Mimsy Review: Eugenics and Other Evils
What’s old is new again: unwilling to learn the lessons of the past, those who wish to rule are returning to socialism and cronyism as the only two solutions for all the problems government creates. That is, more government to fix bad government.
Chesterton’s complaints in this pre- and post-Great War book could easily be re-used today almost verbatim. On the one hand, you could take this as evidence that people will always complain about progress in the scientifically-managed state; or you could recognize that there will always be those who seek to better mankind by enslaving him, by attempting to regulate the very thoughts of men and take up in the mantle of enlightened government control of the individual’s health, personal economics, and interpersonal relations.
It is a system that might be symbolised by the telephone from headquarters standing by a man’s bed. He must have a relation to Government like his relation to God. That is, the more he goes into the inner chambers, and the more he closes the doors, the more he is alone with the law. The social machinery which makes such a State uniform and submissive will be worked outwards from the household…—G. K. Chesterton (Eugenics and Other Evils)
Chesterton says that he originally wrote this series of essays against eugenics and the pseudo-scientific state before World War I. When the greatest scientific state of all brought about the Great War, he put it aside, happy that his work was wasted now that people saw the outcome of eugenics, enlightened socialism, and progressivism—and rejected it.
…but men’s memories are unstable things. It may be that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt again to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes. There may be some whose love of slavery is so ideal and disinterested that they are loyal to it even in its defeat. Wherever a fragment of that broken chain is found, they will be found hugging it.
There were many times when I felt a sense of déja vu, or, I guess, déja revu. One of the most acute was reading about socialists then rhetorically asking, “what is liberty?” and then defining liberty so broadly that there isn’t any left.
Exactly the same effect which would be produced by the questions of “What is property?” and “What is life?” is produced by the question of “What is liberty?” It leaves the questioner free to disregard any liberty, or in other words to take any liberties.—G. K. Chesterton (Eugenics and Other Evils)
Chesterton saw that once again the bandaged fingers of the enlightened were wabbling back to the fire. Those who had given up the scientific state to fight it in the form of Germany would soon be praising Mussolini as the Chicago Daily News would do only a few years after this was written.
He noticed that politicians were becoming their own caste again, and that where in the past democratic (and even autocratic) politicians were willing to repeal laws they claimed to consider bad, actually repealing laws was uncommon.
“The modern world,” he says, “is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal… the State has suddenly and quietly gone mad. It is talking nonsense; and it can’t stop.”
The arguments in this book really could be used today and the only tip-off would be the hundred-year-old language. We once again have socialism rising, and socialists offer as an alternative the kind of government cooperation with big business that Chesterton called capitalism but which we call cronyism, crony government, or crony capitalism.
He described this latter as the half of socialism that the anointed love: legislating prohibitions against every part of the individual’s life in an attempt to control every choice of the individual.
Again, after this kind of nationalist socialism died down following World War I we saw it rise up again before World War II, and then again it died down following that war, and now it rises again. I hope that it can be defeated a third time without a world war to show how evil it is.
If you let loose a law, it will do as a dog does. It will obey its own nature, not yours.
The objection to a cataract is not that it is deafening or dangerous or even destructive; it is that it cannot stop… The State has suddenly and quietly gone mad. It is talking nonsense; and it can’t stop.
Of these exceptions some are right and some wrong; but all are right in so far as they are taken as exceptions. The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.
The point here is that a crime we all instinctively connect with Herod on the bloody night of Innocents has come precious near being attributable to Mary and Joseph when they lost their child in the Temple.
The Eugenist has to treat everybody, including himself, as an exception to a rule that isn’t there.
…the first principle behind Eugenics becomes plain enough. It is the proposal that somebody or something should critisize men with the same superiority with which men critisize madmen.
Prevention is not only not better than the cure; prevention is even worse than the disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life, with the extra exasperation of being quite well.
I ask the reader to remember that I am talking of words, not as they are used in talk or novels, but as they will be used, and have been used, in warrants and certificates, and Acts of Parliament… The difference is that a novelist or a talker can be trusted to try and hit the mark; it is all to his glory that the cap should fit, that the type should be recognised; that he should, in a literary sense, hang the right man. But it is by no means always to the interests of governments or officials to hang the right man. The fact they they often do stretch words in order to cover cases is the whole foundation of having any fixed laws or free institutions at all.
…the vaguer the charge is the less they will be able to disprove it.
…it is one thing to believe in witches, and quite another to believe in witch-smellers.
…they have studied everything but the question of what they are studying.
Give an ordinary man a day to write an article, and he will remember the things he has really heard latest; and may even, in the last glory of the sunset, begin to think of what he thinks himself. Give him an hour to write it, and he will think of the nearest text-book on the topic, and make the best mosaic he may out of classical quotations and old authorities. Give him ten minutes to write it and he will run screaming for refuge to the old nursery where he learnt his stalest proverbs, or the old school where he learnt his stalest politics.
The quicker goes the journalist the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which, every day, is less worth delivering at all.
There is no reason in Eugenics, but there is plenty of motive. Its supporters are highly vague about its theory, but they will be painfully practical about its practice.
At the beginning of our epoch men talked with equal ease about Reform and Repeal. Now everybody talks about reform; but nobody talks about repeal.
Liberty has produced scepticism, and scepticism has destroyed liberty. The lovers of liberty thought they were leaving it unlimited, when they were only leaving it undefined. They thought they were only leaving it undefined, when they were really leaving it undefended.
Exactly the same effect which would be produced by the questions of “What is property?” and “What is life?” is produced by the question of “What is liberty?” It leaves the questioner free to disregard any liberty, or in other words to take any liberties.
It is a system that might be symbolised by the telephone from headquarters standing by a man’s bed. He must have a relation to Government like his relation to God. That is, the more he goes into the inner chambers, and the more he closes the doors, the more he is alone with the law. The social machinery which makes such a State uniform and submissive will be worked outwards from the household…
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