January 02, 2004

Chapter 2. In which various polemical causes are advanced

Posted by Curt at 03:55 AM in Ramblings | TrackBack

In an earlier entry I criticized a pro-globalization scholar for concentrating solely on material well-being as the criterion for the success or failure of globalization, while failing to address equally important, though admittedly less verifiable, questions about spiritual and social happiness. These issues certainly trouble me, and this passage, from Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom certainly gave me a pause:

“the squalor of England [is] not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural…nothing I saw [in Africa]…neither the poverty nor the overt oppression-ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England…I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

Now in a certain way this passage does not bear directly upon the issue of globalization, because the welfare state is a different sort of beast than international capitalism, perhaps even opposite in kind. But Dalrymple is speaking of the same sort of frightening duality that I hinted at myself, though I certainly did not go so far or so boldly: the idea of material wealth co-existing with, perhaps even causing, utter spiritual poverty. In any case, I think the central issue is the spiritual vacuity created by an existence in which nothing is at stake.

In a condition in which material wealth, even at its most meager level such as welfare, virtually rules out the possibility of starvation or other sorts of physical misfortune, for those who do not have other compelling goals in life there would seem almost inevitably to ensue a sense of aimlessness, or as Dalrymple says “a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.” Because, as he says, “In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement.” And yet if such a system ruins individual lives by infantilizing them even as it virtually guarantees their indefinite perpetuation, one must ask what purpose such a scourge of a system is designed to accomplish. The answer has already been stated: the unconditional guarantee of the preservation and prolongement of human life. But is this a worthwhile value? It is not my purpose to infer a criticism of the welfare state, because of course its existence is simply a symptom of what is at root a philosophical view. And that philosophical view appears in some form even as far back as the U.S. Constitution, long before formulation of the idea, let alone the reality, of the welfare state. For in the U.S. Constitution man is famously guaranteed his “rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course the framers of the Constitution were following principally Locke in his insistence on the sanctity of life, liberty and property. Now surely Locke and the framers were thinking principally of guarding against the unjust violation of these by another: i.e. murder, theft, enslavement, etc. But still, one can find the root here of all the absurd ephemera that are defended in the U.N. Charter as “fundamental rights of humanity,” as well as what will doubtless be an even longer and more tiresome list in the still-uncompleted EU Constitution. The U.N Charter goes almost so far as to guarantee every individual a four-door sedan and a duplex in the suburbs as a fundamental right of human beings (except of course that those are not stylish).

This might all be no more than a bit of airy boilerplate, except that if Dalrymple is right there has been immense loss brought about by this insistence on the exclusion of death and discomfort. That which I think has led modern society to this morass is a confusion of object with means, i.e. requiring that people not only be able to enjoy their rights but that they must, in fact, enjoy them. To put it more simply and broadly, generally speaking when people talk about rights today they do not mean what they should not be hindered from obtaining for themselves, as they used to, but rather what should be given to them. Hence, the dogmatists and pedants of our age have become convinced that the “right” to life, property, etc. means not only that individuals ought not be hindered by others from enjoying these things, but also that each individual ought be given them if they do not possess them and forced to keep them if they do. It can be no accident that such a ludicrous thing as a law against suicide exists in our country. Of course, the Enlightenment thinkers sanctified the pursuit of happiness, not its attainment, and in any case possessing a right does not necessitate its exercise. And as for these “natural and fundamental rights” of humankind—attempting to prevent individuals from imposing their wills unjustly on others, as the founders did, fine, but what could be more unnatural than holding death and discomfort, as we do, themselves to be unjust?! As for me, I eagerly await the time when all debilitating, illusions about “rights” disappear except for the right to the exercise of one’s will.



Posted by: SarahSterling at November 6, 2004 03:56 AM