Theodore Dalrymple often says that his patients’ dysfunction stems from “not knowing how to live.” What’s life for, anyway? They don’t know, and wouldn’t even understand the question if you asked it of them. And so they indulge in all the pathology he so eloquently describes.
Societies have a similar problem. Morgan and I once had a discussion about the purpose of government, as seen from the perspective of the ruling elite. I still think my “buckets” metaphor holds up, but since it’s only from the elite’s perspective, it doesn’t address the broader social problem of government. Taking it as read that “The State” is, at bottom, the formalized expression of society, the question becomes: What is The State for, and why submit to it?
“Mutual defense” was Thomas Hobbes’s answer. Elaborations aside — and they are elaborate; Leviathan is worth reading just to see Hobbes’s method — “mutual defense” is pretty much all there is. Hobbes’s Leviathan is the most absolute monarch that could ever be, and theoretically nothing is outside his purview, but you don’t have to end up with a Leviathan state from his initial premises.* “The State is a covenant for mutual defense” allows the government a lot of latitude while preserving a great deal of liberty, and if you want a baseline definition that just about anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum can agree with, there you go.
Rolling with that, “politics” becomes a society-wide argument over how far the definitions of “mutual” and “defense” extend. As it seems it’s my week to pick on Libertarians, I’ll use them as illustrations. At Z Man’s you can see a Libertarian indulging in typical Libertarian hyperbole over the suggestion that it might be ok for the US government to take action against harmful Chinese imports. Not “harmful” in the economic sense, mind you, but the “this can kill you” kind of harm (e.g. here). Urging the US government to put in some kind of minimal regulation and inspection regime is, we’re told, voluntarily enslaving ourselves.
As I said, it’s hyperbole, but worth responding to nonetheless. Surely the State has some legitimate interest in its citizens’ health? If only so that we can field a citizen militia to fight off the rampaging Canadian hordes? Right? If not, we’d best disband the Centers for Disease Control — we may all die of bubonic plague, but at least we’ll die free!
On the other hand, hyperbole aside, one can easily go too far in the other direction. It takes very little thought to construct a militia-type argument in favor of socialized medicine, which is why the Left never bothers (why think when you don’t have to?). 35.8% of World War II draftees, for instance, were rejected as physically or mentally unfit. That’s 6,420,000 men, and since over 60% of US forces were drafted, it’s clear that our nation’s poor health significantly impacted our ability to fight. Better access to healthcare builds a better army.
Same deal with the “mutual” part of “mutual defense.” I’m sure I don’t have to walk the Seven Regular Readers through this, but for the benefit of passing Lefties, it’s a really bad idea to rely on the kindness of strangers in life-or-death situations. Start rounding “undocumented Americans” up for military service overseas, and watch how fast Magic Dirt loses its magic.
You can play with this all day, and have some real fun with it, too. “Mutual defense” was a major part of the anti-suffragist argument back in the 19th century, at least in Britain, and it’s hard to say they were wrong about that — if you can’t shoulder a rifle yourself, why should you be able to vote on the deployment of those who can? Sci-fi nerds tell me that this was Heinlein’s premise in Battleship Troopers, and supposedly that’s fascism or something, which tells you they know as much about political theory as they do about the tender touch of the opposite sex, but whatever, point is, it’s hard to think of a live issue even today that doesn’t relate to “mutual defense” if you think about it for a few seconds.
But that’s just politics. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question of meaning, which has been hopelessly entangled in political theory since the Enlightenment. Hobbes was forced by the logic of his position to admit that the Leviathan could legislate on matters of belief and conscience, but really really shouldn’t, except in the direst emergency.** But of course Hobbes, like everyone else in the 17th century, saw all earthly arrangements as a subset of Heavenly ones. One might fight and die for the King, or Parliament, or farming the commons, or whatever, but even if you won, one’s true reward was not to be found in this world.
The Enlightened rejected all that in favor of “freedom,” which they never got around to actually defining. Rousseau is always worth quoting here:
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
That’s the Enlightenment dream. It was Karl Marx’s dream. Because Marxists talk about the “workers” all the time, we assume Marxism is an economic system. It isn’t. It’s a philosophy, and while a Marxist society is theoretically one in which everyone has every material thing he needs, the workers’ physical welfare isn’t the point. Rather, the point of it all is to overcome alienation:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. … Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.
Even if you don’t speak Victorian, it’s obvious that this is a prayer, badly disguised as Hegelian philosophy. But since there is no God, only the State can give this to you… and there you have Left-wing politics, right down to the present day. Clinton’s speechwriter had no idea she was doing it when she had Hillary go off on “the politics of meaning” — as I’m sure you’ve noticed, Lefties don’t read much — but that stuff is pure Marx. Salvation through politics. We spent most of the later 20th century trying it, and in 2008 we finally achieved it:
I’m sure I don’t need to remind y’all how that worked out.
Problem is, we’ve all embraced some version of this. None of us, not even the most faithful, would stand up and say “we could fix all of America’s problems if we just got back to Jesus.” Even if we believed this, we’d get laughed out of the room if we said it. We’re all Enlightened in that sense, and so we must pretend that politics, social policy, can answer the fundamental question of life’s meaning.
Because of this, the so-called Right is as reductive as the Left. Progtards pretend to believe that it’s only our prejudices about things like “biology” that hold us back — let 6’2″ linebackers in sundresses make wee-wee in the little girls’ room, and we shall finally have Utopia. It’s absurd, but “our” side insists on a similar fantasy: That civilization is only a product of melanin deficiency and excess testosterone. Progtards want to “spread the wealth around” to ensure “equality,” and if everyone ends up equally poor, shivering, miserable, and dead, well, what part of “equal” don’t you understand? But, of course, “our” side also pretends that wealth is all there is — cf. Libertarians and their willingness to sell organs and children to the highest bidder, provided the contracts are signed and the weed is legal.
It’s one big category error. The lower classes suffer because they don’t know how to live, as Dalrymple says, and wouldn’t know how to go about learning. The middle classes suffer equally, though in a different way, because they aced the test with the wrong answers they spent K-thru-PhD learning. Like the drunk looking for his keys beneath the lamppost because the light is better there, we’re looking for the Meaning of Life in the one place it’s guaranteed not to be.
*Though he of course thought you did. Hobbes considered himself a mathematician, and Leviathan — seriously, read it! — is political theory as geometry proof. If you agree to his definitions, Hobbes thinks, you can’t but conclude as he does. He’s wrong about that (he wasn’t a very good mathematician), but the attempt is one of the most striking, original uses of English ever printed.
** E.g. when your country is getting overrun by Puritan fanatics. Leviathan wasn’t just a suck-up to Charles II. Hobbes was rightly horrified by the English Civil War and its WWI-proportional devastation; his book was an attempt to design a theory of government that would prevent something like that from ever happening again.