I wonder how often I’ve said, “This is one of my favorites,” when speaking of something C. S. Lewis wrote? I’ve probably used that phrase for far too many of his writings, so that it loses its impact when repeated. Yet it always remains true of one particular essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.”
Out of the many insights contained therein, here is one that stands out to me: what Lewis identifies as “the changed relation between Government and subjects.” A prime example, he notes, is how we’ve changed our concept of punishment for crimes committed: we’ve decided that criminals must be cured, not punished.
But a “just cure,” Lewis objects, is a “meaningless” term. Why?
When we switched from the “old” idea of punishment and turned to providing “remedies” for what used to be called criminal actions, we have turned the criminals over to the experts who will ultimately determine if a “cure” has been achieved.
Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, there were a disease in society.
Then comes one of Lewis’s most bracing statements (at least to me): “If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners.”
Lewis then offers another example, one that should make Christians follow his logic more seriously:
Who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory “cure.”
It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” The Straightener will reply: “But, my dear fellow, no one’s blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We’re healing you.”
In modern America, sixty years after Lewis wrote this, Christians have not yet been subjected to a compulsory “cure,” but we have definitely been subjected to societal pressures to accept what the “experts” now consider to be normative in matters of sexual morality (as one example). We are facing a rising crescendo of “informed opinion” that our views are rather inconvenient to the new order of things. We must conform—or suffer the penalties (in the workplace, for instance) for being nonconformists.
And far too many of us have the same mindset Lewis saw back in his day, when he observed that WWI and WWII, which “necessitated vast curtailments of liberty,” led to a populace “accustomed to our chains.” Intellectuals, he argued, “have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts.”
What was lost in the process?
As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man) has died.
The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something.
But that “something” is up to the State, whatever it considers to be “good.” What we would choose becomes irrelevant.
Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once our “rulers.” We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.
Lewis concludes his masterful essay with this warning:
Let us not be deceived by phrases about “Man taking charge of his own destiny.” All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest.
The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?
Merely a rhetorical question, to be sure, but one that ought to make us ponder the direction our society is taking.