The Magazine

Is That All There Is?

Then let’s keep dancing, and watch history float by.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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The 1980s ended in a flood of optimism that’s hardly been seen since. Nearly a half-century of cold war all but ended in a single year as the revolutions of 1989 swept through the Eastern bloc, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift execution of the Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day. The United States was about to become the world’s undisputed superpower. The Red Army left Afghanistan that year, and the Soviet Union itself would last only another two years. Francis Fukuyama famously asked if this was the “end of history?”—and answered his own question three years later, when he turned his essay into a book and removed the question mark.

Sign that says, "No admittance. Private property"

One thinker, however, was immune to the spirit of the age: Professor David Stove had taken early retirement from the University of Sydney, spending his last days watching cricket, listening to baroque music, gardening in his rural Australian suburb—and writing short but devastating works of philosophy and polemics.

Most conservative writers spent 1989 cheering the triumph of freedom and the free market; Stove, who died in 1994, spent much of that year composing an essay that soberly, and quite seriously, concluded that lovers of liberty should emulate the fabled Indian who, on realizing that his hours of effort had been for nought and his boat was about to go over Niagara Falls, threw away his oar and lit one last pipe. Now published posthumously, his treatise has been retitled, from the darkly opaque That Monstrous Steep, Niagara to the clear-cut What’s Wrong with Benevolence.

There’s no mistaking Stove’s stand. And who, after all, turned out to be correct: the optimists or the pessimist? East and West Germany are united, and Stasi files have been opened and turned into questioning works of art. Poland is the only European Union member to have escaped this latest recession. Even China has had to capitulate, creating its own brand of capitalism. But China is not free: 1989 also saw the massacre in Tiananmen Square, not the last time Chinese officials killed enemies of the state. The Russian empire has collapsed, but Russia itself has merely shifted from a Communist state to a fascist one, ruled by one man unwilling to give up his grip on power. Even “first-world” democracies are facing crises that threaten to overwhelm them, as citizens give up autonomy in return for a security that is now slipping away.

All this is not to argue that Stove was right to give up on freedom just when others celebrated its rebirth. The point is that Stove’s brief disquisition—the last of his major unpublished essays to be printed—is just as material now as it was when he wrote it, five years before his death.

And it is thanks to Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books and editor of the New Criterion, that more Americans now know David Stove’s name. As Andrew Irvine writes in his introduction here, “David Stove is a confirming instance of the adage that philosophers are not much accustomed to attention until after they’re dead.” While he was alive, Stove was mostly known only to philosophers familiar with his work on David Hume and the philosophy of science, and to Australians interested in the culture wars as they were fought in academia. “The most thrilling intellectual discovery of my adult life came in 1996 when I chanced upon the work of the Australian philosopher David Stove,” Kimball relates in the foreword.

In his introduction, Irvine, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia (who studied under Stove at Sydney and edited this work), compares Stove’s unknown essay to two classics: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. And Irvine believes Stove accomplishes something the other two did not, noting that “while Mill and Hayek are content to defend the classic liberal imperative, Stove goes a step further, asking whether liberalism and conservatism are in any important sense compatible.”

Stove responds with an emphatic yes—and explains himself in a way that should appeal to partisans on both sides of the philosophical aisle. As Irvine writes,

According to Stove, when people are free to live their lives as they see fit, they naturally choose to enter into relationships with one another that allow families, friendships, business and other non-governmental institutions to flourish.

There’s no need for conservatives to oppose liberals and attempt to use the strong hand of government to make way for civil society, and there’s no need for liberals to be suspicious of conservatives. People recognize responsibilities and authorities by their own free choice.

This might sound too simplistic to be the beginning of a groundbreaking rapprochement, but conservatives and classical liberals have been uncomfortable with one another since the modern forms of their movements began. Hayek himself made one of the firmest statements in his 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Irvine elegantly refutes Hayek, whose conception of conservatism was something of a caricature, and suggests that a proper politics needs the insights of all three men: Hayek’s work on unintended consequences; Mill’s emphasis on individual responsibility; and Stove’s conservative understanding of human nature.

A fourth name might be added to that list: Karl Popper. It’s strange to say that Stove’s conception of the world—and of the damage benevolence has done to it—echoes Popper. What reputation Stove acquired outside academia was partly a result of his vicious attack on Popper and his The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In fact, Stove’s offensive was misguided: Arguing that Popper didn’t take the subject seriously, Stove charged him with creating a pseudo-philosophy of science. Because Popper understood that humans are fallible, and so any theories we develop are fallible as well, he believed we must constantly subject our hypotheses—not just scientific, but also political—to rigorous testing. No amount of evidence can prove a theory correct, but one counterexample can prove it wrong. Knowledge, as such, is always provisional. Stove believed that, by this argument, Popper did damage to the very idea that we can know anything. Popper, however, wasn’t opposed to the notion of scientific progress; he merely cautioned that, as fallible creatures, we must recognize that there is an element of uncertainty in such progress and that we accept the knowledge we have as the best we have at that moment.

I’ve hardly mentioned benevolence, the ostensible subject at hand, but that’s because this brief volume is of much broader significance than its title would suggest. It opens, however, with the declaration that benevolence—the desire to make people happier than they are—is, in fact, the cause of most of the misery inflicted on human beings in the last century: “Lenin, Stalin, and the rest,” writes Stove, “would not have done what they did, but for the fact that they were determined to bring about the future happiness of the human race.”

This is where Stove’s tough prose is weakest. I doubt that the victims of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 would agree that Stalin (as Stove claims) was a man of “very enlarged benevolence.” But personalities aside, there can be little argument about which road is paved with good intentions. People have understood this for centuries; yet recent history suggests we need reminding that warm feelings don’t always translate into efficacious actions. And the idea that a small group of experts could eradicate all evils would have struck citizens of the past as preposterous—as preposterous, Stove notes, as the idea that “cheap rents or free false teeth from the National Health Service” could make people happy.

Stove has a gift for the striking phrase that gets to the heart of the matter, as when he describes a Communist country as “a gigantic cemetery-prison.” But his conclusion will be hard to take, even for fellow conservatives. What Victorians called “the social problem” was never actually a problem “until Enlightened benevolence came along.” The idea that just one person in poverty is unacceptable, and that it’s our duty to take him out of it, is now so entrenched we’d have to alter human nature to get rid of it. And that’s why Stove thinks that scaling back big government is impossible: “The root cause which will prevent the welfare state from being dismantled” is, quite simply, “us.”

The situation looks even bleaker when a quarter of citizens (in Stove’s estimation) are either employed by, or receive substantial benefits from, government. Nearly half of Americans live in a household in which one member receives at least some sort of government benefit, while about a third of “taxpayers” actually pay no taxes. Who would vote themselves out of free cash? As Stove wryly notes, every political party has claimed it wants to scale back the welfare state, but none ever has. Hence his pessimism.

It’s hard not to follow his lead and, like that Indian, light a pipe and sit back with arms folded. There is no political program that can make everyone happy—and maybe not even anyone happy. Stove notes that “the sources of our unhappiness are inexhaustibly various. .  .  . Is there, in fact, anything that has not been a source of affliction to many people?”

It’s a grimly bracing thought Stove has left us. And as Andrew Irvine points out, five years after recounting the parable of the stoic Indian, Stove killed himself. He was 66 years old, and suffering from throat cancer. Perhaps his legacy will be to inspire others to fight for the freedom he thought would one day be inescapably lost.

Kelly Jane Torrance is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.