Sunday, February 06, 2011

Infantilising citizens

Reflecting on the way forward in Egypt, Robert Fisk writes in the Independent today:

The problem was that under the autocrats – Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and whomever Washington blesses next – the Egyptian people skipped two generations of maturity. For the first essential task of a dictator is to "infantilise" his people, to transform them into political six-year-olds, obedient to a patriarchal headmaster. They will be given fake newspapers, fake elections, fake ministers and lots of false promises.

Fisk is right, of course. Which is not usually something you can say about him. When governments become all pervasive, citizens no longer have to take any sort of responsibility. In a dictatorship, everything is the leader's responsibility and he paints himself as the father of the country. People become like children. They can whinge, and frequently do, but if they misbehave they get smacked or worse.

Sadly, though, almost all governments have this effect on people, even though, in a democracy, it is to a much lesser degree. The more government there is, the more people cease to take responsibility. When something goes wrong, we complain about our rulers but seem strangely unwilling to do things for ourselves. The present Conservative-led government is having trouble selling its idea for free-schools, localism and less bureaucracy for this very reason. It turns out that there are always plenty of people who have done very nicely attached to the teat of the state.

Of course, it is widely accepted that governments infantilise their citizens, which is from where we get the phrase "the nanny state". But many of the left think this is a good thing. Alain de Botton, the pop-philosopher, defends a paternalistic state on the BBC's website. It all sounds terribly reasonable but what he is really saying is that we all need a bit of dictatorship to defend us from ourselves. I doubt Hosni Mubarak would disagree.

UPDATE: My post above implies that Alain de Botton is arguing for dictatorship. Of course he isn't, and I'm sure he would not. The linked article is well worth a read and a rather more considered response than the one I gave it.

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Noons said...

I recently came back from a trip to the UK. I have to say, there were countless signs everywhere informing me of things that anyone would easily notice. Especially those "look left/look right" signs painted at road crossings. Though in that case, I may have needed them as I still instinctively looked the other way.

But other than that, I said to myself "so this is what happens in a nanny state?" That, and the constant presence of cctv cameras.

Humphrey said...

On the other hand we have a drinking age of 18, whereas in the US the nanny state has dictated that it must be 21 for no good reason as far as I can see.

Evan said...

I don't see why governance need lead to infantilising. It could lead to education in critique and design of alternatives.

Usually it doesn't - and this is where things get interesting I think.

TheOFloinn said...

When does Fiske think Egypt did not have some Daddy in charge? During the brief British ascendancy, perhaps. But before Nasser was Farouk, and before him the various emirs of Mehmet Ali's dynasty; and before him the Turks; the Mamluqs; the Fatimids; etc. etc., all the way back to the first pharaoh.

And why does he suppose that the Egyptian Army and Egyptian ruling class cannot act on its own interests, with Washington doing little more than bribing the next Colonel-President not to start a war with Israel?

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

There are plenty of other factors around that infantilize the population in modern democrazies just as effectively as the "Nanny State". Modern private mass media must be one of the clearer culprits. Another is the spread of legal minutiae. In Norway, it is private enterprise (US owned) that pioneers such genius ideas as day courses in climbing stepladders, parking your car in the morning and how to drive slowly (not necessarily safely) on the freeway.

As usual, it is when someone - a private "concerned citizen", a government bureaucrat or a corporate bean counter - decides to pull the string far beyond reasonable limits, that the nonsense appears. Fight the nonsense, not the background it comes from.