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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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?”