A compassionate behemoth

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November 4, 2016 by AK

William Davies writes in the London Review of Books:

Home secretaries see the world in Hobbesian terms, as a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are robbed, murdered and blown up, and these things happen because the state has failed them. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers – who are rarely the victims of these crimes – then criticise the state for trying harder to protect the public through surveillance and policing.

Well observed. Davies argues that Theresa May’s outlook may have predated her Home Secretaryship:

…Theresa May’s long tenure (six years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office suggests that the mindset may have deepened in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview… For her, the first duty of the state is to protect, as Hobbes argued in 1651, and this comes before questions of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Does it, really? Does not the question of whom and against whom to protect come first? Yes, all elites are Hobbesian to some degree. Some elite minds may even believe that “all men are liars” and worse. However, the most influential establishment thinkers reserve their deepest skepticism for certain subsets of humanity.

Roughly speaking, the Left suspects straight, white, nominally Christian men of Nazi sympathies. Theresa May – if she represents the “new cultural coalition… of working-class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists” – should be particularly suspicious of the foreign-born and foreign-looking.

The fear of “evil men” roaming about the land in murderous bands can unite elites on the right and left into a new consensus, which would privilege security and social welfare over liberty. The paternalistic state – Davies calls it “protective” – is likely to discriminate: so did the neoliberal state, but it relied on markets – on “rivalry itself” – to pick winners and losers. The “protective state” will probably abandon market criteria in favor of its own value judgments, according to Davies:

The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to find out who rises to the top. The question any neoliberal – or liberal for that matter – might now want to ask May is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy?

Time will tell, but so far it doesn’t sound like a recipe for minimal government.


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