Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why do left-liberals always assume they know how to achieve stuff?

Here’s a standard, off-the-shelf, left-liberal argument we’ve all heard a thousand times:  “Why do we waste all our resources locking up criminals in what are essentially Crime Academies when what we should be doing is spending all that money rehabilitating them – i.e. turning them into decent, responsible, law-abiding citizens?”

This has always worried me, because, like many liberal positions, it sounds so reasonable:  it’s impossible to express such sentiments without feeling deliciously good about yourself. Damn, I even used a live TV debate to cover this very topic -  four guests (one right, one left, one centre, one former jailbird) ended up agreeing that rehabilitation was the answer (with a dash of revenge and a twist of justice thrown in to keep the plebs happy). 

Gosh, how liberal and self-congratulatory we all felt at the end of those 40 minutes of gloriously civilised discourse: all we needed as we stood quaffing chilled white wine in the Green Room were periwigs, lace cuffs, a bit of snuff and a tinkling harpsichord and we would have imagined ourselves eminent thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment (After you with crisps, Voltaire - Oi, Hume, leave some Chablis for the rest of us!). If only, I suspect we all felt, we’d been able to have Ian Brady on thepanel he’d have seen the error of his ways. “Gosh!” he would have exclaimed just before the presenter wrapped up proceedings, “your wisdom and compassion have helped me realise that kidnapping, torturing and murdering children is wrong. I am a changed man! Thank you so much!”

“Don’t mention it, Ian - as the scales have finally fallen from your eyes, and you’re no longer sick,  you’re free to go. Actually, we need a babysitter on Tuesday - would you oblige?”

The other problem with occupying the Dirty Harry end of the Law & Order spectrum is that, as a Christian (albeit a very bad one), I’ve always felt I should be on the side of forgiveness. I mean, it’s one of those aspects of the Christian religion that are simply unavoidable: “Turn the other cheek”?, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”? (Bringing up “an eye for an eye” is simply cheating, because it’s from theOld Testament, and therefore doesn’t really count.)

Now, the “forgiveness” conundrum isn’t that difficult to solve: the Christian religion (at least, in my interpretation of it) rather assumes that people should repent of their sins before they’re forgiven. If the thief, tax-collector or prostitute is intent on carrying on with the same old same old, then they don’t get forgiven. If they’ve genuinely seen the error of their ways and have repented, that’s when the forgiveness factor kicks in. Otherwise – sod ‘em!

The problem with liberals running the criminal justice system is that (a) they want us to forgive people before they’ve repented, and (b) they expect us to believe anyone who expresses any form of remorse – no matter how evidently lukewarm or obviously fake that expression might be. Never trust a businessman - always trust a criminal. That’s the liberal way.

But that still leaves the “rehabilitation” issue – and here, as so often recently, I have the great American economic historian, Thomas Sowell, to thank for revealing a flaw the size of a planet in the liberal position. You see, liberals assume we know how to rehabilitate criminals, and that it’s just the sheer nastiness of narrow-minded, vengeful, uncompassionate right-wingers that’s preventing us from “curing” burglars, muggers, drug-dealers, rapists and child-molesters and allowing them to lead decent, useful lives.

But, of course, if we knew how to turn scum into responsible human beings – we’d already be doing it! The plain fact of the matter is, we don’t have a clue – and anyone who claims otherwise is (to use Roger Scruton’s handy phrase) an unscrupulous optimist. 

The most hilarious, and most maddening, example of the liberal mind-set is provided by all those nincompoops who tell us that the size of the UK’s prison population (the highest in Europe, they claim) is “obscene” or “shameful” – as if it’s the fault of the criminal justice system rather than the fault of the criminals! The correct response to the size of the prison population, of course, is “Good!” – because it means the police and the courts might not be quite as spectacularly wet and useless as they often give the appearance of being. The fact that we’re still the most criminal society in Europe suggests there should be even more prisoners. 

This assumption of omnicompetence by our liberal elite is about to result in a stake being driven through the heart of our Higher Education system. Clegg, Cable and Willetts tell us they’re determined to reward merit – not results. And that would no doubt be a fine thing to do – but they have failed to identify any reliable method of measuring merit (apart from those nasty old exam results) or any just or effective means of rewarding merit, in the unlikely event they ever discover a means of identifying it.  

Bizarrely, when it comes to figuring out what will and won’t work, the last place these hubristic fools are willing to look for help is the one place where knowledge undoubtedly resides: the past. Human beings have been conducting trial and error experiments for thousands of years – how dumb would you have to be to ignore that extraordinary repository of practical wisdom? 

Very illogical people, liberals – and very destructive.


  1. Which former Cambridge philosophy lecturer said:

    How should crime be punished? For many crimes, my wife’s answer is torture. In her view it has all the virtues to be sought in a punishment: it would be an effective deterrent, proportionate (because similar) to the crime, and cheap.


    Seventy per cent of prisoners are convicted of another crime within two years of being released from prison ... This is a peculiar objection to imprisonment — rather like complaining that your TV isn’t working because it does not defrost chickens.


    That prison does not deter those who end up as prisoners tells us nothing about how much it deters the rest of the population.


    Mr Garnier offers no argument beyond pointing to the cost to taxpayers: £37,000 per prisoner per year. He seems to think that upon hearing this figure we will all leap to the conclusion that prison is too expensive. But it would be a leap of faith, because you cannot tell from its price alone whether or not something is good value. Is £15,000 good value for a car? It depends, of course, on what the car is worth. The same goes for prison. If keeping someone in prison for a year is worth more than £37,000 then it is money well spent.


    Admittedly Britain imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other Western European country. But this is a misleading measure, since it takes no account of the portion of the population who commit crimes. Allow for the extraordinary criminality of the British, and Britain has a low imprisonment rate. Whereas Britain imprisons 12 people per 1,000 crimes, Spain imprisons 48 and Ireland 33.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 10:57 PM

  2. The post above is obviously specifically about prison.

    As to the general question Scott raises, why do liberals think they know the answer to difficult questions, why do they think they know what to do, the answer is ... armchairs.

    They think problems like crime can be solved by thinking about them, coming up with armchair solutions, and Bob's your uncle.

    That is ignorant and naïve and presumptuous and lazy and, as Scott says, blind to history.

    It's an empirical problem and it's subject to empirical solution only. Trial and error. It's an engineering issue. And engineer's don't solve problems just by thinking about them, they experiment, they try this, they try that, they are permanently aware that what seemed like a good idea at one point may turn out to fail, that's part of the job, only to be expected, and when it happens they try again. And again.

    Nature doesn't work from an armchair. No intelligent designer sat down and invented the eye. The eye took tens of millions of years and billions of minor amendments gradually to evolve. These leftists don't really understand the Darwinism they so often preach. As a result, they are unlikely to survive.

    Some of the solutions to the problems thrown up by societies trying to rub along together in a more or less bearable way are quite arcane. Rather like the eye. E.g. the House of Lords. Astonishingly complex, minutely well adapted, God knows how these solutions came about, but they did, and no others did, so we'd best hang onto them until and unless they stop working.

    That argument heads off in all sorts of different directions.

    One of them concerns the importance of custom.

    One of them raises the question how and when custom should and could change.

    One of them heads off towards the problem of counterfactuals. The world could be different, we could all be equal. To which all I can say is "Quine". Quine pointed out that one of the very few modes of natural language that can't be rendered into the predicate calculus is the counterfactual. Which means (to Quine) that it is impossible to assess the truth of a counterfactual. Which means that there's bugger all point uttering a counterfactual, you won't get any useful debate out of it.

    Our social engineers are not proper engineers. They don't understand evolution. They seriously underestimate the importance of custom. And they generally talk what Quine would (I think) have loosely termed "rubbish".
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 11:34 PM

  3. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of Jamie Whyte – he’s great, and his wife sounds great (and a bit scary). Thank you, DM.

    One thing I have noticed about liberals is that they are generally more articulate than right-wingers in live debate (as opposed to writing). They duck and bob and weave during arguments, constantly shifting ground, seemingly only interested in scoring debating points, and not really caring how they do it – just as they don’t care about whether the policy they’e propounding actually winds up achieving what they claim it will. I wonder if this speed of thought is the result of not really caring about objective truth, but only in how noble and compassionate and decent saying certain things makes them feel – i.e. their only interest is subjective truth: does holding this opinion make me feel better about myself? Given that many right-wingers write well, it’s odd that they tend to be so inarticulate on, say, Question Time or Any Questions – I wonder if that’s because they’re generally more interested in objective truth or because their opinions are more difficult to defend glibly or because they can’t bring themselves to employ dishonest tactics to win an argument. (Charles Moore, James Delingpole and Roger Scruton are classic examples of this phenomenon – on paper or delivering a lecture, fine: up against liberal idiots unfit to lick their intellectual boots, they never quite deliver.)

    I think the love of talk vs. practical experiment you point to also demonstrates the importance to left-wingers of what they would probably call emotional truth as opposed to objective truth. Nothing else would explain why, despite tons of evidence to the contrary, they always believe the answer to every problem from teenage pregnancies to drug addiction to teenage drinking to poor diet is “more education in schools”, a phrase which can be translated as “don’t have clue, mate”.

    Agreed on social engineers not being engineers – because, as with AGW, no evidence ever invalidates the “truth” of their beliefs.
    Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 03:31 PM

  4. You've got to hand it to Ken Clarke. It takes a class act to make every single mistake identified by Jamie Whyte in just one policy proposal.

    As to the verbal dexterity of left-wingers, I've got a stock answer, no idea if it's right, ...

    It's the nimbleness of ignorance. A left-winger starts with the knowledge that history has nothing to teach us, it's all awful, especially the British Empire, and what we actually need is a new world*. Only the future is certain, etc ...

    Left-wingers are the hares in the race, while conservatives have to travel with the whole weight of history on their back. That's a handicap, it slows you down.


    Friday, April 8, 2011 - 11:28 AM