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Individualities Without a Mandate

Post #1801 • February 13, 2018, 9:51 AM

Thoughts about the arts, and civilization in general, from The Modern State in Relation to Society and the Individual by Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, published 1891.

On the patrimony of civilization:

Outside the domain of pure fiction and Utopian or millennial visions, the imagination is not capable of picturing clearly to itself any social structure essentially different from that of to-day. Astronomers tell us that in certain planets which may be supposed to be habitable, Mars among others, extraordinary transformations take place in the course of only a few years: it seems as if the inhabitants had constructed gigantic canals, and a lively fancy might attribute to their engineers a capacity far exceeding that of our own. Such things may be possible on the planet Mars.

But in our poor little Earth we occupy a more modest position, which enjoys the advantage of having greatly improved itself in the course of a hundred, a thousand, or even two thousand years. It has taken the successive efforts of two or three hundred generations of men to procure for us our present relatively easy existence, our moral, civil, and political liberties, the transmission and unremitting increase of literature and the arts.

There are some proud spirits who tell us that this patrimony of ours is a meagre and a despicable thing, that humanity can no longer resign itself to the task of increasing it slowly in the future by the same means which have formed it in the past. They maintain that individual initiative, which has been the source of all this progress, has had its day; that we must establish a great central organ into which everything shall be absorbed, and which shall itself direct everything; that one enormous driving-wheel, in place of the thousands of small unequal and independent systems of wheels we now have, would produce infinitely more powerful and more rapid effects; that by this means the wealth of humanity would be increased tenfold, and justice would at length reign upon the earth.

But we remain sceptical in the face of all these promises. We cannot forget the many families in which a frivolous and presumptuous son, inheriting a fortune laboriously and patiently acquired, despises the modest virtues which have reared it, and rushes headlong into wild and perilous adventures with the idea of increasing it by more rapid measures. We know that a few moments of imprudence may he enough to endanger, or even to destroy, wealth which it has taken the labour and pain of years, it may be of centuries, to amass.

And we ask ourselves if the nations of our day, with the insolent disdain of free societies and personal initiative with which it is sought to inspire them, with the confused ideas which are instilled into them of the State and of its mission, are not likewise embarked on a perilous adventure. The investigation of facts as well as the analysis of ideas will enable us to form a judgment of this question.

On the thickness of the collective brain:

The State, as a matter of fact, invents nothing, and never has invented anything. The whole or almost the whole of human progress is traceable to particular names, to those exceptional men whom the principal Minister of the Second Empire called "individualities without a mandate."

It is through and by these "individualities without a mandate" that the world advances and develops itself. These are the prophets and inspired teachers who represent the fermentation of the human mass, which is naturally inert.

All hierarchical collectivity, moreover, is incapable of invention. The whole of the Musical Section of the Academy of the Fine Arts could not produce a respectable sonata, nor the Painting Section a good picture. A simple, independent individual, Littré made a Dictionary of the first order long before the Forty of the French Academy.

No one can say that while art and science are matters of personal work, the labours of social progress are matters that can be done by the community: nothing is more untrue. New social methods demand a spontaneity of mind and heart, which are only found in certain privileged men. These privileged men are endowed with the gift of persuasion, not the gift of persuading sages, but that of gaining over the simple, and those generous but often timid natures, which are scattered broadcast among the crowd. A single man of initiative, among forty million inhabitants of a country, will always find some bold spirits who will believe in him and follow him, and find their fortune or their ruin with him. He would waste his time if he tried to convince these bureaucratic hierarchies, which are the heavy though necessary organs of the thought and action of the State.

We see, therefore, how sterile, in regard to invention, is this being, whom certain foolish thinkers have represented as the brain of society.

On the totality of the state's intrusions:

From the highest to the lowest, with varying degrees of intensity, the same thing occurs at every stage in the administrative organisation of the modern elective State. Very rarely does the State in its selections place itself at the purely technical point of view; it is always more or less influenced by party considerations.

Its claim is, that the man who occupies one of the posts in its employ belongs to him body and soul; it requires not only his professional labours, but his support in every possible direction; it exacts from its functionaries on all subjects a general conformity to the views which are professed for the moment by the State; it will scarcely consent to allow him his liberty of judgment in questions of letters and of fine arts; but it intrudes itself upon his opinions in religious matters, on philosophy and on education. In large centres of population functionaries, lost in the crowd, often escape this yoke, but in small towns and in country places they are rivetted to it.

The same author developed these thoughts further in his 1908 book Collectivism.

To what cause is the general disappearance of these [collectivist] systems, and the gradual but unlimited extension of the principle of private property, to be attributed, and what is the explanation of the fact that primitive societies have found it impossible to maintain equality of condition amongst their members? It is no doubt true that in certain countries the issue has been precipitated by the action of the feudal system, or by conquest or usurpation—but wherever man exists these conditions are found, and for so universal an effect there must be a universal cause.

The answer is that all social improvement, inventions, the progress of agriculture, and of the arts and sciences, are due to individuals, and not to communities, who can assist but cannot initiate improvements; it is the individual, therefore, who ought to reap the reward. This, then, is the cause to which the creation and extension of private property, the consequent inequality of social conditions, and the decay of collective systems is owing.

The innovators run up against the anti-innovators in a predictable fashion:

Under the existing system, all men of intelligence whose minds are not altogether absorbed in the cares of daily life—all men who have a taste for science, for the arts, for philanthropy, or who are ambitious; even those who are greedy for personal enjoyment—are keen to secure means to enable them to satisfy their desires, and in so doing are unconsciously but incessantly occupied in furthering the progress of civilisation. If in any department of human activity a man thinks he has made a discovery or has invented something, he makes use of the means he possesses to develop it at his own risk; if he has no capital, he endeavours to persuade others to undertake it, and it is but seldom that an inventor fails to find someone who will undertake the risk of developing his ideas.

The history of progress demonstrates two things: first, that it originates always in the spontaneous action of individuals; and secondly, that the sentiment of those engaged in any calling is opposed to innovation. The copyists who demolished the printing-presses and the sailors who destroyed the first steamships are examples of this spirit.

On the so-called idlers so loathed by socialists (Eduard Bernstein had broken with orthodox Marxism but remained a proponent of Democratic socialism):

As to the idleness, with which shareholders as a body are charged, Bernstein might have added that shares and debentures provide means whereby men engaged in professional work can take part in enterprises of material importance to the life and progress of the world. Far from being idle, the great mass of shareholders and creditors of the state have, as a rule, absorbing occupations. If some of them are idlers, or even hereditary idlers, it has been shown that this is by no means an evil, provided that their number is not excessive and that they are not protected from the consequence of their own errors by an artificial system of jurisprudence. In the absence of a leisured class, the arts which embellish life could not prosper, and a number of inventions, which might be of popular utility, would never be heard of, or would be indefinitely delayed.

Leroy-Beaulieu saw in advance how poor socialist art would be, compared to that made in free markets:

Private commerce alone can guarantee the continuance of these conditions. To-day it is demand that determines supply, and private enterprise is always on the alert to meet it; but under a collectivist regime, when no one except the sovereign state could manufacture articles for sale, the position would be reversed, and the state would be able to ignore or eradicate wants of which they disapproved by simply neglecting to supply them. If the government were to fall into the hands of fanatical teetotallers, the nation would be forced to drink water or some authorised temperance drink, and it would be contrary to law for any one to evade this unpleasant regulation; or if by chance vegetarians were to come into power, there would be no more liberty of diet for those accustomed to eat meat. No doubt such a state of affairs may appear improbable, but no one can foretell the length to which sectarian zeal might be carried by an omnipotent body, in a position to decide what commodities should or should not be produced. It might quite possibly happen that the majority of the directors of production would be vehemently opposed to luxury of all kinds. If this were the case, pleasing Superfluities, such as jewels and finery, equally dear to the daughters of the people, as to richer women, would be proscribed, and there would be a compulsory reversion to the simplicity of attire and the gloomy uniformity of conventual life. Intellectual liberty would suffer equally. Mental enjoyment requires books; but since the state would be the only printer and the only bookseller, if the administration fell into the hands of pietists, the production and sale of all books, except those bearing the impress of the definite form of religion approved of by the state, would be prohibited; the human mind would be thus subjected to a yoke more terrible than it has ever known—the practices of Torquemada and of the Inquisition would be mild in comparison. It may be said that there is little danger that a modern nation would become the prey, and state administration the instrument, of pietists; but if the choice of the electors should fall on free-thinkers, the evil would be just as great, even greater, since of late years a fierce and intolerant sect of so-called free-thinkers has appeared, who ardently desire to coerce the human conscience into conformity with their barbarous and narrow conceptions. Under the existing social organisation, even if sectarians should succeed in securing the governing power, and use it to strangle all creeds other than their own, the human mind would find partial relief at any rate through the agency of private enterprise, which would be certain to discover some way of evading oppressive regulations. But if private enterprise were suppressed, and the state were the only employer and the sole distributor of subsistence, no shelter would be left for poor humanity. No power that could be granted under any other system of government, would be comparable to that conferred upon the directors of national production under a collectivist regime, and if men of strong convictions became possessors of such a power, they would be certain to use it for the suppression of opinions opposed to their own. The menace to philosophical opinions is quite as great as that to religious doctrines; mysticism and deism would find no more favour than the most orthodox sentiments. Again, what would become of art when the work of artists would be subject to the dictation of the directors of production and the state would be the only purchaser?

This was so obvious that even some of the socialists at the time tried to reason about how to preserve a measure of creative autonomy in the collectivist republic.

The liberal professions, essentially necessary both for human progress and for the adornment of civilisation, are another cause of embarrassment to socialists. To suppress, if not lawyers, at any rate doctors, scientists, artists, and literary men, or to transform them into mere functionaries of the state performing their allotted tasks under official regulation, would be to bring about the decay of civilisation. The better educated collectivists, who are anxious that intellect should retain some influence in the society of the future, endeavour to arrange for the preservation of the liberty which is at once the attraction and the strength of these professions, and which, indeed, is almost a necessity of their existence.

He follows with a discussion of their well-meaning and doomed proposals. I went down this rabbit hole thanks to the article about Leroy-Beaulieu by Richard M. Ebeling at the Mises Institute, which links to free copies of the titles discussed overhead.

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