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. 


Places to go when you can’t stay anywhere

None of the three pieces that I wanted to note were mentioned on the cover. 

The state of Florida has a long list of crimes that require a convict to be registered for life as a sex offender.  Registered sex offenders in the state are prohibited from being close to schools, playgrounds, and other areas where children congregate.  Some Florida towns decree that registered sex offenders must stay at least 1000 yards (914.4 meters) from such areas; most put the boundary at 2500 yards (2286m.)  Since the average town has quite a few child-friendly spaces, the consequence of these laws is that Floridian sex offenders cluster into little ghettoes.  Irina Aleksander spent some time following a man who runs a business that shepherds registered sex offenders into these ghettoes.  The man, himself a registered sex offender whose crime was watching a 19 year old girls perform a sex act on a 15 year old boy, is evidently getting pretty rich.  The neighborhoods where he send his clients tend to get very inexpensive very quickly.  He seems like a good person to know if you are a real estate developer and want to find a way to reduce startup costs for redevelopment projects in Florida…

A person who has a lot of anger might answer the question of where registered sex offenders should go by referring to another article in this issue.  A business in Switzerland has taken advantage of that country’s very lax laws on assisted suicide to offer foreigners an easy death.  Zurich has thus become the world’s capital of “suicide tourism.” 

French playwright and novelist Henry de Montherlant committed suicide in 1972.  Had he asked for assistance, one suspects he would have found no end of volunteers.  (more…)