Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: PUBLIC PROVISION AND MORAL PROTECTION - The Liberal Mind
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III.: PUBLIC PROVISION AND MORAL PROTECTION - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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PUBLIC PROVISION AND MORAL PROTECTION
Liberalism advocates the elimination of poverty and illiteracy by the provision of welfare; and it is most recognizably liberal when it recommends these policies as ingredients of, or means to, freedom.
We may observe immediately that in this respect, modern liberalism may be sharply distinguished from classical liberalism. Classical liberalism advocated a system of government which permitted the maximum room for self-provision; each family was expected to make its own arrangements; economic success was a carrot to encourage people to work, poverty was an indispensable spur. It is one of the ideological triumphs of modern liberalism that this classical version seems to us nothing more than a crude veil over the naked operations of the capitalist system, for we have become accustomed to estimating political doctrines in terms of the interests they appear to serve. What we must remember, however, is that the classical doctrine of self-provision was explicitly a moral doctrine, and one which must be discussed on its own moral ground.
The classical doctrine of self-provision was partly based on a sound distrust of political interference. It took government as no more than an instrument for keeping order; anything else was meddling. This point of view no doubt benefited the interests of some rather than others, just as the doctrine of State regulation similarly benefits some rather than others. But it was also based upon a strong dislike of the State setting itself up as a father. The classic rejection of this pretention occurs not in discussions of political economy but in Areopagitica, where Milton opposes any claim by the State to be the sole supplier of truths. Such a claim would condemn grown men to a “perpetual childhood of prescription.” Milton’s objection is a moral one: “Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”6
Milton was here attacking the doctrine which suggests that children are born innocent and learn corruption, and therefore asserts that each State has a duty to suppress heretical, blasphemous, obscene and untrue doctrines. Women, children, slaves, household servants, workers, soldiers,7 must all be protected from such material. The Roman Catholic Church operates upon this protective principle, and so have most States, claiming that they are not merely the custodians of order, but of morality as well. The State, on this view, is a paternal institution which guides and cares for its subjects in exchange for their devoted obedience. It is further true that governments holding such views are often more solicitous of the welfare of the poor than their classical liberal opponents—the government of Charles I was, at least in its aspirations, a case in point. Such a doctrine fitted well into a patriarchal milieu—by which the landowner cared for the tenant, the officer saw to his men and his horses before seeing to himself, and all of society was to be wrapped in mutual solicitude.
It is thus clear that modern liberalism, by virtue of its morality of public provision, has, with modifications, taken over some of the principles which in other centuries we would describe as conservative. The issue may be expressed in the formula State-provision versus self-provision, and the espousal of State-provision is perhaps the most important change that has taken place in the development of modern liberalism.
State-provision is supported partly by arguments from justice and partly by arguments—as we have noted—from freedom. Yet, if our interpretation of freedom is correct, the freedom argument is a mistake. Provision by the State of welfare and education does not necessarily promote freedom, and it may be positively inimical to it. Yet while the confident assertions of ideologies are often mistaken, there is usually a reason for their mistakes. And the reason why welfare is mistakenly assumed to be a means to freedom is that welfare is something independently supported. In other words, liberals would seek to promote welfare whether it conduced to freedom or not.
Modern liberalism, then, supports welfare irrespective of its bearing upon freedom. One reason for this emerges out of what we have called the suffering situation. Liberals seek to relieve generalized kinds of suffering, and it is plausible to argue that those who suffer are not free.
But we can find a more interesting reason why modern liberalism supports welfare if we extend the ends-means chain a little further. We have seen that, in liberal argument, welfare is a means to freedom. But what is a means to welfare? The classical liberal would immediately reply: “Self-help.” His modern successor would shake his head and point to the handicaps which the poor endure. Hence he would advocate State provision, something which requires the development of new administrative and political techniques. And this extension of State regulation and provision can be presented as a necessity, for there is indeed no other way in which welfare can be provided in a modern State.
A clear grasp of this point not only bears directly upon the question of freedom; it also explains what we may call the paradox of simultaneous omnipotence and impotence of the people. It was the fashion not so long ago to talk of the “century of the common man.” Democracy is now something almost universally supported because it allows the people, rather than the privileged few, to determine what governments should do. Yet, at the same time, each individual appears to be more and more impotent in the face of governmental control. What has happened is that whereas before many problems were things to be solved by some group of people organizing themselves, now all problems, having become social problems, can only be solved by putting pressure on the government to do something about them.
The significance of this situation is much clearer if we turn to those countries of the world which, in the jargon of liberal ideology, are called “under-developed.” These countries have, even more strongly than others, the liberal conviction that the present time is “transitional.” Once they had a stable past; sometime in the future they will again arrive at a stable industrialized point, but for the moment the most real thing about them is simply movement. This is, of course, pure illusion, and the expectation of some point of rest in the future merely utopian. Nevertheless, this conviction has imposed on these countries what we may call the politics of the gap. It provides a single overriding aim—that of industrialization—which has become a moral and national purpose. The condition of freedom in these countries is thought to be the closing of this gap.
The frenetic and impatient industrialization which has resulted is no doubt a matter of necessity; for where some western techniques have been introduced, they have created problems which can only be solved by further importation. Population increase due to medical advance is an obvious example. The solving of these problems requires enormous energy; there is the difficulty of understanding things which had previously been of no interest, and that of organizing and co-ordinating a national effort. What makes the difficulties even greater is a nationalist impatience to do everything quickly; the pace must be forced in the hope that the effort can then be relaxed. Now all of this is too much for individuals or for voluntary organizations. Each individual is weak and fallible. All agree that the gap must be closed, but there are many countervailing considerations—wanting to consume immediately, personal enmities, traditional rights, building up family or clan influence, simple laziness, and so on. Here in fact is the kind of situation which was uniquely rationalized by Rousseau’s general will. In this situation individuals are perfectly prepared to be forced to be free, for they have, so to speak, invested their moral capital in the government as the only organizing center of the national effort. Once that is done, there quite genuinely need be no nonsense about democratic liberties or the counting of heads at elections.
The results are twofold. The first is bureaucratization, for it is only by means of an efficient hierarchy that difficult things can be regularly done. Judge and hangman, general and private, inquisitor and torturer—in all these cases, an unpleasant policy has been split into two or more operations. One person makes the decision, another merely obeys without having to take responsibility for the acts. There are, no doubt, a few enthusiasts who like to combine both jobs—monarchs who have carried out their own executions— but such enthusiasm cannot be relied upon as an institution. It is difficult not to describe this bureaucratic principle in ironic terms; but it must also be observed that without it any kind of administration would be impossible, and with it almost anything can be done unless the bureaucracy runs up against some kind of conscientious objection. The despotic implications of dividing the responsibility from the act are, of course, quite evident, which is the reason why the defense of superior orders is rejected in British courts as a defense against criminal charges.
A further difficulty of this device is that those who give the orders in a bureaucratic system are likely to live in a rarefied atmosphere. Especially if they are politicians, they are likely to succumb to dreams of national status and to live far from the life around them. They are, like most politicians, interested in the product, not the producing. They look at the industrial statistics and they set norms; they are unconcerned with the quality of life lived by the people, and the only happiness they are equipped to discern is a visible thing, measurable by acclaim or by some material result. They are like small new countries, where Philistines are perpetually trying to turn each artist, novelist or poet whom foreigners can be induced to admire into a national icon. The eternal symbol of such leaders must now be Mussolini, who swaggered around dreaming dreams of imperial prestige, misrepresenting the general will, and failing even to provide proper equipment for his soldiery.
Secondly, the politics of the national gap invests an enormous moral force in the State, an inappropriate and risky organ for such investment. Deposits are easily managed, withdrawals are almost impossible. For Locke, in describing governments as trusts, was being hopeful rather than descriptive. It may be true that the populace regards the government as an agent of its interests; but from the government’s point of view, the people are agents of its interests. From a government’s point of view, particularly in international affairs, regimentation and industrialization are very distinctly means to other ends; freedom is nice, but national strength and discipline are even nicer. Further, in any purposeful organization of the State, however temporary, new interests— both financial and emotional—arise in the land; they will not be easily dispossessed once the moment of fruition has come. Indeed, these interests will be among the forces making perfectly sure that it never does come, moving the future always a little further away. We may support this view by referring once more to Wittfogel’s study of the development of technological bureaucracies into political despotisms.
The evidence on this subject and its ramifications are by now considerable. Among the more dramatic items is the manner in which purged communists, overawed precisely by this kind of moral authority claimed by the Soviet State, proceeded to accuse themselves and vilify an imaginary past. Yet even so, it is clear that this moral investment in the State is by no means a guileless submission to necessity. It is found among those modern liberals who seem positively nostalgic for some kind of national purpose, and who seem to imagine that unless we are all pulling together in some philanthropic national effort, then we must be given over to selfishness and apathy. It is found also among the young looking for moral causes, who are as ready to have the State supply them as any other agency.
The bearing of this on freedom is perfectly clear. A populace which hands its moral initiative over to a government, no matter how impeccable its reasons, becomes dependent and slavish. If the national tradition is in any case one of political dependence, then this will simply perpetuate the tradition. But even in countries which have a long tradition of individual enterprise and voluntary initiative, dependence is likely to increase; and just this charge has been made against the effects of the welfare State in Britain. It is certainly true that British migrants have, in some countries, a reputation for sitting passively around in reception centers until someone arranges a house and a job for them. A topical example of this kind of dependence would be the case of London’s homeless—people ejected from dwellings after the Rent Act. As a political issue this was presented as one of victimization, and the only solution widely canvassed was that the authorities should hasten to provide houses for the homeless. Now it is at least possible that these people might, by co-operation, get credit facilities and build houses for themselves, something which has often been done in other countries. There would obviously be difficulties to surmount, but it is by now an almost automatic response that every probem is one to be solved by authorities; and it is liberalism which seeks, by a steady equalization of the circumstances of each individual, to make certain that no one except governments can initiate voluntary organizations; all political initiative must be that of the pressure group.
The changes in human behavior which we have been considering are not to be attributed solely or even primarily to modern liberalism. Yet it is preeminently liberalism which has accepted without much questioning the “necessities” on which those changes are based. Indeed, quite apart from ideology, there exists a genuine dilemma which has considerable bearing upon the future of free behavior. The politics of national purpose always poses the alternative of governmental organizations with the corollary of dependence and servitude, or on the other hand, allowing people to develop at their own pace and in their own direction, which for good or bad reasons is often found to be too slow. There is no evading this dilemma; and it is foolish to pretend that it does not exist. Modern liberalism, to the extent to which it recognizes the dilemma, attempts to evade it by aspiration. We must try, it would say, to keep governments democratically under our control and subservient to our interests. But the question of freedom, as we have considered it, is not at all a matter of interests. It is a question, not of what is done, but of how it is done and of who does it. And it will not be answered by cant about democratic vigilance. For people whose only recourse is to put pressure on the government will, when seriously frustrated, respond by pointless turbulence.
[6. ]Selected Prose of John Milton, Oxford, 1949, p. 290.
[7. ]A selection of the kinds of people on behalf of whose tender minds censors have at various times claimed to operate.