Sunday, July 08, 2007

Our Culture, What's Left of It

I just finished reading a remarkable collection of essays by English physician/psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple entitled Our Culture, What's Left Of It. Dalrymple, before retiring to France, spent the bulk of his career working in prisons and government-run hospitals in England. This gave him, as Bertrand Russell used to say, "knowledge by acquaintance" of the British welfare system of which he has virtually nothing good to say.

Included in this book is an essay which makes the clearest, most well thought-out argument against an idea I grew up hearing, and even used to espouse myself for awhile, namely legalizing drugs. The essay, oddly enough, is called Don't Legalize Drugs. Here's a short excerpt to give you the flavor:

...many others--even policemen--have said that "the war on drugs is lost." ...Never can an unimaginative and fundamentally stupid metaphor have exerted a more baleful effect upon proper thought. ...If the war against drugs is lost, then so are the wars against theft, speeding, incest, fraud, rape murder, arson, and illegal parking. Few, if any, such wars are winnable. So let us all do anything we choose.

In another essay entitled How to Read a Society he introduces us to a lesser known work by Alexis de Tocqueville that gives us the origins of the English welfare system and a critique of its beginnings that foreshadows the horrors to come:
Tocqueville's Memoir on Pauperism was published in 1835, shortly after the first volume of Democracy in America. He had visited England, then by far the most prosperous country in Europe, if not the world. But there was a seeming paradox: a sixth of the population of England were--or had made themselves--paupers, completely reliant upon handouts from public charity. This was a proportion greater than in any other country in Europe, even in such incomparably poorer ones as Spain and Portugal. In the midst of what was then the utmost prosperity Tocqueville found not only physical squalor but moral and emotional degradation.

Tocqueville surmised that the reason lay in the fact that England was then the one country in Europe that provided public assistance, as of right, to people who lacked the means to support themselves. The reign of Elizabeth I had conferred this right, as a way of dealing with the epidemic of begging that followed the dissolution of the monasteries. In the past they had provided essentially private and voluntary charity to the poor, on a discretionary basis.

Dalrymple goes on to paint a vivid picture of the end results of English welfare in the twentieth, and now, the twenty-first century in his experiences with his lower-class, immigrant, and prisoner patients. It's an often terrifying, yet fascinating (and wonderfully written) account, with profound cautionary warnings to America which has not yet descended to quite the depths of cultural disintegration and moral bankruptcy as our English cousins across the Atlantic.

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