In addition to its reasonable and traditional claim to a monopoly on force—to enforce laws, and provide for the defence of the realm—the modern Nanny State claims a long list of illegitimate monopolies, including a monopoly on virtue and on patriotism; monopolies on charity and patronage; a monopoly on education; monopolies on the regulation of business, family, religious and social life; on the policing of language and artistic expression; the right to politicize every aspect of human life from conception to death; and following from all this, a monopoly on public institutions.
It was not always so, and within my own lifetime, I have watched the cancer of “political correction” metastasize.
Yet state tyranny has a deep history, and had we world enough and time, we could trace the emergence of the totalitarian principle back to the Reformation, and the first assertion of the state’s right to control the temporal affairs of the church (through the great “nationalizations” of Henry VIII of England and Gustav Vasa of Sweden in the 1530s).
My greatest hero in politics, Sir then Saint Thomas More—the chancellor Henry VIII sent to the block in 1535 for refusing to affirm his power play—was remarkable for entirely grasping the implications of his sovereign’s arrogance.
It was More who projected the fallout of the new “secularism,” including the fate of reason itself, when it is made subservient to a revolutionary ideology of reason.
“For in man reason ought to reign like a king, and it does reign when it makes itself loyally subject to faith and serves God,” he wrote. Until that moment, our entire western civilization had been premised upon the moral authority of the church over the worldly power of the state, but now the state would claim everything.
Through centuries, the wisdom of state has waxed and waned, more or less despotic. But some light of the divine has never entirely failed to penetrate the state’s dark chambers, and with it some acknowledgement that human beings have loyalties beyond the political.
In practical terms, the revival of the Christian idea of “the separation of church and state,” even in Protestant countries, made room for all kinds of civic freedom.
The independent life of the churches was a model for the independent life of the many public institutions that were traditionally the province of the church, not the state: schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, asylums; the various welfare arrangements for the poor, old, disabled, and refugees; as well as missions and monasteries—all, without exception, originating in ancient provisions of the Catholic church. And all requiring, for their sustenance over time, love and devotion far more than reliable funding, for there will never be a tax base large enough to afford the loveless, bureaucratic provision of “welfare.”
Today is, incidentally, the 225th anniversary of the death of another of my great English heroes, Samuel Johnson, a public institution in his own right. He died in the faith about 7 p.m. London time, on this day in 1784. He was the author of a periodical essay, called The Idler, whose title I appropriated when I founded a magazine of my own in Toronto, 200 years later.
I remember my surprise upon discovering, after the fact, that the presses had run for the first number of that Idler magazine at 2 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1984. In other words, right to the minute of the 200th anniversary, after allowing the five hours’ difference between Greenwich and Eastern Standard time: one of those happy, entirely unplanned, coincidences at which I still scratch my head.
My Idler lasted nearly a decade, before succumbing to the realities of the marketplace, in the nearly complete absence of non-state patronage for cultural activities in Canada.
Its demise, also about this date in 1993, is among the chief regrets of my life.
My intention in founding it — as a magazine of “elevated general interest” with a literary soul — was to provide Canada with what I considered to be a much-needed public institution. It seemed that many talented people were simply lost to our public life, from the absence of any cultural institutions not funded by the state, and thus controlled by left-wing ideologues. I did not want it to be a “conservative magazine” in the direct political sense — of formal opposition to the Canadian establishment — but rather a place where talented writers and artists (especially the younger and less corrupted) could breathe free of the strictures imposed by Canada Council and provincial arts council funding.
My hope was that, if the thing could survive over time, we could supply both a voice within Canada, and a Canadian voice to the world, more in keeping with our better and deeper national traditions, founded in Christian humanism. Yet the thing was conceived as an entirely secular project, as independent of any ecclesiastical as of any governmental bureaucracy.