Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hitchens and the Great Helmsman Syndrome

Peter, the arch conservative, gets it right part of the time:
"The whole Fabian socialist project, which revolutionised our nation throughout the 20th Century and which eventually took over the Tory Party itself, was intended to change behaviour, and did so. So is the new programme which has replaced it, the politically correct drive for ‘equality and diversity’."
As ever, I agree with much of his diagnosis, but cannot endorse his preferred course of treatment, as the kind of authoritarian state which he implicitely advocates calls to mind Massachusettes under the puritans.

If only he could grasp the true meaning of liberty, he would junk the authoritarian contradictions, and rather than fighting a lone rear-guard action against the Age of Enlightenment, he could turn his fire on the real enemies of the principles he holds dear, and not on all those who are neutral with regard to what he believes in, provided he doesn't seek to impose these beliefs on everyone else, and although I find his views interesting because he is a self-declared outsider, he does say some silly things. Thus he states:
The Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 decriminalised cannabis, with huge results for behaviour. So did the abolition of the old alcohol licensing laws.
Not at all. Cannabis is not decriminalised. It's true that you're unlikely to be jailed for simple possession, but if they can charge you with intent to supply, you may well be, and if you're a little old lady with a couple of plants in the greenhouse, they'll nail you up with sadistic pleasure. And as for the licencing laws, they were, as we all know, introduced as a temporary measure during the First World War, and they should have been repealed in 1918. Those laws were an embarrassment to this country, and had the effect of infantilising adults.

What I can't grasp is where there is any answer in Hitchens' philosophy to Juvenal's question; who watches the watchman? To whom are we going to entrust the arbitrary powers over individual liberty which he calls for? It is at this point that his earlier adherence to trotskyism rears its ugly head. Hitchens' system requires a dictator. It also requires a massively inflated state. Yet again he bemoans the end of the grammar schools, but never does it occur to him that there are other, non-state solutions to the problem of state-run education.

So, I'm left wondering; what is this conservatism that Hitchens champions? What is it rooted in? It certainly is not Victorianism, for if it was, he'd be for legalising drugs, which were widely available back then, and he'd see that education should not be a state monopoly. His position is merely a mish-mash of bits and pieces from various past times, bound together in the fires of his irrational animosities.

10 comments:

Single acts of tyranny said...

Funnily enough I just finished "The satires" and it's a fair question.

Hitchens doesn't hate the state or see its inherent problems, he just hates the fact someone else is controlling it.

He would restrict alcohol, drugs and I am not sure where he stands on everything from speed limits to guns, but I can probably guess. I have not heard him call for an end to income tax and I understand he is quite religous. Clerical types can get quite nasty when you give 'em the levers to power.

Angry Exile said...

Hitchens doesn't hate the state or see its inherent problems, he just hates the fact someone else is controlling it.

Just like the pretend anarchists who object to cuts in expenditure and a reduction in the state. The funny part is that they and the Hitchenses of this world are two sides of the same coin while no doubt believing that they're worlds apart. Well, it'd be funny if it wasn't so bloody frustrating.

Vladimir said...

"What I can't grasp is where there is any answer in Hitchens' philosophy to Juvenal's question; who watches the watchman?"

In the general case, what is the answer to that question?

Trooper Thompson said...

Vladimir,

it's a rhetorical question. It is by nature something that can never be put away as a settled matter.

The Founding Father random wisdom generator tells me; the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

A system of checks and balances, division of power, strictly limited government, independent judiciary, a culture of individual liberty, such things as this help keep an eye on the watchman.

Vladimir said...

Right, but I'm pretty sure Hitchy is in favour of every one of those things, for the same reasons that you are.

The authoritarian stuff comes from the principle that liberty doesn't extend to harming others. You wonder why he's so anti-cannabis, but that's why: he thinks that drug use always does harm others. (Many find this opinion counterintuitive, as they have been exposed to a great deal of propaganda to the contrary, so if you're curious about it, look it up on his blog.)

As a second point, Hitch believes that everything he'd like can be obtained through a Robert Peel-style police force and a population of responsible adults. And I agree, as I don't think it would require an authoritarian dictatorship to implement laws that most people agree with anyway.

Trooper Thompson said...

"The authoritarian stuff comes from the principle that liberty doesn't extend to harming others."

Certainly liberty does not extend to harming others. This is inherent in the principle of liberty, because if liberty allowed harm to others, then it could not be universally applicable, so it would refute itself.

"He thinks that drug use always does harm others"

I know he thinks this, but I'd like to see him try to establish it in a court of law, i.e. prove a tort against someone for personal drug use. I'll wager such a thing is impossible. The kind of arguments he uses can equally be made for anything that occupies someone away from their duty to others, be it alcohol, football or train spotting.

Also he is wrong, if not wholly dishonest in what he says about cannabis, because he refuses to admit that the drug has any medicinal use, which it does have, and has been used medicinally for hundreds, if not thousands of years. That it can be abused is certainly true, but this does not excuse his dishonesty. Neither does he admit the many other uses of the plant, even though as someone coming from a naval background he should be well aware that hemp was essential to the navy right up until fairly recent times.

If he wants a Peel-style police force, all well and good, but the Peelers never were tasked with drug prohibition, because drugs were not then prohibited. He cannot have his cake and eat it. Either he wants traditional English liberty, or he wants an authoritarian state. Responsible adults should be allowed to be responsible. This also applies to his trenchant defence of the pub licencing laws introduced in WW1.

Hitchens' major failing is he does not understand the difference between morality and legality, and believes that laws should enforce morality - specifically *his* morality.

I reiterate my point: let him champion Victorian values and I will have no problem, as this included individual liberty regarding drugs, ownership of firearms, a small state and a Peelian police force. But instead he wants a big government running education and telling everyone what they can or cannot do in the privacy of their own lives, based on a moral argument rather than a legitimate legal one.

Vladimir said...

The (classically) liberal drug policy worked in Victorian times because the Victorians were mostly Christians and mostly didn't take drugs, even though they easily could have done.

If you want to restore some aspects of that era (I do) then it's hard to see how easy access to drugs would be anything other than an impediment. We'd want people to take responsibility for their lives, and taking drugs is not responsible. Ergo, in order to encourage personal responsibility, the law should discourage irresponsible actions. Drugs could be legalised again as soon as nobody wants to take them.

Lastly, I think Hitchy does understand the difference between morals and legality.

Trooper Thompson said...

"Drugs could be legalised again as soon as nobody wants to take them."

There was only one catch, and that was catch 22.

"the law should discourage irresponsible actions."

I disagree. The law should be limited to upholding property rights. In a state of liberty, irresponsibility brings its own punishment, and if you want to encourage responsibility, you do it by permitting liberty. No other measure is needed.

Besides, your statement that taking drugs is irresponsible is your personal opinion, and you have no mandate over anyone else. besides, it is a gross generalisation, and a moral issue, not a legal one.

If the law is to punish irresponsibility, who is to decide its measure, if not the dictator I maintain Hitchens desires? It's certainly the case that my view of the matter will be different. Would you easily submit to my arbitrary rule?

Vladimir said...

Well, this is kind of an arbitrary generalisation too:

"The law should be limited to upholding property rights.... No other measure is needed."

I suspect that every crime can be traced to some sort of property damage, at least indirectly, so I don't know if this is a useful definition.

But what is special about property? What gives you the right to it?

Do you have a "moral" right to keep your earnings? But if morals and laws should be separate, that can't be it.

Do you have a God-given right to keep them? No, because bringing God into it brings the problem that everything is God's property and we're all just borrowing it. Again, if morals and laws should be separate, that can't be it.

So where do property rights come from? The answer must be first principles. And your first principles are no less arbitrary than those of a Marxist for whom there are no property rights.

I think you face the same trouble as Hitchy (or a Marxist) in defending your view from first principles. They have different first principles to you, and you can't show that theirs are wrong, nor that yours are right.

However, unlike a Marxist or a propertarian, Hitchy does have the advantage that his principles were firmly built into the establishment of our civilisation until the 20th century, and enabled its success. They've been tried, they work very well, and they demonstrably do not require a dictator. This does not prove he is right, but it does show that his ideas are useful. They are constructive. Civilisations are built on them. Whereas the Marxist's idea is not. Civilisations are destroyed by it.

I think by making the assumption that property rights are everything, you are copying some aspects of the 19th century society, but leaving out the ones you do not like. Unfortunately, the omitted principles are the foundations for the ones you do like. This is not unlike the problem hit by the Marxists or the Fabians - they removed the bits they didn't like, and discovered that the walls wouldn't stay up. Morals and laws need to be mixed together, as they must depend on each other for their authority, and not every mixture will work.

Trooper Thompson said...

"I don't know if this is a useful definition."

It is useful, as it strips out laws which relate to morality, and involve no violation of anyone else's property. It means that before someone is punished by the law, some harm to another must be shown. Burglary, robbery, rape and assault are easily covered. Such things are considered criminal for good reason. Expressing opinions that other people don't like, or individuals taking drugs cannot leap the bar, therefore the defence of property gives a clear framework for the law to operate.

"But what is special about property? What gives you the right to it?"

The laws of God and the laws of nature give me this right, which have always been considered the basis of the English law.

"Do you have a God-given right to keep them? No, because bringing God into it brings the problem that everything is God's property and we're all just borrowing it."

Have you ever heard of; "Thou shalt not steal"? Whatever your view of God and the Bible, it is clear that property is recognised by both. It is also true that without property, civilisation would not have come into being. We would still be hunting and gathering.

"And your first principles are no less arbitrary than those of a Marxist for whom there are no property rights."

Not at all, because self-ownership is the only universally applicable solution to the question of 'who owns me' that can work. To say the king owns me is not universally applicable, because the king is different to all the rest. To say we all own each other is universally applicable, but practically meaningless, as the whole world cannot exercise a property right over me, and I cannot consult the whole world every time I want to scratch my arse, so self-ownership is practical, universally applicable and what reason leads us to in any case. Additional property rights extend from self-ownership, as, if I own myself, I own my labour and the fruits of my labour.

You will surely know that this is not my own musings, but my attempt to describe the natural law position rooted in Aquinas, Locke, Grotius and the rest.

"you are copying some aspects of the 19th century society, but leaving out the ones you do not like."

My position has a rational basis, not the reverence of tradition, and goes back much further than the 19th century. That period, there was a battle-ground between liberalism and vested interest, exemplified in the former's victory over the Corn Laws and the extension of the franchise. I take sides in such disputes, with the liberals of course, who recognised the benefits and the necessity of liberty.

"Morals and laws need to be mixed together".

Only if you discard property rights, which should not be discarded because they afford clear divisions of right and wrong, without recourse to the subjective moral opinion of whoever's in charge.

This does not mean that morality is forgotten, as there is a clear overlap of immorality and criminality, but morality's requirements exceed the law's requirements - or are we to make vanity a crime, or miserliness, or despair or anything else we may designate a sin in the eyes of God?