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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Servile State Revisited

(Reprinted from the issue of June 5, 2003)

Capitol BldgI am haunted by an observation of the philosopher David Hume, which I must quote approximately from memory: “To the philosophic eye, nothing is more surprising than the ease with which the many are ruled by the few.”

Consider my little dog Zipper, a Shetland sheepdog. She is a bright, sweet little thing, but no watchdog. She is afraid of other animals, even squirrels; she has never been in a fight, even with other small dogs. Yet she has been genetically endowed, through centuries of breeding, with authority over sheep.

Now Zipper has never even seen a sheep. I vaguely hope to buy her one someday, circumstances permitting. But dogs of her breed and size have been herding sheep in Scotland for ages. If she saw it done, I suppose she would quickly pick up the knack.

To me this is a fascinating fact. A whole flock of sheep will obey a single small, yapping dog. “There thou might’st behold the great image of authority,” says King Lear: “A dog’s obeyed in office.” Maybe this is where Hume got his idea. The sheep could easily ignore, or even overpower, the dog, but they don’t.

Aren’t men really the same way? How easily they might defy their rulers if they chose to; yet they rarely do, even when their rulers are venal, annoying, and tyrannical. I don’t think this can be explained by force alone. Even brutal rulers have sometimes been overthrown by a united and determined populace whose patience has been tried too far. But this is exceptional. To me, as to Hume, that is the mystery.

It is as if most of us were bred to obey. I don’t suggest that social turmoil is desirable; on the contrary, I devoutly believe that God has made us social beings for whom cooperation is good, necessary, and satisfying. We need civil society and law as well as family life, the contract as well as the vow.

But in modern society the habit of obedience has been taken far too far. The State now makes greater claims on us than the family; in fact the State even claims authority to redefine the family, which in the order of creation is prior to any merely civil relations. What God has joined together, the State may put asunder. Yet even this is no longer recognized as the tyrannical claim it is.

We are taught to beware of violent tyrannies like those of Stalin and Hitler. But we are seldom warned against the bland and gradual tyranny of the bureaucratic State, which is the one modern man typically lives under. The autocrat has been discredited, while the bureaucrat goes his merry way, taking our wealth, regulating our lives, subtly undermining our religion. We are no longer sure just whom we are obeying; but we obey. We are even led to believe that the bureaucrat is protecting us from the autocrat (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, even Manuel Noriega).

In Christendom — now derisively called the Middle Ages — it was believed that everything had its natural limits, including law. A human or “positive” law could not be the mere whim or will of the ruler; it was expected to conform to natural law. Not that this principle was always honored, far from it; but it was acknowledged. The subject, even if he wasn’t a full-fledged “citizen,” was supposed to know whom he was obeying, and why.

Today, as C.S. Lewis observed, law has become the unbounded will of the State, which is “incessantly engaged in legislation.” The citizen is told that he enjoys “democracy” and “self-government,” so that the will he obeys is really his own will. The State is really nothing more than an extension of ourselves, so that when it seems to be harassing us “we” are really harassing “ourselves.”

This is nonsense, of course. Some men are forcing others to obey, under the abstractions of an ideology few bother to question. As usual, a minority rules the majority, even if that minority is hard to identify with any precision. Most of us are heavily taxed, while many others are getting checks from the State (even if they too have to give some of it back in taxes in order to preserve the general confusion).

This is Lenin’s famous “Who/Whom” question: “Who is doing what to whom?” For the classical Marxist, the capitalist was doing it to the worker, and the practical solution was for the State to enslave both so that they would cease to exist as rival classes. If class warfare should break out between producers and parasites in the bureaucratic State — Belloc’s Servile State — many people wouldn’t know which side to take. The parasites know they depend on the State; but many of the productive people who create the wealth that supports the parasites are also convinced that their freedom depends on the State. The bureaucratic State has blurred the lines, disguising the opposition of interests. It rules by confusion.

To me one of the most dispiriting features of the war on Iraq was the ease with which the State was able to convince millions of productive Americans that this was somehow a war for their freedom. These people, mostly conservative, are simply unable to see the military establishment as a huge and integral part of the bureaucratic State, parasitic on the country’s wealth. The military is the one part of “big government” with which conservatives have no quarrel, though every objection to socialism applies to military organization — to the warfare state as well as the welfare state. (Paul Fussell’s book Wartime makes this stunningly clear.)

How hugely ironic that the bureaucratic State is able to enlist the most conservative instincts to support it. Where would Big Government be without conservatives?
“Evolutionary Purpose”?

As a rule this column chastely avoids the topics of sex and violence. But there are times when they are forced upon our notice.

A British biologist named Olivia Judson has written a popular, often funny book about the mating habits of animals, especially insects. I’ll spare you the lurid details, but she devotes a lot of attention to those couplings that result in the demise of the male partner.

The female midge, for example, “plunges her proboscis into [the male’s] head” during the throes of passion. “Her spittle turns his innards to soup, which she slurps up, drinking until she’s sucked him dry.” Among certain species of Australian spiders, the male pays a similarly high price for gratification. Dr. Judson provides many other illustrations, which can only increase one’s respect for the power of the male appetite while lowering one’s regard for male intelligence.

“All creatures are literally dying to pass on their genes,” Dr. Judson explains to The Washington Post. “From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s the whole purpose of life.”

And this is why I raise the subject. I merely wish to point out that most animals, especially insects, have never heard of genes. They just want to have a little fun. I would add that the whole idea of the theory of evolution is to banish the idea of teleology or purpose in nature. Yet this “creationist” concept keeps sneaking back in, even into the rhetoric of scientists. Mother Nature, it seems, uses male madness as her method.

Funny, isn’t it, how scientists assume they’re confirming Darwin even when their data seem to confute him?

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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