This review ran last August, but because of pressures of work and the relevance this important book has to our upcoming elections, it’s time for another look. Regular posts resume soon.
This will not be a book your progressive friend will buy for himself. Thus in the true spirit of benevolence, you must buy it for him and, as an additional service to humanity, circle all the naughty bits so that they are easier to find. And there are plenty of them. Your progressive friend may think this is the smuttiest book since Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Benevolence is a virtue, one that has been riding at the top of the progressive charts since the eighteenth century. The idea that all that matters is the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” triumphed
partly by the elimination of rival candidates. It laughed or shamed almost every other virtue out of court. The “monkish virtues,” as it called such things as humility, chastity, and obedience, were the principal victims. But the military virtues (such as courage), the feudal virtues (such as loyalty), the patriarchal virtues, the feminine virtues, and others all suffered the same fate.
Benevolence is the attitude of deep caring and smug self-satisfaction that allowed, for one example from a near infinite number, marketer Kenneth Cole to issue the advertisement “What’s wrong with shoeing the homeless?” and think it a rhetorical question.
What’s wrong with it is that if you give “relief” to those that are poor, by programmatically and coercively taking from those that are not, and thus also creating an administration to store and allocate these confiscations, you do one (temporary) benevolent thing, but at least three harmful things.
The benevolent thing is easily seen: the poor person who receives the shoes, bread, house, video games, car, shopping cart, clean needles, etc., etc. is obviously immediately better off than before he had these things. It is that immediate and visible change of circumstance with which the benevoloent credit themselves and which fills them with pride and self congratulation.
But the harm that is caused, which as Eliot says the benevolent do not see or in which they are not interested, is far greater. First, it encourages those that are not poor to think that they needn’t work as hard as they otherwise would, because they have a “safety net” waiting to catch them. Those that are receiving “relief” are scarcely have the impetus to better themselves. “Widespread poverty cannot be relieved from the outside and, therefore, can relieved (if at all) only by industry, self-reliance, and prudence of the poor themselves.”
Of course, it is sickening to modern ears, in fact absolutely intolerable, to hear talk of “industry,” “improvidence,” “idleness,” or the like. In 1989, not one person in fifty can hear such words without shame and indignation.
Second, the money that is taken from those that earned it are worse off (but, we are told, they can “afford it”). Except that the money that was theirs is now in the hands of the government and not allowed to circulate in the hands of citizens. This always and necessarily contributes to economic stagnation.
And not all the “rich” are rich. The taxes taken from those who are just above poor (but not officially poor) necessarily make these marginal people poorer (by taking money from them and from reducing the amount that could have been given to them by the richer job creators), and thus they are likely to become officially poor, which a good many of them do. These new people added to the welfare rolls were caused to be put there by benevolence. And there many of them will stay. The “gap” between the rich and poor necessarily increases under the welfare state (these are not necessarily the same people as under the welfare state). These are outcomes which “could easily have been predicted in advance by anyone who possessed elementary knowledge of human nature, and who was not blinded by benevolence.”
This negative feedback was first identified by Thomas Malthus in his argument against the Poor Laws, a form of official government benevolence not unlike our current welfare policy and corporate “bailouts.” Malthus insisted that the fraction of the populace on the poor roles must increase and that the taxes paid by those not yet there must also increase. All this came to pass, exactly as predicted. But even though it was perfectly obvious that it must happen, it mystified the benevolent, who sought (and still seek) to pin the blame everywhere but on themselves. For them, it is axiomatic to them that possessing a love for humanity (but rarely individual humans) could not cause harm.
Which brings us to the third consequence of benevolence: an increase in government, coercion, control, mindless bureaucracy. Which, we now know, when unchecked leads to death camps, broken families and loneliness, mass starvations, gulags, coercion, firing squads, and glowing reports in the New York Times. Community or equality of property is ever promised to lead a betterment of mankind, but which in fact always leads to a worsen-ment of actual people.
Given that, in democracies, people tend to elect those who promise them the most, and given the experience of government growth in Europe and the United States, we can ask how likely is it that terror governments like those that arose in China and Russia will occur in the West.
Francis Fukuyama famously predicted that we are at the “End of History”, in the sense that all Enlightened people agree that liberal democracy is the last word in governance, that no superior system exists or can exist. But how can that belief be reconciled with the observation that the West is sliding towards “enforced” (a redundant term) socialism? Why are our intellectuals not frightened by this?
All of us Enlightened (or so near to all of us as to make no difference) still share the Enlightenment’s estimate of benevolence as the highest virtue. We are all enthusiasts for the relief of poverty and the equalization of wealth. We are all still, on balance, enemies of the bourgeois family. In addition, we all know that the communists, at bottom, are impelled by benevolence, and are even firmer friends to equality of wealth than we are, and firmer enemies of the bourgeois family. How, then, could communism not be an object of indestructible goodwill among us Enlightened?
Yet the Chinese willingly gave up a fraction of power when they allowed ordinary citizens to run their own businesses. All within narrowly proscribed limits, of course, and limits which are sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened in a whimsical fashion. But it remains true that some power was ceded.
The Soviet Union collapsed, Vietnam saw the light of freedom, and the feeling in Cuba is that once old man Castro dies “change we can believe in” will finally occur.
Stove sees these as “wobbles” in the inexorable course towards totalitarianism. The Soviet Union did collapse, but because it was exhausted in its battle with countries that were still free and not because the nomenklatura saw the folly of benevolence. So what happens when the enemies of totalitarianism cease to be enemies and embrace it? Stove says, “I do not think the welfare state will be dismantled, and still less that communism will be. Indeed, I think that both communism and the welfare state will continue to grow.”
Further, the welfare governments of the West
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 program. 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 socialized medicine simply could not be re-elected. Indeed, it would be lucky to see out its term of office.
The only things holding up back from falling over the cliff immediately are two things: innovation, which must slow the more control government assumes, and birth control (abortion and contraceptives), which slows the growth of number of the poor. But only to a point: many of those unborn would have contributed to innovation and to the taxes which pay for the services to the elderly. A demographic crunch point is coming to countries like Italy, Japan, Ireland, and the remaining PIGS where there will be too many people to be taken care of and not enough people to do the caring.
What should we, the non-benevolent, do? Stove recounts finally the story of a solitary Indian in a canoe fishing miles upstream from Niagra Falls.
Despite all his local knowledge, he makes some slight misjudgment of time, or wind, or water, and finds himself surprised by the current. For hours he puts forth all his strength in trying to reach the shore, but long before the fatal event itself, he passes a point at which his diminishing strength, and the increasing strength of the current, make further resistance vain. He then ships his paddle, lights his pipe, and folds his arms.
In the circumstances, those are the actions of a rational man. Similarly, in my opinion, the world-current of Enlightenment benevolence is now so strong, and we have been launched upon it for so many years, that we passed the point of no return a long time ago, and will, if we are rational, emulate the Indian in the story.
Stove was an old man when he wrote that, while your author is (relatively) young. So I say fight the current.
Stove did not finish this essay before his death. Readers familiar with his other work will notice the lack of polish, and even a few rough spots in his argument, flaws which Stove never allowed. If this review convinces you to buy and read the book, consider that real treasure awaits you in Stove’s other writings. I cannot recommend strongly enough that any scholar of statistics, probability, and philosophy of science should buy immediately The Rationality of Induction (the second half of that book is about probability and logic). General readers will want to grab at least On Enlightenment and Against the Idols of the Age (edited by Kimball); both are collections of essays.
Fully half the current book is taken up by an extensive bibliography of Stove’s writing. What a tremendous boon for Stove scholars! (I’m thrilled to have this.) But how off-putting to those who have never heard of the man. Let’s hope that Mr Kimball and Encounter Books consider bringing out Stove’s essay in a broadside, a format re-embraced by that company, after sales of the hardcover flag.
Read Stove while you are still allowed.