Former Prime Ministers of the Duchy of Luxembourg did not usually bestride the world like colossi, at least not until the advent of the European Union. This, indeed, is one of the great advantages of that Union, at least to members of its political class: that it provides them with the means and opportunity to become more important in retirement than ever they were when they held directly-elected political office. It is a kind of insurance policy against electoral defeat or other political disaster.
Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, was known to have said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom.” Nkrumah sought and found it, and within a few years his formerly prospering country was bankrupt, obliged to spend several decades trying to recover from his short reign.
Within quite a range of circumstances, purely political action, however necessary it might sometimes be, does not produce the happy economic results expected of it. Prosperity for whole nations or large groups of people cannot simply be conjured by political fiat from a total economic product that already exists. The people themselves must have the attributes necessary to prosper; and no amount of political posturing by their leaders, whether they be self-appointed or democratically elected, will give them those attributes.
It is the thesis of Jason L. Riley’s short, bracing and eloquent polemic False Black Power? that America’s black political leaders, and their white liberal allies, have hindered rather than advanced the progress of America’s black population.
Even before reading it, I knew in outline what the article in the June 8 New England Journal of Medicine would say. This could be seen from its title: “Heath Effects of Dramatic Societal Events—Ramifications of the Recent Presidential Election.” Still, I was taken aback by some of its assertions and reasoning.
Recently, Amsterdam’s city council forbade the use of the locution “Ladies and Gentlemen” within its halls and precincts. This was not in the interests of strict accuracy: Many women, after all, are not ladies, and many men are not gentlemen. Rather, it was to avoid upsetting those who considered themselves neither male nor female, or considered themselves both.
Needless to say, no evidence that the locution caused any widespread distress, let alone harm, needed to be adduced. The prohibition was an exercise in power not an expression of sensitivity. It was a Lilliputian step in the creation of a vast empire of virtue, or supposed virtue, in which the rulers will enjoy simultaneously the awareness of their own goodness and the pleasures of bullying others.
The rule of law is not at all the same thing as the rule of laws, or the preeminence of law in our lives; indeed, they are almost opposite, insofar as one of the objects of the rule of law is to make the legally permissible and impermissible knowable to the citizen in advance. Where there are so many laws that even highly specialized lawyers have difficulty in keeping up with the provisions in their own area of specialism, the rule of law declines, and litigators rush in where common sense fears to pronounce. This superabundance of laws exists in many places around the world today, and needless to say it flatters the self-esteem of legislators and judges. It makes them the arbiters of our existence. It also makes the rest of us wards of the court.
Simone Veil, the French politician most responsible for the passage of the law to legalise medical termination of pregnancy in France, died recently at the age of 87 in what I would be tempted to call, if France were not so militantly secular a country, the odour of sanctity. She was incontestably a redoubtable woman, a survivor of the German camps to which she was deported at the age of 16; but the effects of the law that she so assiduously promoted soon escaped her control and went far beyond its original intentions, as so many reformist laws are inclined to do. Very few reformers, however, ever take this tendency into account, perhaps because, for many of them, reform is the whole purpose and meaning of their lives.
It is a commonplace that Switzerland is the only real democracy in the world: that is to say, the only country in the world where the people control the government in more than a nominal and intermittent fashion, and can call it to account at any time, on any subject, at any level of the administration.
In no country is central government less important. The President of Switzerland changes every year, and the position is purely honorific. Many Swiss do not even know his (or her) name. And what non-Swiss has ever heard of a President of Switzerland?
When a young man such as Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, blows himself up, killing as many others as he can take with him, it is only natural for us to ask why he acted as he did. His behavior is so extraordinary, as well as evil, and so far beyond the range of normal, that we are inclined to seek for an answer in his personal psychopathology. Only the mad would do such a thing; and since he did it, we conclude that he must have been mad.
In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.