than just the absence of fear and violence. In Leviathan Hobbes characterises human beings as being driven by fear, greed and what might be described as pride or thumos, the need for recognition. These are all self-regarding attributes or powers which must be controlled if human beings are to live together peacefully. The social contract requires that individuals surrender their capacity to exercise those powers to the state. We do not kill to justify our honour, we recognise that greed requires constraints if we are not to come to blows over access to the goods of this world and that by constraining human action we need not go in fear of our fellow human beings.

The problem with this version of political activity is that it takes no account of human attributes that are not self-regarding and which allow for co-operation. The primary attribute that it ignores is that identified by Adam Smith as sympathy. Sympathy is essentially a form of fellow feeling that individuals have for members of their family, their community, their nation, even humanity. It is difficult to see how human beings could co-operate in any meaningful way unless there is something like sympathy operating within human associations. The trick would appear to be to encourage fellow feeling while ensuring that the self-regarding attributes of human beings are kept in check and thereby made to work for the public good.

While thinkers such as Hobbes define human beings as essentially self-regarding, I think it can also be argued that human beings develop their humanity only when the qualities associated with sympathy are allowed to flourish. At the heart of the human condition is the paradox that human beings are simultaneously pushed in the directions of both self and others. They want the recognition and respect of others, but they are also capable of putting aside self and working for the benefit of others as well as themselves. In other words if, as Harvey Mansfield argues, thumos is a central feature of human nature, then so also is the product of sympathy which is asabiya.

However, as political thinkers from Aristotle and Polybius onwards have recognised, real political societies are always changing and mutating. If history is about anything it is the way that human beings and the communities in which they live change over time. It is also about attempts by people living through that change to try and mask that change; they often attempt to pretend that there is permanence in the world. Political societies that attempt to arrest change and create an order that neither grows nor decays may believe that they have conquered change but invariably they fail. Spartan history was one such attempt to keep Sparta the same forever and to evade the corrosive power of time but—and here is surely a warning for the contemporary world—it was demography that brought it down. Every year there were fewer and fewer full citizens of Sparta until eventually there were too few.

History consistently springs surprises on us. A political community can almost explode on the scene and suddenly become dominant and powerful. Athens had been a minor Greek state in the sixth century under the Peisistratids but once the democratic reforms unleashed the power of the people it became a major political player. As Herodotus notes: 

So the Athenians grew in power and proved, not in one respect only but in all, that equality is a good thing. Evidence for this is the fact that while they were under tyrannical rulers, the Athenians were no better in war than any of their neighbours, yet once they got rid of their tyrants, they were by far the best of all. This, then, shows that while they were oppressed, they were, as men working for a master, cowardly, but when they were freed, each one was eager to achieve for himself. 

This is an interesting passage because it explicitly links thumos and asabiya. The Athenians gained in power because they possessed powerful feelings of both social solidarity and personal achievement. It is also worth noting that the Athenians did not really possess a state but rather the Athenian citizenry was the state. When we consider the extraordinary achievements of Athens we cannot but be astonished at their artistic, intellectual and cultural accomplishments. It would appear that a political society that can combine thumos and asabiya will achieve great things. It must also be recognised that the attainment of such things cannot last forever; there is no permanence in history. The irony is that much as we might admire the Athenians we make no attempt to emulate them. Instead we are busily erecting a barrier, in the shape of the despotic state, to prevent us from making any real achievements. 

If we are to understand the contemporary situation it is necessary to appreciate what the state can and cannot do. It can provide order and it can restrain human beings from harming and hurting each other. Hobbes is correct. Viewing people from the perspective of the harm that they can do to each other, it acts to prevent that harm. In that regard the state has, by and large, succeeded. In enhancing security the state created those conditions under which sympathy and co-operation can flourish.

The state can create the conditions for human flourishing. The basis of state activity is the restriction of human activity to prevent harm. That is all. Unfortunately the state will also tend to overstep itself and attempt to control more and more human activity in the name of security, sufficiency and control.

The creation of the corporation as a legal entity in the medieval period is central to Western civilisation. Individuals in the West since the Middle Ages have also been members of churches, associations such as guilds and unions and of the most significant of all such corporations, the state. This dynamic relationship between individual and association is a crucial aspect of Western culture; the individual will seek to escape the impositions that an association places on him or her while associations will often attempt to control the individual in the name of the common good.

In early modern Europe that drive for control went by the name of the police state. Police was the attempt by the state to control the population in the name of the common good and the national interest. Individuals were considered not as autonomous and responsible citizens but as “population” to be regulated and controlled so that the state could become as efficient as possible. On this basis it is even possible to justify the state educating those under its control so that they can become efficient producers.

The issue here is the role of the state, the limits on what it can do, and the consequences of relying on the state to solve our major problems. The state cannot foster fellow feeling, sympathy and co-operation. All it can do is provide sufficiency and security and provide the basis for a peaceful social order. Fellow feeling grows out from the individual to the group, it cannot be commanded. The reason for this is simple. The state works, as Hobbes recognised, in an essentially mechanical fashion; the organic growth that builds trust and co-operation comes only from human beings. 

We recognise today that perhaps the major problem of the modern Western world is that the state is moving inexorably to what Hilaire Belloc and John Anderson both termed the servile state. The servile state is marked by a condition of servility by the majority in thrall to the wishes and control of the elite, especially those in the state bureaucracy. Generally, this tyranny is not accomplished by coercion and violence but by the lure of security and sufficiency. The state does things for people so that they do not have to do them for themselves. As the power of the state increases, the thumos and asabiya of its members decline. This is because they lose the desire to do things for themselves. The state can, and will, provide.

Many of Mark Steyn’s complaints about the contemporary Western world are about the dominance of the bureaucratic, servile state. Nothing, it appears, can be done to wind it back. Steyn argues that it does not matter which party runs America. The state continues to grow regardless. The same is true in Australia. Despite all the fuss over the past twenty years about “neo-liberalism” the state continues to grow. The Howard years were hardly a time that saw a return to small government. Government just continues to grow and grow relentlessly and mere argument does nothing to prevent that growth.

The state wants to do more and more. It cannot help itself. It is full of bright young university graduates looking for things to do. It looks for areas into which it can stick its nose. Steyn notes that the only major area of employment in America where there is somewhat of a boom is in the public sector. These are well-paid positions that also attract a pension. This is an extension of the European disease, of which Greece is but an extreme example, of the way in which the state can reward its minions at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

In an age where governments spend billions of dollars, what has been lost is the obligation to exercise due economy. When I read the parliamentary debates of nineteenth-century New South Wales what strikes me is the extent to which relatively small amounts of expenditure would be debated and controlled. But that was an age when the philosophy was one of “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”. That was because pennies mattered. Even when I was a child it was still possible to buy two lollies for a penny. But in an age in which billions, and even trillions, of dollars are the sums in which governments deal there is less concern with, and care taken of, small amounts of money. We live in a profligate age.

There was a time when public servants were meant to serve the public under the direction of the people’s elected representatives and to take great care with the funds that the public had voted them. The public was meant to be in charge. But as the bureaucracy grew so too did the incapacity of the public, or perhaps anyone, to control it. It takes on a life of its own and can only be put back in its place when a government is willing to use very blunt instruments to batter it into submission. Even then it will often have a titanic struggle on its hands as public sector unions are very good at fighting for their privileges. If a government wants a quiet life, and there appear to be few clouds on the economic horizon, the easiest thing to do is to avoid trimming the public service bureaucracy.

Let’s consider some basics of the current situation:

• The leviathan continues to grow both in terms of size and of the range of things that it wants to do;

• Politicians have a very limited capacity to control what the leviathan does;

• The leviathan actively looks for things that it can do but this is often combined with a public desire that it do more and more. Christopher Booker has documented the way in which activists work together with elements of the media and parts of the bureaucracy to create scares and panics that justify more expenditure;

• Political leadership has become much more concerned with managing the media cycle than with ruling in the public interest. It is now more important for politicians to appear good in the media than to control the bureaucracies for which they are responsible.

Modern Western culture has raced down this bureaucratic road, and it seems no longer capable of either stopping or getting off the road. The state increasingly seeks to control and regulate the behaviour of the individuals who are its members. In particular, as Steyn portrays so scathingly, this is often in the name of health and safety. In some states in America ordinary people can no longer bake cakes for church sales because they lack the necessary health licence.

The state concerns itself with the health and well-being of its citizens; it believes that it must intervene to ensure that they are protected, against themselves, against their neighbours, against any potential threat. We live in the pro-active society where it is now recommended that we give people medication in advance so that they do not develop high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The state would, as far as possible, practise the “precautionary principle”. We cannot really prove anthropogenic climate change, but hey, let’s bring in draconian measures just to be on the safe side. The contemporary state is indeed a nanny, sometimes scolding us, sometimes giving us a big hug and telling us how to be better people. The over-arching aim of the nanny state is to protect us from bad things happening so that we may always feel happy and secure. It encourages us to feel good about ourselves, to feel not just satisfied but self-satisfied, to have our self-esteem boosted to the highest possible level. Steyn points out that American students do not score well on mathematics tests in relation to students from countries such as Taiwan and Finland. They do, however, score very highly about how good they feel themselves to be! We live in an age of self-esteem. 

The biggest illusion of the age is the belief that we have conquered the vicissitudes of time and achieved a permanent condition of security and sufficiency. The history of the world may have been one of war, hunger, disease and misery but we no longer need to fear such things. We now have the delusion that they are banished from the West forever and we need not fear their return.

Permanence is always an illusion. If we reflect long and hard enough we know that there will be natural disasters in the future that will destroy much of what humanity has built up. We know that at some stage another ice age will come along and that there is not much we can do about it. But we would prefer to hide such things from ourselves and to banish any such thoughts to a hidden recess in our minds. This is the logic behind those who believe so fervently in climate change. We caused climate change; we can repair the damage. Nothing is beyond human control. With a little human ingenuity we can maintain our condition of security and sufficiency for a long time, perhaps even forever. We can conquer disease, we can extend our lifespan to hundreds of years and enjoy the time sitting in cafes, sipping lattes and discussing the world, cocooned forever in the loving arms of the nanny state.

Steyn is right. One of the major consequences of living in a servile state is not, as Pearson thought, the creation of a grey outlook on the world. Comfort creates a sort of superficial and smug optimism. If, as Aeschylus says, “man must suffer to be wise”, comfort creates the opposite of wisdom. It creates a shallow optimism and niceness that is summed up in the ritual chant of every Generation Y shop assistant, “Have a nice day”. In their study of the religious lives of American teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified a very common outlook which they term “moralistic therapeutic deism”, which they sum up as follows:

• A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth;

• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions;

• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself;

• God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem;

• Good people go to heaven when they die.

The goal of life is “to be happy and feel good about oneself” as one sits under the gaze of a benign God who presumably ensures that bad things do not happen to good people. There is no mention of life as a “vale of tears”, or the wages of sin. To appreciate how novel this view of life is in the West one has to appreciate how people thought and felt in the past. When from time to time I dip into Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying I am struck by the resigned acceptance that he has regarding death, pain and suffering. Of course, in the seventeenth century there was not much in way of painkillers, and disease could mean terrible suffering. Young children died often. In an age of security and sufficiency, at least in the West, such things no longer happen, or only rarely. Only an age devoted to security and sufficiency succumbs to “moralistic therapeutic deism” and its secular equivalents.

John Anderson argued that culture requires opposition and struggle rather than peace and security. In the absence of such struggle what is there to do but to sit around and feel good about oneself? It is a strange, but true, aspect of human nature that, having achieved a condition of security and comfort, human beings desire nothing more than for that condition to continue. They do not want to be taken off the drip and they are largely unprepared for what a harsher world would bring. This is because individuals lose the capacity to do things for themselves. They become dependent on the state to do things for them. And it is not just the indigent who suffers from this condition, dependent on the state and its handouts. All of us, no matter how much we fool ourselves to the contrary, slowly but surely are sucked into the “Have a nice day” syndrome. After all, who cannot like nice people?

Crucially, “niceness” and the state destroy thumos and asabiya and leave us, as a consequence, somewhat less than human, safe in our gossamer cages and unwilling to break out. We want to be nice rather than compete for honour, we increasingly feel little need to band together to do things. The state will do everything for us. There is a relationship between the growth of the welfare state and the decline of individuals either giving charity or volunteering to help their fellow human beings. We are left in a world where there is little more than individuals and states.

The combination of servile state, security and sufficiency and a culture of niceness represents the logical outcome of the culture of the West. It is a culture that follows from the logic of state action. The modern state has always had the role of pacifying and bringing order. Everything else follows from that role. To pacify and bring order the state must take over things that it previously did not do. There was a time when much of what we now identify as welfare was in the hands of the church. This included not just relief of the poor but also education. After the French Revolution these matters were increasingly taken over by the state. When something needed to be done, the state was there to do it.

And here lies the central problem. Whenever there is a problem in the contemporary world the solution involves the state doing something. Even those politicians committed to individualism and freedom are easily seduced by the siren call of state action. But the state is mechanical; it can coerce, it can pacify, but it cannot build co-operation or compel people to be free. Only human beings acting as individuals or in their own freely made associations can do that. Every time the state does more, it destroys more thumos and asabiya. We know, however, that if the West is to thrive and flourish these are the very qualities that we need to encourage.

Maybe we must simply accept that there is little that we can do to escape history. We have an ever growing state that is becoming increasingly expensive to run. We are drowning in a sea of niceness that stifles our capacity to take the hard decisions that will need to be made. Our descendants may very well curse us for our niceness. 

Greg Melleuish is an Associate Professor in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong.

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