While taking a three-mile constitutional this afternoon (we of the American Right never, of course, forget the importance of constitutionals), I had a listen to John Derbyshire’s latest Radio Derb podcast. It was a particularly good one, with fine segments on immigration, automation, and social engineering. You can listen to it here, or read it here.
One theme that Mr. Derbyshire touched on was what he calls “The Bathroom Wars” (and which others have called “World War T”). (I’ve hardly written about this one at all, although of course I have opinions about it that are consistent with this website’s overarching editorial themes. It’s all just so fatiguing sometimes.)
Derb had this to say:
I’m still having trouble taking this seriously. How on earth did we get to the point where restroom usage is a major national issue?
This looks to me like another case of Thinking Too Much. A lot of life, including social life, goes much better if you don’t think about it too much.
That used to be — until, I mean, the week before last — that used to be how we coped with public restrooms. If you were a guy, you went to the guys’ room; if a gal, to the gals’ room. If you were honestly confused about your sex, you went to whichever room your presence in would be less likely to cause comment and fuss. The amount of brainpower, of cognitive energy, you put into the matter of bathroom-going was very close to zero.
Obvious guys did not go into the girls’ room, or vice versa, because it would have been gross bad manners to do so. A person who insisted on doing so would cause pointless trouble and ill feeling. If he or she was doggedly persistent, or made a habit of barging into the other sex’s restroom, the authorities might intervene with a prosecution for some catchall misdemeanor like “disturbing the peace” or “causing a public nuisance.” This practically never happened though. Mostly people just minded their manners.
That was a rule-governed society, a society in which there were right and wrong ways to behave. Most people most of the time behaved the right way, out of consideration for others and the desire for a life not daily roiled by unnecessary commotion. The rules came first, and most of us followed them without thinking — from habit, and unspoken social understandings. Laws were just a backstop, for dealing with the occasional antisocial delinquent.
Now that’s all turning around. Rules count for less and less; everything has to be overseen by the federal Department of Justice.
This is the legalistic despotism foreseen by de Tocqueville two hundred years ago, in which federal power, quote, “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate,” end quote.
Very well said, I think. And readers may recognize the Tocqueville quote, which I’ve cited here myself a few times. Here’s a larger excerpt of that passage, from Chapter VI of Democracy in America:
I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
In Derb’s transcript is a link to an essay of his from 2003 called The Importance of Not Thinking Too Much, which touches upon another of this blog’s themes: that one of the bequests of the Enlightenment upon the people of the West was the “universal acid” of radical doubt. Derb quotes one of the Enlightenment’s heaviest hitters, David Hume:
This sceptical doubt … is a malady, which can never be radically cur’d, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away … Carelessness and in-attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them…
At the time Hume wrote this, his ideas were a drop of acid in an ocean of tradition and common sense. Things are very different now. I don’t think he and his colleagues could really have imagined what they were unleashing upon the world.