A great artificial man

In the introduction to Leviathan, English thinker Thomas Hobbes famously compared the state to a “great artificial man, or monster, composed of other men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under the pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions.”  The nerves and sinews of this artificial man, as he is constituted in modern society, are the laws and regulations of a rationalized bureaucracy.  He can function because he acts in accord with these laws and regulations as predictably as automata made of metal follow the algorithms of their programming.  As a being made of rules, the state interacts most smoothly with other beings made of rules.  Whenever possible, the state will tend to reduce everything it touches to a body like itself, a body defined by rules.  

Where the modern state has been established longest, bureaucratization respects the fewest boundaries.   The March 2010 issue of Chronicles carries a piece by a man from Hobbes’ own homeland, Thomas McMahon.  McMahon writes of the policies which the New Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have adopted in the name of protecting children from sex offenders.  After the 2002 killing of 10 year old girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the government introduced plans to require everyone in the United Kingdom who comes “into regular contact with children in any semioffical capacity to register with a national database.”  As McMahon points out, “‘Regular’ could mean mean as little as a few times per year, and ‘semiofficial’ covers everyone from cleaners at sports facilities to a parent who gives lifts to a group of kids in the morning.  Anyone wishing to help out with after-school activities would be required to register.”  How is this registry to be compiled?  McMahon explains:

Upon application for membership on the list, opinions would be sought on the suitability of the candidate.  Acquaintances and workmates may be asked for their comments, internet forums and networking sites may be trawled, “lifestyles” would be examined.  Even the most baseless accusation would be recorded in perpetuity on a central state database.  There would be no investigation to determine whether the accusation was malicious.  There would be no requirement that the accusations be proven in court. 

How closely were these provisions designed to address the case of Misses Chapman and Wells?  Not at all, as it turns out; the man convicted of their murder was not an employee of their school, nor did he fill any other “semiofficial capacity” that might have brought him into contact with them.  He was, rather, the boyfriend of one of their teachers.  He happened to be alone at her house when the girls dropped in to see her.  The law does not require teachers to date only people from the approved list, and so would have done nothing to protect Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells had it been in effect in 2002. 

McMahon goes on:

If the policy is irrelevant to the circumstances of the case that inspired it, what is its real purpose?  At roughly the same time the policy was revealed by the papers, it emerged that Labour had introduced laws for friends to arrange to look after one another’s children without informing the authorities.  Two female police officers had been censured for allowing each other to look their children while they were at work.  Unbeknownst to them, the educational watchdog Ofsted required anyone who looks after a child for more than two hours at a time or more than 14 days in a year to be registered.

McMahon leaves out some of the exceptionally lurid details, for example the fact that the police told Detective Constable Leanne Shepherd that they would be conducting random surveillance of her home to ensure that she did not watch her friend’s daughter. 

Later on, McMahon predicts that:

 If Labour’s plans are implemented people will simply not form relationships with other people’s children, with their neighbors’ families, with the families of their childrens’ schoolmates, simply because of fear.  It should be added that, under the plans, no one would be entitled to see his file. 

Where might this sort of thing lead?  McMahon sees the prospect of a grim future:

It is not entirely facetious to say that Labour thinks of childen as allies against their parents.  The effect of introducing such legislation and guidelines for parenting- such as the government guidelines stating exactly what physical and mental development should have been achieved at any point in an infant’s life- is to make to relationship betwen parent and child fundamentally a legal one and, therefore, one in which the bonds of love and biology are secondary.  A good parent is one who follows the rules.  Someone who follows the rules is as good as, if not better than, someone who loves you.  By undermining the natural affection between parents and children, Labour is imposing itself as a towering third in the relationship, a source of legal redress for children against their parents, a more senior parent to be trusted above the puny human. 

I suspect McMahon is painting his target too narrowly here.  It is not only the British Labour Party which longs for the state, that “great artificial man,” to supplant particular human beings whose imperfections are so obvious.  All moderns harbor such wishes from time to time, and most of us are at least occasionally guilty of wishing for the state to give us a life free of the anxiety that comes from trying to live by our own lights.  Even among outspoken critics of the state, we sometimes find people with an abjectly supine attitude toward the giant bureaucracies of the private sector.

McMahon seems to agree with this.  Certainly his remarks on the Conservative Party would indicate that he includes them in his indictment of the regime.   When he observes that “the government-in-waiting is currently discussing which television celebrities to appoint to the upper house of our legislature,” it would seem that he regards David Cameron’s Tories as merely the sillier part of the unreasoning beast that is pushing Britain towards some sort of totalitarian society.

UPDATED:  I should mention that the same issue of Chronicles includes several pieces about Afghanistan, the major theme of which is that we ought to ask why Britain, the Soviet Union, and the USA each in their turn kept armies in that country long after they had achieved any objective an army could possibly have achieved there.  My thought was that it’s that great artificial man again, lumbering along, unable to stop himself.   There’s also a review of a book about Britain’s motorways, in which the reviewer acknowledges that only the modern state could create structures as efficient, speedy, and hygienic as the M1 and its progeny, but that only a peasant yeomanry could create something as liberating and community-affirming as the traditional English road.

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