The perils of benevolence

Readers of Bleak House will remember Mrs. Jellyby: the officious do-gooder whose “telescopic philanthropy” (in Dickens’ delicious phrase) is more ardent the more distant and abstract is the object. She is positively atwitter with concern for far-off Africans whom she has never seen and whose lives she knows next to nothing about, but she is indifferent to the point of callousness about her own friends and family.

What we in the United States call “liberalism” (a curious misnomer since its chief currencies are meddlesomeness and coercion) is deeply imbued with the spirit of Mrs. Jellyby and telescopic philanthropy. Such unfettered benevolence has provided the emotional fuel for do-gooders (another misnomer, since they usually do ill, not good) and other “friends of humanity” from Rousseau to Barack Obama.

The February issue of The New Criterion has just hit the stands (and cyberspace). It features a symposium of “The Wisdom of the Founders” and the ideal of limited government, with contributions from Harvey Mansfield, Amity Schlaes, James Piereson, Andrew C. McCarthy, and John Bolton. There are also responses from William Kristol and Jeremy Rabkin.

My own contribution, “Benevolence vs. Liberty” is available on-line at  An excerpt:

It’s not that benevolence is a bad thing per se. On the contrary, it’s just that, like charity, it works best the more local are its aims. . . .

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings. The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary. Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx. Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been universal immiseration. His intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property and, to adapt President Obama’s famous phrase, by “spreading the wealth around.” Every Marxist society has spread it wide and spread it thin. Hence Ronald Reagan’s observation that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

An absolute commitment to benevolence, like the road that is paved with good intentions, typically leads to an unprofitable destination. . . . [T] he English essayist Walter Bagehot underscores the point: it is a melancholy occupation, observed Bagehot, to ask whether the benevolence of mankind actually does more good than ill. It makes the purveyor of benevolence feel better—where by better I mean more smug and self-righteous. But it is unclear whether the objects of benevolence are any better off.

Just so with the modern Welfare State: a sterling incarnation of the sort of abstract benevolence Stove anatomizes. It doesn’t matter that the welfare state actually creates more of the poverty and dependence it was instituted to abolish: the intentions behind it are benevolent. Which is one of the reasons it is so seductive. It flatters the vanity of those who espouse it even as it nourishes the egalitarian ambitions that have always been at the center of Enlightened thought. This is why Stove describes benevolence as “the heroin of the Enlightened.” It is intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.

The intoxicating effects of benevolence help to explain the growing appeal of politically correct attitudes about everything from “the environment” to the fate of the Third World. Why does the consistent failure of statist policies not disabuse their advocates of the statist agenda? One reason is that statist polices have the sanction of benevolence. They are “against poverty,” “against war,” “against oppression,” “for the environment.” And why shouldn’t they be? Where else are the pleasures of smug self-righteousness to be had at so little cost?

The intoxicating effects of benevolence also help to explain why unanchored benevolence is inherently expansionist. The party of benevolence is always the party of big government. The imperatives of benevolence are intrinsically opposed to the pragmatism that underlies the allegiance to limited government.

Read the whole thing here:  Liberty vs. benevolence