Gerard Baker: The best name for poor Britain is Absurdistan

In its funny little way the news this week that the Advertising Standards Authority had banned reruns of the 1950s egg advertisements that featured Tony Hancock was more compelling evidence on the state of modern Britain than even Marr’s obiter dicta.

“Go to Work on an Egg” was unacceptable, we were told, because it encouraged an unhealthy lifestyle. I had no idea that we had a government body that still operated on Stalinist principles but there it is. How long will it be before it is not just the free speech of advertising that is curtailed but the evil practice it promotes, and we ban egg consumption along with smoking? Goodbye England. Welcome to Absurdistan.

At root of this nonsense is, of course, the sheer scale of government. The reason you can’t be allowed to eat an egg is that, because of the lack of real choice in healthcare provision, you’re no longer responsible for the financial consequences of your own actions. If you get heart disease from too much cholesterol, the State, collectively known as the NHS, will have to treat you; and that costs the State more and more money so the State will have to stop you from doing it in the first place.

This is the self-perpetuating logic behind the unstoppable momentum of the expanding State….

The bigger it grows, the more it intrudes into our lives, and the more it intrudes into our lives, the more dependent we become on it. Education is the same. Our great universities are struggling to compete in a global market because they are hamstrung by the State. They are dependent on central government for their funding; but that funding is insufficient to meet the needs of global competition. But because they need government money for what they do, they cannot break free.

Leviathan is now so large that, outside London, half the population is dependent ”“ either through public sector jobs or benefits ”“ on taxes. Its power is so large that it has bent us all into submission. It has produced a culture in which no one needs to take responsibility for anything because someone else is always there to back us up.

That in the end, was what was behind another sorry spectacle of Britain’s decline this week ”“ the Fulton inquiry into the capture of the Royal Marines and sailors in March by Iranians. It was of course, to outward appearances, magnificently Gilbertian ”“ the first Sea Lord doing the honorable thing and shuffling off the blame on to anyone but himself. But its message was very modern.

Mistakes were made but no one made them.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, Law & Legal Issues

11 comments on “Gerard Baker: The best name for poor Britain is Absurdistan

  1. Deja Vu says:

    Mistakes were made but no one made them.
    It’s also this loss of any sense of personal responsibility and accountability.

    What I liked about the old Communion style with Atonement theology, Confession of Sin and Forgiveness of Sin was that we were all engaging in a regular examination of conscience and admiting our mistakes.
    This article about England reminds me of the new style of Eucharist where all are welcome and the mention of sin is in bad taste.

  2. Kendall Harmon says:

    It is funny Deja Vu, I had much the same thought. I kept thinking of this CS Lewis quote from his preface to the 1960 edition of Screwtape Letters:

    I like bats better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

  3. Words Matter says:

    Well, there’s bureaucrats and there’s bureaucrats. I have spent some time being one, and I can tell you that a good bureaucrat facilitates things happening in a large organization. Sure, there are power-hungry obscurantists in bureaucratic positions, but that’s true anywhere. Furthermore, good bureaucrats have bad days, but who doesn’t? A well-designed bureaucracy, well staffed with dedicated people committed to the mission of the organization gets the job done. We don’t live in a small, rural society by and large. Anyway, have you ever encountered the power people in small towns?

    Bottom line: you can have an organized community, or you can have chaos where nothing gets done.

  4. Words Matter says:

    Which is not to say that the British government isn’t way over the top. They probably are, but that’s a matter of political philosophy, not “bureaucracy”.

  5. Deja Vu says:

    Well, consider the story about the eggs in the article.
    Actually, the most recent research shows that eggs don’t raise cholesterol. Somehow when all the nutrients are eaten together, the egg turns out to balance itself and not raise cholesterol. The English bureaucracy is banning the ads to protect people’s health based on faulty conclusions. Eggs are a good source of protein and omega 3 fatty acids, and inexpensive for what you get. So in trying to intrude and control for the good of the people, they are actually doing a disservice.

  6. Militaris Artifex says:

    #s 3 & 4 — Words Matter,

    I fundamentally disagree with what I take to be your point in stating

    (Y)ou can have an organized community, or you can have chaos where nothing gets done.

    This is a false dichotomy between the “nanny” state and anarchy. The state (government) has a role to play in maintaining liberty, but that role isn’t to provide the sort of security which is promised by progressivism, but can never be delivered over the long run without destroying both liberty and prosperity. Furthermore, one of the things the history of democratic states demonstrates is that, almost without fail, bureaucracy ultimately destroys liberty, not because bureaucrats are necessarily bad people, but rather because the elected officials, to whom the bureaucrats answer, end up justifying the ever increasing compromise of their, and the nation’s, principles on the rationalization that “they must remain in office to see to it that the good things their constituents sent them to accomplish get done”. Ultimately, the electorate comes to a realization (whether conscious or not) that they can enrich themselves by the simple expedient of directing their elected representatives to tax everyone more heavily, but especially those who are particularly well off.

    Think about your screen name. Do you actually believe it? If so, I would ask you to name one example of a liberal (in the sense of Hume and Locke) democratic nation that has survived more than a few hundred years, without falling into just that sort of decay and corruption. The UK is certainly “way over the top,” but there are far too many ways in which this country (the U.S.) has followed steadily along behind her, beginning not later than about 70 or so years ago.

  7. Words Matter says:

    MA –

    The dichotomy I posit is political philosophy vs. organizational structures (bureacracy) that enact the philosophy. “Nanny state” is an example of the former; the British National Health Service is an example of the latter, as is the county clerk’s office that processes auto registrations. Whether the state should be in the business of providing (or insuring) health care (or licensing vehicles) is a political discussion. The means of doing so is more technical.

    You know, I can’t think of a modern liberal democracy that’s a few hundred years old. There are certainly nations that have lasted hundreds and thousands of years, but not as democracies. For “nanny state” control, though in a different sense than we are discussing, you might think of Henry VIII, Napolean, some Russian Czars, any number of Chinese emperors, and so on. It’s that a fallen humanity cannot sustain a democratic form of government over the long run. But that’s discussion of political philosophy. 😉

  8. Militaris Artifex says:

    #7 Words Matter,

    I concur with your last post. My objection was based on the absence of any distinction between politics and administration in the earlier post.

    As to liberal democracies, I did not specify modern, but only relatively modern references to what might constitute a liberal democracy. Any democratically governed nation-state that rigorously adheres to the Rule of Law would qualify, regardless of its era. I can think of one, and only one, about which there is some indication that it lasted more a few hundred years, actually roughly 700 (and, arguably, still counting), namely the Helvetic Republic (Switzerland). I think that your assertion that

    … a fallen humanity cannot sustain a democratic form of government over the long run.

    is, at best, unproven, but may be generally correct, provided that we omit the case of a democratically ruled state being overrun by an outside aggressor.

    Lastly, given that you do not challenge my assertion that bureaucrats in democracies generally tend (more or less strongly) to succumb to improper desires on the part of their elected superiors, I would, therefore, assume that you take no serious issue with the assortment, or general effectiveness, of the blandishments to which they are subjected by the very nature of their jobs. I reiterate from my earlier post that this is not a blanket condemnation of bureaucrats. I am simply observaing that, given career-long conflicts between serving the public good in a minimally-intrusive manner as opposed to seeing oneself as part of the progressivist vision, ultimately results in many instances where the principled bureaucrat ultimately chooses to “opt out” of bureaucracy, leaving the field increasingly to those who are willing to compromise their principles (assuming they have any we might agree upon) in order to advance their careers.

  9. Militaris Artifex says:


    P.S.: Although not technically a bureaucrat, I did serve twenty years in the U.S. Navy, and have worked for the past three years in a technical capacity (hydrography and nautical cartography) in a federal agency.

  10. Words Matter says:

    Good call on Switzerland, although if my information is correct, it’s quite the nanny state on it’s own. And my apologies, since my last post should have read: It’s possible that a fallen humanity cannot sustain a democratic form of government over the long run. I did not intend to make the absolute statement as it came out; words matter, and editing matters as well. OTOH, I do tend to regard forms of government as contingent, not commanded from Sinai.

    You are right: I do not challenge the notion that bureaucrats may become toadies and yes-men. I would add that people in private industry do the same thing. In fact, it can be worse, since government employees may have more job security that would make them more resistant to elected officials, who may, after all, disappear two or four years from now. My point is that a governmental agency or a private business can be healthy or unhealthy. I used to know a guy, a programmer for IBM, and he had stories to tell. THAT was some bureaucracy, and they paid for it.

  11. Militaris Artifex says:

    #10 Words Matter:

    … if my information is correct, it’s quite the nanny state …

    That is also my perception, although I am not sure how far along the road it has gone compared to the US and UK, which is why I used the term “arguably.” Having now both exchanged amplifications of our intial posts, I believe our views are quite close on governance and bureaucracy. While I agree wholeheartedly that it can be worse in private industry at any particular point, I would stress that the market does have a way of rooting out the sorts of things you see in private industry over a period of time typically measurable in decades, whereas democratic government frequently takes much longer and has often required an external influence (read foreign threat or aggression) in order to halt the decline into that sort of corruption.

    Job security, like everything else of human design, can be used for either good or evil. I very much enjoyed our conversation—it has helped me clarify my thoughts.