Thursday, July 04, 2013

Kenneth Minogue: “Nationalising the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism”

image

New Zealand born Kenneth Minogue died this week on the way home from an astonishing MPS conference in the Galapagos Islands.  A left-wing friend sent me this obituary saying the first three paragraphs could “almost convert him” to the dark side.

[Professor Kenneth Minogue] was Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics from 1984 to 1995 … 
    In his final book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (2010), Minogue addressed “the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents.”
    He complained that governments — far from being content simply to represent their electorates — were increasingly in the business of “turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up.” “The business of governments,” he went on, “is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves... Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches... our rulers have no business telling us how to live... Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalising the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.”
    Kenneth Robert Minogue was born in New Zealand on September 11 1930…

More short obituaries from Alberto Mingardi at EconLog, Madsen Pirie at the Adam Smith Institute, and Julie Novak at Catallaxy Files—and more quotes from the late Professor that might launch further conversions…

 

  • “Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into responding to each new problem by demanding that the government should act. That we should be constantly demanding that an institution we rather despise should solve large problems argues a notable lack of logic in the demos. The statesmen of times past have been replaced by a set of barely competent social workers eager to help 'ordinary people' solve daily problems in their lives. This strange aspiration is a very large change in public life. The electorates of earlier times would have responded with derision to politicians seeking power in order to solve our problems. Todays, the demos votes for them.”
    ― Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life
  • “For if we are seeking the conditions of freedom, we must look not to those circumstances which happen to accompany it, but to the manner in which it has been attained. And we will find that it has always been attained because of a spontaneous growth of interest in truth, science, or inventiveness; a spontaneous growth of moral principles appropriate to freedom; a spontaneous construction of the political arrangements which permit of free constitutional government. Spontaneity indicates that free behaviour has arisen directly out of the character of the people concerned, and that it is neither a mechanical process, nor a ‘natural’ reaction to an environment, nor a means to the attainment of some end. Free behaviour, in other words, is its own end.”
    -- Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind
  • “The essence of the servile mind is the readiness to accept external direction in exchange for being relieved of the burden of a set of virtues such as thrift, self‑control, prudence, and indeed civility itself. A national health service trades off thrift and the freedom to spend one’s own money in exchange for a guarantee that medical help will always be ‘costlessly’ available. Accepting this trade‑off, then, comes to be understood as a virtue in itself, to be contrasted with those selfish people prepared to spend their own wealth on better treatment. Obedience here as in other places is wrongly identified with the rule of law. One measure of the moral decline involved in this advance of servility is that corrupt people, ranging from businessmen to legislators, justify a greedy lack of integrity by claiming that they did not break any rules. A casuistical use of the idea that morality is nothing more than abiding by rules comes to be a license for a self‑serving misuse of office and responsibility.”
    ― Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life
  • “The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.”
    ― Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind
  • “My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.
        “No philosopher can contemplate this interesting situation without beginning to reflect on what it can mean. The gap between political realities and their public face is so great that the term “paradox” tends to crop up from sentence to sentence. Our rulers are theoretically “our” representatives, but they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up. The business of governments, one might think, is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves. Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches. But democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority—they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.
        “We might perhaps be more tolerant of rulers turning preachers if they were moral giants. But what citizen looks at the government today thinking how wise and virtuous it is? Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into demanding political solutions to social problems. To demand help from officials we rather despise argues for a notable lack of logic in the demos. The statesmen of eras past have been replaced by a set of barely competent social workers eager to take over the risks of our everyday life. The electorates of earlier times would have responded to politicians seeking to bribe us with such promises with derision. Today, the demos votes for them.”
    ― Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life
  • “The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?”
    ― Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life
  • “The failure of Communism was consecrated in the fall of the Soviet Union. The remarkable thing is that, as in most cases when prophecy fails, the faith never faltered. Indeed, an alternative version had long been maturing, though cast into the shadows for a time by enthusiasm for the quick fix of revolution. It had, however, been maturing for at least a century and already had a notable repertoire of institutions available. We may call it Olympianism, because it is the project of an intellectual elite that believes that it enjoys superior enlightenment and that its business is to spread this benefit to those living on the lower slopes of human achievement. And just as Communism had been a political project passing itself off as the ultimate in scientific understanding, so Olympianism burrowed like a parasite into the most powerful institution of the emerging knowledge economy--the universities.
        “We may define Olympianism as a vision of human betterment to be achieved on a global scale by forging the peoples of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of appropriate human rights. Olympianism is the cast of mind dedicated to this end, which is believed to correspond to the triumph of reason and community over superstition and hatred. It is a politico-moral package in which the modern distinction between morals and politics disappears into the aspiration for a shared mode of life in which the communal transcends individual life. To be a moral agent is in these terms to affirm a faith in a multicultural humanity whose social and economic conditions will be free from the causes of current misery. Olympianism is thus a complex long-term vision, and contemporary Western Olympians partake of different fragments of it.
        “To be an Olympian is to be entangled in a complex dialectic involving elitism and egalitarianism. The foundational elitism of the Olympian lies in self-ascribed rationality, generally picked up on an academic campus. Egalitarianism involves a formal adherence to democracy as a rejection of all forms of traditional authority, but with no commitment to taking any serious notice of what the people actually think. Olympians instruct mortals, they do not obey them. Ideally, Olympianism spreads by rational persuasion, as prejudice gives way to enlightenment. Equally ideally, democracy is the only tolerable mode of social coordination, but until the majority of people have become enlightened, it must be constrained within a framework of rights, to which Olympian legislation is constantly adding. Without these constraints, progress would be in danger from reactionary populism appealing to prejudice. The overriding passion of the Olympian is thus to educate the ignorant and everything is treated in educational terms. Laws for example are enacted not only to shape the conduct of the people, but also to send messages to them. A belief in the power of role models, public relations campaigns, and above all fierce restrictions on raising sensitive questions devant le peuple are all part of pedagogic Olympianism.
    -- Kenneth Minogue, “‘Christophobia’ and the West”

Labels: , ,

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Life is a better teacher of virtue.."

Exactly but the welare state doesn't let life teach things. It seems clear, if Quadrant can be believed, that that economic benefits can fix poor or selfish behaviour.

3:16

7/04/2013 01:10:00 pm  
Anonymous the drunken watchman said...

“turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up.”

I love it - I saw something similar recently on CAGW -

"The problem is whatever it takes to bring about the solution"

7/04/2013 08:13:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minogue was a a great man. All readers interested in Treaty of Waitangi issues should read his excellent and cutting analysis in his book 'Waitangi: Morality and Reality' (NZBR 1999).

7/09/2013 09:30:00 am  
Blogger Peter Cresswell said...

@Anonymous: Looks like a good recommendation. Few copies for sale now, but the copyright owner has made it available on PDF here.

7/09/2013 09:55:00 am  

Post a Comment

Respond with a polite and intelligent comment. (Both will be applauded.)

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. (Do others the courtesy of being honest.)

Please put a name to your comments. (If you're prepared to give voice, then back it up with a name.)

And don't troll. Please. (Contemplate doing something more productive with your time, and ours.)

<< Home