On the Road to Serfdom, Recalculating…Recalculating


In a banquette at the Stanford Starbucks yesterday je-suis-votre-compère Peter Robinson and I sat poring over our post-election depressions. I mentioned that I’d given a dinner party recently themed–effervescently!–on decline. Peter entertained my consignation (though I think he’s been hopeful here at Ricochet) and we found it easy to list instances from long ago in which men have predicted decline. And do you know what? They’re usually right. 

Herewith, five or so morsels from antiquity to the recent past. It turns out that when someone says it’s all over and has a good reason for saying so, then most probably it’s all over.

Here’s Pericles, as recorded by Thucydides, suggesting that the spirited men of Athens, with little on their side but a genuine belief in freedom, might lose out to favor-givers:

Now he who confers a favor is the firmer friend, because he would rather by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit. To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact…

Athens falls in the Peloponnesian Wars a couple of decades later.

Or Walter Bagehot, writing in 1872 (which may have been during the time when he was Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, before John Micklethwait brought all his learned middle-roadedness to its pages): 

History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.

The movements of the world are more attuned to weakness than ever before! Here’s Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, reminding you that rich and elderly bodies can be enjoyed about as much as rich and elderly nations, which is to say they can’t:

Thou hast nor youth nor age,But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youthBecomes as aged, and doth beg the almsOf palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in thisThat bears the name of life? Yet in this lifeLie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,That makes these odds all even.

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” Tancredi writes in The Leopard. But things are not changing. Can anything the conservatives and libertarians might do change voters’ behavior–can anything? Dostoevsky:

Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!

India was once a wild and free place, under the British yoke, and Rudyard Kipling rejoiced in growing up there. (Today it denied Wal*Mart the right to compete with mom and pop shops.) After his first extended time in India, Kipling goes back to London, sees it, and recoils in In Partibus:

The sky, a greasy soup-toureen,Shuts down atop my brow.Yes, I have sighed for London townAnd I have got it now:And half of it is fog and filth,And half is fog and row.

And when I take my nightly prowl’Tis passing good to meetThe pious Briton lugging homeHis wife and daughter sweet,Through four packed miles of seething viceThrust out upon the street. […]

But India!

It’s Oh to see the morn ablazeAbove the mango-tope,When homeward through the dewy caneThe little jackals lope,And half Bengal heaves into view,New-washed—with sunlight soap.

But back in London,

I consort with long-haired thingsIn velvet collar-rolls,Who talk about the Aims of Art,And “theories” and “goals,”And moo and coo with women-folkAbout their blessed souls.

But that they call “psychology”Is lack of liver pill,And all that blights their tender soulsIs eating till they’re ill,And their chief way of winning goalsConsists of sitting still.

That’s not to say a word against velvet collar-rolls. Dress is a very important thing. Is Brooks Brothers*, in the final analysis, all that separates us from the barbarian hordes among us?

*This cannot be, perforce, because Brooks Brothers is now owned by an Italian.

There are 8 comments.

  1. Member

    Lots of points for Kipling, Metropolitan and using the word ‘repristination’ on your company website.

    • #1
    • December 6, 2012 at 2:54 am
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  2. Inactive

    Magnificently morose post, full of the ring (more like a gong) of truth. Almost makes me feel guilty for the wave of hilarity I felt when I read the headline!

    • #2
    • December 6, 2012 at 4:54 am
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  3. Member

    “Head? I’d like to introduce to Oven. Oven? This is Head.”

    • #3
    • December 6, 2012 at 5:57 am
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  4. Member
    Joe Malchow: … we found it easy to list instances from long ago in which men have predicted decline. And do you know what? They’re usually right.

    These are great quotes– thanks for sharing– and I believe we are most certainly in decline.

    However, remember the objections that skeptics may raise. Namely, that it’s easy to get a million predictions right– simply make two million (50/50 chance) predictions. Also, the saying goes that even a broken clock is right twice a day. We’ve always had a doomer streak running through our culture. It would be relatively easy for a skeptic to pull out plenty of predictions of decline that never came to pass.

    • #4
    • December 6, 2012 at 10:45 am
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  5. Founder

    The clip from “Metropolitan” reminds me of an observation by the marvelous British journalist Anthony Lejeune. “Always remember, gentlemen,” Lejeune said in after-dinner remarks at Oxford some three decades ago, “that the most important place to wear a dinner jacket is in the jungle.”

    • #5
    • December 6, 2012 at 10:50 am
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  6. Founder

    Oh, and by the way, Joe, that should be “je-suis-ton-compere.”

    • #6
    • December 6, 2012 at 10:52 am
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  7. Inactive

    Thank you, Mr. Malchow (I think). You’ve given eloquent voice to this sick feeling I’ve had in the pit of my stomach since the “stimulus” passed in 2009, and that just intensified after Obamacare passed, after the Supreme Court declared it constitutional, and, especially, after November 6. I guess I would ask if you believe the decline is inexorable at this point? It appears the majority of voters are either too ignorant of our traditions, too ideologically blinkered, or too petulantly rebelious to vote even in their own interest. I read article after article and hear pundit after pundit and politician after politician making what should be persuasive arguments for limited government. Then I think about the unthinking reasons many Obama supporters gave for their votes, friends that I consider otherwise good, thoughtful people who have adopted the President’s habit of setting up strawmen, attacking them, and preening as if they’ve made morally superior arguments. What do we do when the majority seems simply unpersuadable? I keep working, exercising, and raising my family, but I’m heartsick. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. A phrase we should get used to: I remember when…

    • #7
    • December 7, 2012 at 4:17 am
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  8. Member

    Bah Kipling…colonialist tripe! Colonies always seems so nostalgic and great, but what was the cost of keeping them? If you were English and well off I guess you could afford to live in India and have all the benefits of industrialization without seeing the less savory parts. Not that I think industrialization was bad, but rather that Kipling’s attitude is divorced from reality. It is sentimentalist hogwash, like people pining for the lost nobility of the naked savage, or worse yet a “simpler time”. 

    • #8
    • December 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm
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