Trading Away Spiritual Integrity

Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island tells the story of a Victorian aristocrat defeated by a toothbrush; his temporarily absent valet, it seems, had always previously prepared the device.  Bryson intended to ridicule the British aristocracy as a bunch of useless spongers; he also unintentionally described Western society in the twenty-first century.  Why do something like apply paste to a toothbrush when someone else can do it instead?  Why waste the time and effort when a little bit of money takes care of the problem?

So it goes with government, the expansion of which was, paradoxically, partly a corollary of the world shrinking.  As ‘problems' and ‘issues' affected more and more people outside the immediate community, in the days when ‘community' had meaning, so the need for a panoptical vision became apparent.  In the old days, Mr. Smith chipped in to help out Mrs. Jones down the street.  Now he chips in to help Mrs. Jones of Michigan, or Florida, or wherever he isn't.  It brings the nation together -- in theory. 

In its advanced form, this became the West European model, which -- for all the derision of the American Right -- is, in fact, a pretty good place to live.  The principle is to pay a few more cents in the euro, and in return don't worry about health, education, or unemployment.  The feeling of security is priceless: for everything else there may be Mastercard, but if Mastercard ever goes belly-up, government is the inevitable longstop.  And if government is the lender of last resort, why not just make it the provider of first resort? 

Take health-care.  Nobody seriously wants a debate on health-care; at least, nobody worth spending time with.  Wanted is the leisure not to have a debate on health-care; to be able to say, in short, that the government gets a nickel in every dollar, and in return it provides access to doctors and hospitals.  And, for another two cents, it does this for everybody. 

On its own predicates, the logic is unassailable.  If the job of the government is to promote the general welfare, then those seven cents are better spent by an institution with a broader vision than that of the individual.  Moreover, the extra two cents guarantees that everybody has access to health care, free at the point of delivery.  Despite being the intellectual equivalent of winning an argument by bursting into tears, this is the line of reasoning used by British people as the unbeatable trump card.

‘I believe in the progressive socialization of the state', wrote the author and Conservative M.P. John Buchan to the left-wing author J.B. Priestley, but added that it was ‘vital to insist upon the spiritual integrity of the individual.'  This had meaning in the Britain of the 1930s, but as mundane concerns became increasingly the concern of government, so the spiritual integrity of the individual faded into the background.  Spiritual integrity is impossible to quantify, and government after 1945 was simply concerned with the quantifiable as a measure of moral progress. 

In return for their spiritual integrity, the citizenry received a form of liberty.  Outsourcing decisions to government seemed a reasonable price to pay for more free time and a free ride on self-indulgence.  Healthcare, social security, childcare and the like was a sort of nationalized compassion.  Make a mess, and somebody else will clean up.  Why care, when government can do that too?

When government is encouraged to do more than manage the ring, it will start finding other things to do.  If we can't govern ourselves -- which is a definition of spiritual integrity -- then that's just another job for government.  Sociologists and historians have long bothered about the status of the USA and its failure to follow the inexorable secularization of the West.  They can stop bothering: America is going the same way, just a few decades late.  We are marching towards the brave new world, heading in that direction because it looks like such a nice place to be. 

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, government was in the hands of such men as Mustapha Mond, who knew that most of us would be content with bread and circuses and soothing narcotics.  In America's future, the equivalent would be someone like Paul Krugman.  The name springs to mind for no reason other than the coincidence of re-reading Brave New World at the same time as Mr. Krugman's declaration of devotion to the works of Isaac Asimov. 

Mr. Krugman wrote that he chose economics as a career, or possibly vocation, because he read Asimov's Foundation novels, ‘in which social scientists save galactic civilization, and that's what I wanted to be.'  Asimov posited a cosmos revolving to the deterministic discipline of ‘psychohistory,' in which life was beautifully planned.  ‘Someday there will exist a unified social science of the kind that Asimov imagined,' Mr Krugman enthused, ‘but for the time being economics is as close to psychohistory as you can get.'

This is terrifying for so many reasons, and not just because the predictive record of economists is not much better than astrologers.  The real shocker is the inhumanity.  ‘There seems to be a touching belief among certain PhDs in sociology,' noted Huxley, ‘that PhDs in sociology will never be corrupted by power.  Like Sir Galahad's, their strength is as the strength of ten because their heart is pure -- and their heart is pure because they are scientists and have taken six thousand hours of social studies.'

It seems unlikely, but one wonders if Mr Krugman ever read the Perelandra trilogy.  In this vision, theologically-inspired, C.S. Lewis created a group of secular scientists who worked for the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.  For Lewis, of course, the totalitarian future was going to be anything but N.I.C.E.: on the contrary, it was going to be extremely nasty.  Lewis had pointed out, in The Abolition of Man, that the removal of the transcendent element in humanity would inevitably, if not immediately, result in an elite stratum regarding the other strata as inferior, and then as material to be moulded at will. 

By that time, of course, it will be too late to complain.  But we will have wandered there regardless, because we like life to be easy.  This is why, assisted by factitious concepts of ‘rights,' we will sign up for government healthcare and childcare and data retention.  This is why euthanasia will follow abortion as abortion followed contraception, and cloning will follow euthanasia.  And so on.  And Brave New World -- rather like P.D. James' The Children of Men -- will become more and more recognisable and less and less like dystopian fantasy. 

This won't happen overnight, but government by Krugman is here to stay, with government by Mond not far behind.  The maxim of the society in Brave New World was ‘community, liberty, stability,' and that doesn't sound entirely implausible as a slogan for the Obama 2012 campaign.
Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island tells the story of a Victorian aristocrat defeated by a toothbrush; his temporarily absent valet, it seems, had always previously prepared the device.  Bryson intended to ridicule the British aristocracy as a bunch of useless spongers; he also unintentionally described Western society in the twenty-first century.  Why do something like apply paste to a toothbrush when someone else can do it instead?  Why waste the time and effort when a little bit of money takes care of the problem?

So it goes with government, the expansion of which was, paradoxically, partly a corollary of the world shrinking.  As ‘problems' and ‘issues' affected more and more people outside the immediate community, in the days when ‘community' had meaning, so the need for a panoptical vision became apparent.  In the old days, Mr. Smith chipped in to help out Mrs. Jones down the street.  Now he chips in to help Mrs. Jones of Michigan, or Florida, or wherever he isn't.  It brings the nation together -- in theory. 

In its advanced form, this became the West European model, which -- for all the derision of the American Right -- is, in fact, a pretty good place to live.  The principle is to pay a few more cents in the euro, and in return don't worry about health, education, or unemployment.  The feeling of security is priceless: for everything else there may be Mastercard, but if Mastercard ever goes belly-up, government is the inevitable longstop.  And if government is the lender of last resort, why not just make it the provider of first resort? 

Take health-care.  Nobody seriously wants a debate on health-care; at least, nobody worth spending time with.  Wanted is the leisure not to have a debate on health-care; to be able to say, in short, that the government gets a nickel in every dollar, and in return it provides access to doctors and hospitals.  And, for another two cents, it does this for everybody. 

On its own predicates, the logic is unassailable.  If the job of the government is to promote the general welfare, then those seven cents are better spent by an institution with a broader vision than that of the individual.  Moreover, the extra two cents guarantees that everybody has access to health care, free at the point of delivery.  Despite being the intellectual equivalent of winning an argument by bursting into tears, this is the line of reasoning used by British people as the unbeatable trump card.

‘I believe in the progressive socialization of the state', wrote the author and Conservative M.P. John Buchan to the left-wing author J.B. Priestley, but added that it was ‘vital to insist upon the spiritual integrity of the individual.'  This had meaning in the Britain of the 1930s, but as mundane concerns became increasingly the concern of government, so the spiritual integrity of the individual faded into the background.  Spiritual integrity is impossible to quantify, and government after 1945 was simply concerned with the quantifiable as a measure of moral progress. 

In return for their spiritual integrity, the citizenry received a form of liberty.  Outsourcing decisions to government seemed a reasonable price to pay for more free time and a free ride on self-indulgence.  Healthcare, social security, childcare and the like was a sort of nationalized compassion.  Make a mess, and somebody else will clean up.  Why care, when government can do that too?

When government is encouraged to do more than manage the ring, it will start finding other things to do.  If we can't govern ourselves -- which is a definition of spiritual integrity -- then that's just another job for government.  Sociologists and historians have long bothered about the status of the USA and its failure to follow the inexorable secularization of the West.  They can stop bothering: America is going the same way, just a few decades late.  We are marching towards the brave new world, heading in that direction because it looks like such a nice place to be. 

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, government was in the hands of such men as Mustapha Mond, who knew that most of us would be content with bread and circuses and soothing narcotics.  In America's future, the equivalent would be someone like Paul Krugman.  The name springs to mind for no reason other than the coincidence of re-reading Brave New World at the same time as Mr. Krugman's declaration of devotion to the works of Isaac Asimov. 

Mr. Krugman wrote that he chose economics as a career, or possibly vocation, because he read Asimov's Foundation novels, ‘in which social scientists save galactic civilization, and that's what I wanted to be.'  Asimov posited a cosmos revolving to the deterministic discipline of ‘psychohistory,' in which life was beautifully planned.  ‘Someday there will exist a unified social science of the kind that Asimov imagined,' Mr Krugman enthused, ‘but for the time being economics is as close to psychohistory as you can get.'

This is terrifying for so many reasons, and not just because the predictive record of economists is not much better than astrologers.  The real shocker is the inhumanity.  ‘There seems to be a touching belief among certain PhDs in sociology,' noted Huxley, ‘that PhDs in sociology will never be corrupted by power.  Like Sir Galahad's, their strength is as the strength of ten because their heart is pure -- and their heart is pure because they are scientists and have taken six thousand hours of social studies.'

It seems unlikely, but one wonders if Mr Krugman ever read the Perelandra trilogy.  In this vision, theologically-inspired, C.S. Lewis created a group of secular scientists who worked for the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.  For Lewis, of course, the totalitarian future was going to be anything but N.I.C.E.: on the contrary, it was going to be extremely nasty.  Lewis had pointed out, in The Abolition of Man, that the removal of the transcendent element in humanity would inevitably, if not immediately, result in an elite stratum regarding the other strata as inferior, and then as material to be moulded at will. 

By that time, of course, it will be too late to complain.  But we will have wandered there regardless, because we like life to be easy.  This is why, assisted by factitious concepts of ‘rights,' we will sign up for government healthcare and childcare and data retention.  This is why euthanasia will follow abortion as abortion followed contraception, and cloning will follow euthanasia.  And so on.  And Brave New World -- rather like P.D. James' The Children of Men -- will become more and more recognisable and less and less like dystopian fantasy. 

This won't happen overnight, but government by Krugman is here to stay, with government by Mond not far behind.  The maxim of the society in Brave New World was ‘community, liberty, stability,' and that doesn't sound entirely implausible as a slogan for the Obama 2012 campaign.