Big Government Benevolence

It’s Saturday as I write, and that means it is time to return once again to that hardy perennial, socialism. Anyone who doubts that those in charge of the operation of Providence have a sly sense of humor needs only to ponder the sweet declarations emitted by our more pampered celebrities and Democratic politicians on the subject of socialism. Consider, for example, the actor Jim Carrey, who back in 2018 told Bill Maher that “we have to say yes to socialism—to the word and everything. We have to stop apologizing.”

What a card! Were socialism to be instituted in the United States, one of the first things that would happen is that people like Jim Carrey—estimated net worth, $180 million—would be instantly pauperized. For what are the two fundamental pillars of socialism? 1) The abolition of private property and 2) the equalization of wealth. And the cherry on top of this fudge sundae is that Jim Carrey actually starred in a movie called “Dumb and Dumber,” which is about “two unintelligent but well-meaning friends from Providence, Rhode Island.” Talk about art imitating life.

Let’s leave the latest incarnation of really-existing-socialism—the country of Venezuela—to one side. That is a laboratory demonstration of what happens when you take a prosperous country and rigorously impose socialist policies on it. The former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was partly right when he said that the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez showed that there was “another way” of doing politics and “it’s called socialism.”

Corbyn forgot to add: that way leads to universal immiseration and societal collapse, which is exactly what is happening in the once-rich country of Venezuela now.

Jim Carrey—like “It” Girl Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—likes to talk about the wonders of socialism whenever there are cameras nearby. It is practically a Pavlovian response: bring media into proximity with educationally challenged scions of capitalist success and, glossolalia-like, out pop nostrums in praise of socialism.

It has been ever thus. We owe the term “socialism” to some followers of Robert Owen, the 19th-century British industrialist who founded New Harmony, a short-lived utopian community on the banks of the Wabash in Indiana. Owen’s initial reception in America was impressive. In an 1825 address to Congress, Owen’s audience included not only congressmen but also Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, President James Monroe, and President-elect John Quincy Adams. In a way, he was the Greta Thunberg of his time. 

Owen described to this august assemblage how his efforts to replace the “individual selfish system” with a “united social” system would bring forth a “new man” who was free from the grasping imperatives that had marred human nature from time immemorial. (And not only human nature: the utopian socialist Charles Fourier expected selfishness and cruelty to be obliterated from the animal kingdom as well: one day, he thought, even lions and whales would be domesticated.)

It is easy to make fun of such prognostications. But it is important to understand 1) the emotional motor that continues to drive them—hence Carrey, Ocasio-Cortez, Jeremy Corbyn, et al.—and 2) the disastrous reality that is the inevitable obverse of that smiling emotional impulse.

So, what is the emotional motor of socialism? In a word, benevolence.

That may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t benevolence a good thing?

That depends. Benevolence is a curious mental or characterological attribute. It is, as the philosopher David Stove observed, less a virtue than an emotion. To be benevolent means—what? To be disposed to relieve the misery and increase the happiness of others. Whether your benevolent attitude or action actually has that effect is beside the point. Yes, “benevolence, by the very meaning of the word,” Stove writes, “is a desire for the happiness, rather than the misery, of its object.” But here’s the rub:

the fact simply is that its actual effect is often the opposite of the intended one. The adult who had been hopelessly ‘spoilt’ in childhood is the commonest kind of example; that is, someone who is unhappy in adult life because his parents were too successful, when he was a child, in protecting him from every source of unhappiness.

It’s not that benevolence is a bad thing per se. It’s just that, like charity, it works best the more local are its aims. Enlarged, it becomes like that “telescopic philanthropy” Dickens attributes to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Her philanthropy is more ardent the more abstract and distant its objects. When it comes to her own family, she is hopeless.

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings. The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary, or rather totally irrelevant. Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx. Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been universal immiseration. But his intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property and, to adopt a famous phrase from Barack Obama, by spreading the wealth around.

An absolute commitment to benevolence, like the road that is paved with good intentions, typically leads to an unprofitable destination.

Just so with the modern welfare state. It doesn’t matter that the welfare state actually creates more of the poverty and dependence it was instituted to abolish. The intentions behind it are benevolent. Which is one of the reasons it is so seductive. It flatters the vanity of those who espouse it even as it nourishes the egalitarian ambitions that have always been at the center of Enlightened thought. This is why Stove describes benevolence as “the heroin of the Enlightened.” It is intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.

The intoxicating effects of benevolence help to explain the growing appeal of politically correct attitudes about everything from “the environment” to the fate of the Third World. Why does the consistent failure of statist policies not disabuse their advocates of the statist agenda? One reason is that statist policies have the sanction of benevolence. They are “against poverty,” “against war,” “against oppression,” “for the environment.” And why shouldn’t they be? Where else are the pleasures of smug self-righteousness to be had at so little cost?

The intoxicating effects of benevolence—what Rousseau called the “indescribably sweet” feeling of virtue—also help to explain why unanchored benevolence is inherently expansionist. The party of benevolence is always the party of big government. The imperatives of benevolence are intrinsically opposed to the pragmatism that underlies the allegiance to limited government.

The union of abstract benevolence, which takes mankind as a whole for its object, with unbridled moralism is a toxic, misery-producing brew. “It is only the combination of these two elements,” Stove observes in a powerful essay called “Why You Should be a Conservative,”

which is so powerful a cause of modern misery. Either element on its own is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho-Chi-Minh, or Kim-Il-Sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.

Of course, as Stove goes on to note, this “lethal combination” is by no means peculiar to Communists. It provides the emotional fuel for utopians from Robespierre to the politically correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today, not to mention chattering celebrities like Jim Carrey who think it is chic to praise a philosophy that, were it instantiated, would entail his impoverishment and probably his incarceration.

Perhaps these folks mean well. Or perhaps they are just unstoppable narcissists and intolerant ideologues. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they really do seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Maybe inequality really does outrage their sense of justice. 

Perhaps, like John Stuart Mill, they regard conventional habits of behavior as so many obstacles to be overcome on the path to perfection. You know the type: They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema. The notion that the best is the enemy of the good, that many choices are to some extent choices among evils—such proverbial wisdom seems quaintly out of date to them where it does not affront their sleepless dense of progressive decency. 

The result is a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm. Welcome to college. Your tuition bill is in the mail. 

For centuries, prudent political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness, identity politics, and “woke” ideology have redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment, not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the wonders of “trans” culture, not to mention the welfare state, the Third World, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia. It looks, in Marx’s famous mot, like history repeating itself as farce. It would be a rash man, however, who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.

Such attitudes are all but ubiquitous in modern democratic societies. Although of relatively recent vintage, they have spread rapidly. The triumph of this aspect of Enlightened thinking, as David Stove notes, marked the moment when “the softening of human life became the great, almost the only, moral desideratum.”

The modern welfare state is one result of the triumph of abstract benevolence. Its chief effects are to institutionalize dependence on the state while also assuring the steady growth of the bureaucracy charged with managing government largess. Both help to explain why the welfare state has proved so difficult to dismantle. The governments that support the welfare state, Stove point out,

are elected by universal adult franchise; but an electorally decisive proportion of the voters—in some countries, approaching a quarter—either is employed by government or is dependent to a significant extent on some welfare programme. In these circumstances it is merely childish to expect the welfare state to be reduced, at least while there is universal suffrage. A government that did away with free education, for example, or socialised medicine, simply could not be re-elected. Indeed it would be lucky to see out its term of office.

Is there an alternative? Stove quotes Thomas Malthus’ observation, from his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, that “we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, for everything that distinguishes the civilised from the savage state,” to “the laws of property and marriage, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-interest which prompts each individual to exert himself in bettering his condition.” The apparently narrow principle of self-interest, mind.

Contrast that robust, realistic observation with Robert Owen’s blather about replacing the “individual selfish system” with a “united social” system that, he promised, would bring forth a “new man.”

Stove observes that Malthus’ arguments for the genuinely beneficent effects of “the apparently narrow principle of self-interest” “cannot be too often repeated.” Indeed. Even so, a look around at the childish pretended enthusiasm for socialism makes me think that, for all his emphasis, David Stove understated the case. Jim Carrey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and a college student near you) would profit by having a closer acquaintance with the clear-eyed thinking of Thomas Malthus.

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