How Not to Do It

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

In How Not to Do It, Theodore Dalrymple reviews three books on the incompetence of Britain’s government:

Insight into why expensive failure is so vitally necessary to the British government — or indeed, to any government once it arrogates responsibility for almost everything, from the national diet to the way people think — glimmers out from management consultant David Craig’s recent book, Plundering the Public Sector. Craig catalogs what at first sight seems the almost incredible incompetence of the British government in its efforts to “modernize” the public administration. For example, not a single large-scale information technology project instituted by the government has worked. The National Health Service has spent $60 billion on a unified information technology system, no part of which actually functions. Projects routinely get canceled after $400–$500 million has been spent on them. Modernization in Britain’s public sector means delay and inefficiency procured at colossal expense.

How is this to be explained? I learned a very good lesson when, 20 years ago, I worked in Tanzania. This well-endowed and beautiful country was broken-down and economically destitute to a shocking degree. A shard of mirror was a treasured possession; a day’s wages bought a man one egg on the open market. It was quicker to go to Europe than to telephone it. Nothing, not even the most basic commodity such as soap or salt, was available to most of the population.

At first I considered that the president, Julius Nyerere, who was so revered in “progressive” circles as being halfway between Jesus Christ and Mao Tse Tung, was a total incompetent. How could he reconcile the state of the country with his rhetoric of economic development and prosperity for everyone? Had he no eyes to see, no ears to hear?

But then the thought dawned on me, admittedly with embarrassing slowness, that a man who had been in power virtually unopposed for nearly a quarter of a century could not be called incompetent, once one abandons the preposterous premise that he was trying to achieve what he said he was trying to achieve. As a means of remaining in power, what method could be better than to have an all-powerful single political party distribute economic favors in conditions of general shortage? That explained how, and why, in a country of the involuntarily slender, the party officials were fat. This was not incompetence; it was competence of a very high order. Unfortunately, it was very bad for the population as a whole.

A Little Social Experiment

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple describes A Little Social Experiment:

An interesting experiment took place on the London street where I have an apartment. A few years ago, the borough council permitted a developer to build six apartment complexes across from my building, on the condition that he reserve three of them for “social” — what Americans would call public — housing.

The architecture of the buildings, while deeply undistinguished, is far from the worst of the genre and certainly does not suffer from the gigantism that was once the vogue. The street remains leafy, and edges on a fashionable area. A two-bedroom apartment in the private complexes now sells for $900,000. To all appearances, the apartments are identical in the private and public housing complexes.

In front of these apartments is a tiny garden, not more than 15 feet wide. As you walk along the street, you can tell from these gardens exactly at what point the private property ends and the “social” housing begins, in exactly the same way as, overflying the island of Hispaniola, you can tell where the Dominican Republic ends and Haiti begins.

The little gardens in front of the publicly owned apartments are overgrown and jungle-like; they look as if no one really cared for them since the construction of the housing. Litter and household detritus — from diapers to the packaging of fast-food meals — covers them, some of it festooned on the overgrown bushes. At a certain point, private property takes over. The little gardens are cared for and neat; not a single piece of litter clutters them. If one were to appear, a property owner would soon remove it. My apartment, I am glad to say, is opposite a privately owned building.


Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

I did not realize that Theodore Dalrymple had a new book out, Romancing Opiates. In Poppycock, he attacks the myths surrounding drug addiction:

In 1822, Thomas De Quincey published a short book, “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” The nature of addiction to opiates has been misunderstood ever since.

De Quincey took opiates in the form of laudanum, which was tincture of opium in alcohol. He claimed that special philosophical insights and emotional states were available to opium-eaters, as they were then called, that were not available to abstainers; but he also claimed that the effort to stop taking opium involved a titanic struggle of almost superhuman misery. Thus, those who wanted to know the heights had also to plumb the depths.

This romantic nonsense has been accepted wholesale by doctors and litterateurs for nearly two centuries. It has given rise to an orthodoxy about opiate addiction, including heroin addiction, that the general public likewise takes for granted: To wit, a person takes a little of a drug, and is hooked; the drug renders him incapable of work, but since withdrawal from the drug is such a terrible experience, and since the drug is expensive, the addict is virtually forced into criminal activity to fund his habit. He cannot abandon the habit except under medical supervision, often by means of a substitute drug.

In each and every particular, this picture is not only mistaken, but obviously mistaken.

For example:

It actually takes some considerable effort to addict oneself to opiates: The average heroin addict has been taking it for a year before he develops an addiction. Like many people who are able to take opiates intermittently, De Quincey took opium every week for several years before becoming habituated to it. William Burroughs, who lied about many things, admitted truthfully that you may take heroin many times, and for quite a long period, before becoming addicted.

All or Nothing

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

In All or Nothing, Theodore Dalrymple claims that “the quest for a moderate Islam may be futile”:

In his new book, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Professor Efraim Karsh does not mince words about Mohammed’s early and (to all those who do not accept the divinity of his inspiration) unscrupulous resort to robbery and violence, or about Islam’s militaristic aspects, or about the link between Islamic tradition and the current wave of fundamentalist violence in the world. The originality of Karsh’s interpretation is its underlying assumption that Islam was, from the very beginning, a pretext for personal and dynastic political ambition, from the razzias against the Meccan caravans and the expulsion of Jewish tribes from Medina, to the siege of Vienna a millennium later in 1529, and Hamas today.

Contrary to its universalistic pretensions, Karsh argues, Islam has never succeeded in eliminating political power struggles within the Muslim world, where, on the contrary, such struggles have always been murderous. Islamic regimes, many espousing in the beginning the ascetic principles of what one might call desert Islam, invariably degenerate (if it be degeneration) into luxury- and privilege-loving dynasties. Like all other political entities, Islamic regimes seek to preserve and, if possible, extend their power. They have shown no hesitation in compromising with or allying themselves with those whom they regard as infidels. Saladin, a mendaciously simplified version of whose exploits has inflamed hysterical sentiment all over the Middle East, was not above forming alliances with Christian monarchs to achieve his imperial ends; the Ottoman caliphate would not have survived as long as it did had the Sultan not exploited European rivalries and allied himself now with one, now with another Christian power.

In short, Islamic imperialism, in Karsh’s view, illustrates three transcendent political truths: the Nietzschean drive to power, Michels’ iron law of oligarchy, and Marx’s economic motor of history. Religious feeling, on this reading, is but an epiphenomenon, a mask for what is really going on.

Dalrymple’s point:

The urge to domination is nearly a constant of human history. The specific (and baleful) contribution of Islam is that, by attributing sovereignty solely to God, and by pretending in a philosophically primitive way that God’s will is knowable independently of human interpretation, and therefore of human interest and desire — in short by allowing nothing to human as against divine nature — it tries to abolish politics. All compromises become mere truces; there is no virtue in compromise in itself. Thus Islam is inherently an unsettling and dangerous factor in world politics, independently of the actual conduct of many Muslims.
The fundamental question is whether Islam as a private faith would still be Islam, or whether such privatization would spell its doom. I think it would spell its doom. In this sense, I am an Islamic fundamentalist. The choice is between all and nothing.

Minding Our Manners

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple writes about Minding Our Manners:

The argument goes something like this: formality is etiquette, and etiquette is a manifestation of an unjust, class-ridden, patriarchal society. The rejection of etiquette and the formality it entails is therefore a sign that one is on the side of the angels, that is to say, of the egalitarians. Modern egalitarians, at least in Britain, do not content themselves with the kind of abstract or formal equality before the law that allows any amount of difference in wealth, status, taste, and sensibility; they demand some progress towards equalization of everything, including manners.

Of course, egalitarians are just as attached as everyone else to their own material possessions and wealth and have no real intention of forgoing them by radical redistribution, at any rate, of their own money and possessions. The struggle for equality—of the actual rather than the formal kind—has therefore to be transferred to fields in which it will cost the egalitarian nothing, or nothing material and financial.

What better way to prove your egalitarian credentials than by adopting the supposedly free and easy, utterly informal manners of those at the bottom of the social scale? The freer and easier the better, for such informality demonstrates another quality beloved of, and praised by, intellectuals: a superiority to the dictates of convention. Thus you can never be quite informal or unconventional enough.

Vive l’Inégalité

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple says, Vive l’Inégalité:

The current demonstrations by students of French universities against a proposed liberalization of the labor laws, so that it will be easier for French employers to hire and fire young people, remind me very much of the strike by miners on the Witwatersrand in South Africa in 1922.

The demonstrators in France and the strikers in South Africa are and were supported by their respective national communist parties. The miners went on strike because the mine-owners proposed to replace expensive white labor with cheap black labor, hoping to increase profits. This move provoked one of the most bizarre political slogans of all time, promoted by the communist party: Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa!

What are the French university students demonstrating for? By opposing the proposed law of Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, they are in effect demanding that the children of Maghrebin and African immigrants stay exactly where they are, in the dismal and dispiriting housing projects that surround all French towns and cities, and accept their state of dependency on handouts derived from the taxes of their elders and betters.

A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece

Friday, March 3rd, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple declares A Clockwork Orange — the book — a prophetic and violent masterpiece:

A Clockwork Orange is not completely coherent. If youth is violent because the young are like “malenky machines” who cannot help themselves, what becomes of the free will that Burgess otherwise saw as the precondition of morality? Do people grow into free will from a state of automatism, and, if so, how and when? And if violence is only a passing phase, why should the youth of one age be much more violent than the youth of another? How do we achieve goodness, both on an individual and social level, without resort to the crude behaviorism of the Ludovico Method or any other form of cruelty? Can we bypass consciousness and reflection in our struggle to behave well?

There are no schematic answers in the book. One cannot condemn a novel of 150 pages for failing to answer some of the most difficult and puzzling questions of human existence, but one can praise it for raising them in a peculiarly profound manner and forcing us to think about them. To have combined this with acute social prophecy (to say nothing of entertainment) is genius.

Integration and “Savage Liberalism”

Monday, February 20th, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple discusses Integration and “Savage Liberalism”:

My mother arrived in Britain penniless, but fortunately for her—and for Britain—no one sought to persuade her that she need not learn English, and no one set up expensive and ineffective services for her in case she did not. She was not obliged to give up her tastes or conform in private respects, but she was expected (de facto) to blend into society as much as possible, rightly and reasonably, in my opinion. There was no ideology seeking to Balkanize the sensibilities of the population, enclose people in ghettoes and so forth, in the process acting as an employment opportunity for hordes of officials and bureaucrats.

Although it is not a complete answer, a flexible labor market is very important, because there is nothing like work to integrate people.

No Beheadings, Please, We’re British.

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple says, No Beheadings, Please, We’re British.

The weekend edition of Le Monde carried on its front page a startling photograph of a masked protester in London, holding up a placard demanding the death of those who insult Islam. Policemen flanked him on either side, as if protecting him from the vicious assaults of cartoonists.

Nothing could have captured better the cowardly and pusillanimous response of the British government to the crisis deliberately stirred up in many Muslim countries four months after the publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad (only one of which was remotely funny).

In condemning the cartoons, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, a man with all the qualities of Neville Chamberlain except his fundamental decency, attempted to curry favor with the Muslim world, or at least to avoid its wrath. Revealing the practical value of such appeasement is the way in which Muslims burned down the Danish consulates and embassies even after the Danes, with equal cowardice, had apologized. But at least the Danes have the excuse of being a very small nation indeed — although their country produces far more, oil excepted, than the whole Arab world put together.

Is “Old Europe” Doomed?

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

Is “Old Europe” Doomed? Theodore Dalrymple doesn’t quite think so:

The European Union serves several purposes, none of which have much to do with the real challenges facing the continent. The Union helps Germans to forget that they are Germans, and gives them another identity rather more pleasing in their own estimation; it allows the French to forget that they are now a medium sized nation, one among many, and gives them the illusion of power and importance; it acts as a giant pension fund for politicians who are no longer willing or able successfully to compete in the rough and tumble of electoral politics, and enables them to hang on to influence and power long after they have been rejected at the polls; and it acts as a potential fortress against the winds of competition that are now blowing from all over the world, and that are deeply unsettling to people who desire security above all else.

Drug Quandaries

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

In Drug Quandaries, Theodore Dalrymple notes that “Dutch officials don’t know what to do about Holland’s drug culture”:

Near the Ministry of Justice in the Hague, and visible from its windows, is an area of the Dutch capital where many of the unemployed grow marijuana for a living. While continuing to receive about $1,200 per month from the state for doing nothing, they earn up to $6,000 a month as well (tax free, of course) by cultivating pot in their apartments. The easy money, observers report, has reduced the crime rate.

It still isn’t legal in Holland to grow or to sell marijuana, but apart from occasional police raids, not much effort goes into suppressing the trade. Such prosecutions as there are result in confiscation of the horticultural equipment (which the drug-dealers replace within the week) and an easily affordable $1,200 fine.

The minister of justice does not like the trade but is in a quandary about how to respond. Three possible courses of action present themselves: to take serious measures to suppress the trade; to legalize it, either by creating a state monopoly or by allowing anyone to grow and sell the drug; or to allow the present situation to continue. All three have their inconveniences.

Suppression would drive up the price of marijuana, reinforcing the motive for breaking the law. The increased risk of growing marijuana might easily spark a resurgence of gangsterism; and people deprived of their easy income by enforcement of the law might turn to more harmful or visible types of crime to maintain their now accustomed standard of living.

The legalization of the cultivation and distribution of marijuana in turn would drive down the price and deprive the unemployed of much of their income, drastically reducing their now accustomed standard of living. Thus it too might produce not a decrease but an increase of serious crime.

The inconveniences of allowing the present state of affairs to continue are less tangible but also considerable. No doubt laws have always been on the books whose purpose is more to promote discretion among those who break their precepts than to enforce strict adherence; but widespread, open, and profitable lawbreaking will before long exert a corrupting effect upon the whole of society. If the state winks at large incomes procured by what it still considers to be criminal activity, why should anyone feel obliged to obey the law? The minister of justice does not think that the state should allow its least educated, productive, and respectable class to defy it.

Furthermore, those who cultivate and sell marijuana earn far more than they possibly could make by honest labor. Thus honest labor loses value. Indeed, anyone who lives in a marijuana-growing area and who dedicates himself to honest labor (for which he will receive perhaps a third of what he would receive for watching his marijuana grow) is likely to face disdain, appearing as a complete fool. Money corrupts, no doubt, but easy money corrupts absolutely.

I am glad I am not the Dutch minister of justice.

Most murderers just need to get a life

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple argues that most murderers just need to get a life:

I am overwhelmed by a sense of the unfitness for life of all the participants in these sordid dramas: their main problem was that they had not the faintest idea how to live and yet — this is the hallmark of modernity — they were plentifully supplied with ego.

They had received no guidance from religion, naturally enough, since God is dead for them, and never has been very much alive. As for social convention, it has not so much been destroyed as turned inside out. The poor who once prided themselves on such things as respectability, cleanliness, honesty, orderliness and thrift, often in the most difficult circumstances, now pride themselves on their bohemianism. Disorder and chaos are a metonym for freedom and authenticity. But they are bohemians without being artistic, and the result is a squalor scarcely credible in times of supposed prosperity.

The Other American Exceptionalism

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Gerard Alexander describes The Other American Exceptionalism:

In most European countries, the median voter is both less religious and more dependent on government than the median voter in the United States. This tugs American politics to the right and European politics to the left.

Conservative views on Market vs. State:

American conservatives believe that a healthy modern economy is so complex and innovative that most economic decisions have to take place in the private sector, where scattered information is located, and risk may be rewarded or punished. Government is best at enforcing rules of the game and engaging in limited redistribution. When it does much more than that, it creates inefficient regulations and bureaucracies prone to expanding rather than learning.

Some numbers:

The result is that average U.S. per capita income is now about 55% higher than the average of the European Union’s core 15 countries (it expanded to 25 in 2004). In fact, the biggest E.U. countries have per capita incomes comparable to America’s poorest states. A recent study by two Swedish economists found that if the United Kingdom, France, or Italy suddenly were admitted to the American union, any one of them would rank as the 5th poorest of the 50 states, ahead only of West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana. Ireland, the second richest E.U. country, would be the 13th poorest state; Sweden the 6th poorest. The study found that 40% of all Swedish households would classify as low-income by American standards.

Conservative views on Predators versus leftist European views:

By and large, American conservatives believe that although international conflicts may arise from uncertainty, misunderstanding, and mutual threats, they usually result from simple predation, power-hunger, and hatred. Global cooperation is possible when would-be predators are deterred, which requires muscular firmness. Democracies are uniquely suited to be enforcers of international order because they are least likely to be its transgressors—which is the reason Americans have traditionally championed an integrated and assertive Europe, instead of seeing it as a threat.

Some Europeans share this view, including most British and many Dutch and Danish conservatives, as well as Blair and other Laborites. Once upon a time, the Gaullists thought like this, and José María Aznar and other Spanish conservatives do so still. But most European governments now practice what Americans would recognize as a liberal foreign policy. This is not so much because Europeans inhabit what Robert Kagan calls a “post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity.” Instead they insist on seeing misperception, insecurity, and pride as the root of most international conflicts, which accordingly are best defused by reassurance and the careful avoidance of confrontation, ultimatums, and threats. The Spanish government’s response to the Madrid bombings — hasty withdrawal from Iraq — was denounced as appeasement by most Americans, but not by most Europeans. Of course, the British response to the London bombings has been quite different, at least so far.

Some factoids:

American conservatives believe that the deterrent approach toward international predators should be firmly applied to would-be domestic predators as well. One might expect the same sensibility in Europe, given high crime rates there. Despite enduring stereotypes to the contrary, Europeans now match or surpass America in most crimes, including violent ones (except murder and, to a lesser degree, rape). In per capita terms, Belgium has more assaults than the U.S., the Netherlands nearly the same number, and France is rising fast. England and Wales have more robberies, the Dutch almost as many, and England and Denmark beat America in per capita burglaries and (here joined by the French) in theft and auto theft. After lecturing Americans that expensive welfare states would ensure social peace, many Europeans now find themselves saddled with both high welfare costs and high crime, while American crime rates have dropped. Western Europeans have met high crime rates with policing and prisons, of course, but more notably with multicultural appeals, jobs programs, and policies aimed at “social insertion” of the alienated. As Theodore Dalrymple explains, such policies transmit the message that criminals are victims, too, and their actions understandable responses to trying circumstances. The result, as in foreign policy, is a lack of resolve among the virtuous, wink-and-nod cynicism among offenders, and excuse-making by everyone.

Diagnosis: Decadence

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

In Diagnosis: Decadence, Stefan Beck laments that more people don’t read the works of Theodore Dalrymple — whose recent City Journal essays have been compiled into Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses:

Dalrymple has seen more and done more than most people, and whatever topic he brings that to bear on — sex, drugs, serial murder, poetry, or public morality — he tells the tale with great style and humane wit. If only his work were wider read by those not already disposed to his arguments.

The Meaning of Beheading

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

Theodore Dalrymple explains The Meaning of Beheading:

In the days when murderers in Britain could still be executed by hanging, the Home Office used to receive five unsolicited applications a week for the position of hangman (not even the most rigidly doctrinal feminist has ever demanded that we use the word hangperson). The desire to kill one’s fellow beings in the pursuit of a good cause, in this case the preservation of law and order and the prevention of murder, is therefore quite widespread, even under the most civilized conditions.

There is no doubt that a good execution has its attractions. Once when I arrived in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, I found it deserted, a ghost city: Everyone was away at the public executions. The television report later that day said that the crowd was very nearly disappointed, because the execution ground had been waterlogged, but fortunately — at least for the spectators — a dry area was found into which the stakes could be driven so that the criminals could be shot after all.

Doctor Johnson thought that, if one of the purposes of an execution was to deter, it should be held in public. Certainly public executions were very popular, and in the past everyone loved a good one: When Dr. William Palmer, for example — the Prince of Poisoners — was hanged at Stafford Gaol in 1856, the number of spectators exceeded the population of the town by three times. (Palmer was in advance of his time as far as the precautionary principle was concerned. Approaching the somewhat rickety and ramshackle scaffold with the hangman, he turned to him and asked, “Is it safe?”)

Charles I was beheaded with an axe: Such a death was considered nobler and more dignified than mere hanging, a form of execution unbecoming for the upper classes. Beheading remained the prerogative of the well-born in Europe until Dr. Guillotin, in the name of humanity, proposed his democratic beheading machine after the Convention decreed in 1792 that all executions henceforth should be by decapitation; the machine swiftly proved popular with the crowds and was last used in public in France in 1939. There was once a considerable and learned medical debate in France not only about the most humane method of severing the head from the body, but about whether consciousness survived beheading, the lips and eyes of the beheaded having sometimes been seen in the basket to move for some seconds after separation from the neck.

Since then, our sensibility in the matter of decapitation has changed greatly. During the war the Japanese beheaded many of their prisoners, not as a tribute to their nobility, but as an expression of complete contempt for them. This provoked our revulsion. Beheading of any kind henceforth seemed to us barbaric and primitive. One might have moral qualms about the hygienically sound, quasi-medical, almost euphemistic executions by injection that take place in chambers bearing a too-close resemblance to operating rooms, but no one would propose beheading as an alternative.

Except, of course, in the Islamic world.