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  • Alastair Cavendish

Freedom and Power

Sane people want freedom; mad people want power. The most intractable problem which now faces humanity is how to wrest power from the hands of tyrannical lunatics, who are desperate to hang onto it, and give it to the altruistic and the level-headed, who do not want it.


In G.K. Chesterton’s novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the King is chosen by lottery. This, however, is only a modern and mechanical variation on the way in which kings have normally come to power. Some warlord or other became strong enough to conquer a large area, and proclaimed himself king. His eldest son, or his favourite son, or some other relation or ally, would succeed him, and the dynasty would continue until it was brought down by feebleness from within or force from without. Societies with strict systems of primogeniture were, in fact, the most like lotteries, since the eldest son might be mad or sane, corrupt or honest, cruel or kind. The system was superior to a lottery in certain obvious ways: the heir apparent was bred and educated for the job, and would, as Macduff pointed out to Malcolm, have plenty of castles, estates, jewels and other baubles, meaning that he had little motive for avarice unless he happened to be insatiable in this respect. Still, the fact remains that the country was governed by whoever happened to be next in line. If he was very weak, stupid or despotic, he would probably be removed sooner or later, but even this was not certain in tranquil times.


Proponents of liberal democracy initially appeared to have a good case that society could do better than this. A democratic system allowed the ablest men (and, eventually, women) to rise to positions of power, and therefore improved the quality of government. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this argument was difficult to contest. Britain and its colonies, in particular, benefitted from the intelligence and vision of the best-educated political class the world had ever seen. This was the class that abolished the slave trade and extended the franchise over the course of the nineteenth century, from the Foreign Slave Trade Act of 1806 to the Third Reform Act of 1884. No one would want to claim that these legislators were perfect: the slave owners and merchants were richly compensated for giving up their diabolical trade, and even after the Third Reform Act, it was more than forty years before women were able to vote. Nonetheless, in comparison with other societies which existed at the time, Britain was liberal and enlightened, and the democratic model of government appeared to have triumphed.


Over the last three years, however, democracies around the world have been tested as never before, and they have not proved particularly robust. Politicians who were elected to represent the people have abused the trust of their constituents, using their authority to increase their personal power and wealth at the expense of the public. Many have openly expressed admiration for totalitarian regimes, and wished that democratic societies could be more like China, a country which, even in purely medical terms, handled every aspect of the pandemic with gross incompetence. Jacinda Ardern, Justin Trudeau, and their cronies from the World Economic Forum, caused immense misery and hardship, as well as any number of what are rather coldly called “excess deaths”, while running their countries into beggary and bankruptcy.


King Charles III is another Davos alumnus, and is intellectually unimpressive, particularly in his attitude to science. His eldest son appears to be one of the least interesting people on the planet, which may not be altogether a bad thing for a monarch. It is difficult to know what either of them would have done if they had wielded real political power over the last three years. However, it seems unlikely that they would have made a more appalling hash of things than the elected government did. The most important advantage of monarchy is that it bestows power on those who have not sought power. To understand the significance of this, one must realise that power is intrinsically a bad thing.


The fact that this point requires elucidation is itself an instance of the thoroughness with which most people have been bamboozled in their attitude to government. A fairly common response to the assertion I have just made is that political power is a neutral force, like electrical power, which can be used to kill someone or to heat homes (rather expensively now) and cook food. A moment’s reflection, however, will show you that this is not the case. Do you want to be in someone else’s power? If so, you have the mentality of a slave. Do you wish to exercise power over others? If so, you have the soul of a tyrant. It may be argued that parents exercise power over their children. This illustrates my point as well as any example. Good parents exert control in order to give it up as soon as they can. They may well use various forms of coercion, but the ultimate purpose is to guide the children to the point where they can make good decisions on their own, becoming responsible adults. A parent who continues the process of coercion beyond this point is an abomination. The benign exercise of power, therefore, always involves giving up that power in the end, and the people who are least likely to give it up are the ones who have sought it most assiduously.


This may appear to be a manifesto for monarchy, but I cannot summon up very much enthusiasm for such a system. Perhaps this is part of the point. One ought not to be particularly enthusiastic about the people who run the country. Worship of the great, infallible, omniscient leader is a feature of totalitarian states. It is notable that the most extreme personality cults form around those who, like Xi Jinping or Donald Trump, have no personalities. Prince William has no personality either, but he does not appear to be a megalomaniac, and he already has so much money that there is no motive for him to be corrupt. I do not think that he would be the best possible person to govern the country. He may well not even be in the top million. However, he would almost certainly be superior to the corrupt, vicious, power-mad liars who have spent the last few years destroying every institution in Britain with one hand as they raid the national exchequer with the other.


There are no ideal political systems, just as there are no perfect rulers. Every political structure depends on compromise and attention to boring details. The most intelligent and creative people should stay away from politics altogether and devote themselves to art and learning. This has not been possible in recent years, because in times of crisis, everything becomes political. It is almost a definition of a healthy and stable society to say that it is one in which politics is a tedious matter, and most people need pay no attention to it.


Unfortunately, we have to pay some attention to politics and, even worse, to politicians now, since they have encroached upon our freedoms in an unpardonable manner, and must be brought to heel as soon as possible, before they do further damage. I do not think that the restoration of a monarchy would be the only way of doing this, and it might not be the best way. I only mention monarchy because it has one vital advantage that democracy lacks: it generally avoids empowering those who are obsessed with power. There may be other ways which would be fairer and more effective. Perhaps some sort of lottery would be a better system, or perhaps there is some other way which has not occurred to me. Perhaps we might even discuss this constructively in the public square, instead of focusing on Twitter spats between vacuous multimillionaires.


However, there is a cultural change which, since this is the nature of culture, we can all assist in making. Politics is not always downstream from culture, but it ought to be in any civil society. An example of the type of change which is needed occurs to me from my own line of work, and may well occur to you from yours. In any university department, the headship is not a coveted position, and is generally held either by a relatively junior academic or someone whose career is not going very well. The stars of the faculty do not want to be burdened with a lot of tedious administration; they have better things to do. We should not respect politicians, whose function is only to take care of administrative details that our best handled collectively, and to perform tasks for which better men and women are too busy. As with any servants, we should treat them courteously if they are civil to us (which, lately, they have not been), but that is all. If they are conscientious in the performance of their duties, they should receive modest rewards, not wealth, power, and adulation.


As William James noted, you really can change your life by changing your perspective. This is particularly true in the case of power and freedom. I witnessed an excellent example of this phenomenon in the summer of 2020, when I was staying on Crete. One day, when I left my apartment in the small town of Chania, I noticed that the percentage of people wearing masks outside in the hot sun had increased from about 25% to about 50%. I asked a man in a café about this, and he told me it was a government mandate: everyone had to wear masks all the time. As it turned out, though, only about half the people ever did, and I think many of them were German tourists. The police fussed about it for a couple of days, but they clearly could not arrest half the people on the streets. They stopped me once, but I pretended not to speak Greek or English or any other known language, and they gave up quite quickly. The contingent of mask-wearers soon dropped back to about 25%, and the nonsense quickly went away.


The quickest and most effective antidote to the tyrannical use of power is the exercise of personal freedom. Think how different Britain would be now, and how much prouder we would be of ourselves, if everyone had simply ignored the government’s inane and insulting policies in 2020, going in and out of their homes, interacting with their friends, and opening their businesses, schools and churches. Such solidarity in the face of bulling would have been cause for rejoicing. Even as it was, I remember sharing smiles of mutual support with my fellow unmasked citizens when the mask mandates came in. The muzzled, of course, could not share such smiles. This is why masks were mandated in the first place.


The British government, like many others in the world, has destroyed the rule of law over the past three years. This is a particularly disgraceful thing to have done in the country where the law is so complex and intricate, and has played such a vital role in history. However, it has happened, and there is no point in pretending that legislation has the same moral force as it had a few years ago. The destruction of this institution means that every man is an island. Like Orwell’s wasp, which continued to suck jam after its bifurcation, we have probably not yet noticed how grievously we have been wounded, and will continue to follow the law out of habit, or because it accords with the dictates of our own consciences. Still, this terrible destructiveness has at least clarified the relationship between the government and the governed; between power and freedom. Power is where we think it is, and freedom is emphatically not a gift from the government. Like morality and musculature, it is inherent, and must be exercised continually if it is not to atrophy.

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