Podium: The nationalisation of society

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The Independent Culture


From a lecture by the political philosopher to the Risk of Freedom Conference, London

LET US consider the arena of civil society. Voluntary association is largely a modern growth, which owes a good deal to the example of royal courts. It grew up in cities, and includes churches, schools, restaurants, clubs, theatres, business firms, political parties, dinner parties, festivals and a vast range of other enterprises created by free peoples living under law. Only such a list could give some idea of its richness. Some of these entities - towns, markets and universities, for example - began with royal charters, but most have emerged out of the spontaneous vitality of a free people, something of which free governments, by contrast with despotisms, are not envious.

One large element in this astonishing richness of association has acquired a name and a science of its own: the economy. Emerging from the immemorial propensity "to truck, barter and exchange" (as Adam Smith put it), the economy has become one of the dominant forms of association in the modern world. It has even acquired a hostile name: capitalism. It is at the heart of the softness of manners and abundance of material opportunities open to us in the modern world.

Those who value freedom may count themselves fortunate that so powerful an institution has so far shown itself capable of sustaining our freedom, since freedom has had precious few other supports in recent times.

Attempts by the state to control the economy have been among the great dramas of freedom in our time: price control, fine-tuning of the economy, rationing and other devices have been tried, and, in the Bolshevik case, an insane pride led to the attempt to abolish the economy altogether, central administration being substituted. That this adventure failed stands as the basis - sadly, the only secure basis - on which today's freedom rests.

The ground of the state's bid to control the economy was justice. Many thinkers argued that the gap between rich and poor was the great evil of human life. They demanded that the power of the state, whose legitimate point was to secure order for a free people, should now be directed to redistributing wealth. In time, the state began appropriating half of everything an economy produced, a level of rapacity that would have brought tears of admiration to the eyes of the most hardened oriental despot, and tolerable only because of the abundance created by technology.

The attempt to nationalise the economy, in its crudest form, failed, though contemporary skills at regulations have been remarkably inventive in control by the back door. But no less interesting has been the new drive to nationalise society itself.

This development emerged from a new theory of the state. Liberal democracies, it was argued, were not civil associations of individuals free to pursue their own desires, but were, rather, a pattern of homogenous units, each with its own specific interests and demands. The clearest example of this theory was the so-called "multicultural" society, in which the units were ethnic groups, taken as "cultures" and constituting the political sub- communities of which the state was taken to be composed. This was only the beginning. Society came to be further divided, by this media-driven opinion, into two distinct and competitive sexual groups called men and women. Variations of sexual preference could generate another distinction. All these and more were ways of dividing society up and then ruling it by the allocation of benefits.

It happened that not all these groups liked or approved of each other, a situation called "prejudice" or, in specific cases, "racism", "sexism", etc. Given a moral ideal of justice as the equal distribution of benefits, including equality between these newly discovered elements of society, the state discovered a duty to engineer a new, improved society exhibiting justice in this sense. Voluntary associations often did not mirror this new sociological composition of British society, and in the name of justice a social plan came down over British life like a mist. The aim was statistical homogeneity as exhibited in wealth, vocational engagement, incidence of prison sentences, health, and any other indicator that might occur to the fertile imaginations of excitable lobby groups speaking for blacks, browns, women, homosexuals, the disabled or any other element in the new plural society.

Here, then, is a remarkable situation. The old explosion of enterprise, leading to the creation of myriad forms of free association, has in this century collided with a project for replacing freedom as our master virtue by a new kind of justice, usually called "social justice".