All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1978

A Prince Replies to Machiavelli: Philip of England on the Erosion of Freedom

Theoretically, the husband of the Queen of England is supposed to be strictly neutral and nonpolitical in his public statements. In practice, it appears that the Prince can no longer stand in the wings when large areas of British freedom are, to him, seriously at stake.

True patriotism in high quarters should now be expressing itself, regardless of the consequences for the personal security of the private home.Some may readily explain why he should now approach the bounds of protocol. For a constitutional monarchy such as Britain’s depends upon the working of an open and free democratic system; and should any form of totalitarianism threaten, it could brush the monarchy aside and either abolish or seriously emasculate it — as has happened in so many European countries. But another explanation might be more respectful, as well as more accurate: True patriotism in such high quarters should now be expressing itself, regardless of the consequences for the personal security of the private palace. And the Prince has such courage.

Although the Prince’s main “bombshell” fell recently, he seems to have been warming up to it for some time. In February 1976, he wrote: “The welfare state is a protection against failure and exploitation, but a national recovery can take place only if innovators, and men of enterprise and hard work, can prosper.” In January 1977, Philip compared Britain’s economic troubles to the spread of dry rot in a building. Britain, he observed, had “virtually left the league of the big powers” and was heading for the status of a Third-World nation.

2000 A.D. In Britain

But it was on October 27, 1977, that the royal feelings were ventilated with a new and astonishing gusto. The Prince appeared in an interview broadcast over Radio Clyde’s small regional station. He was taking part in a series of six programs in which prominent people have been invited to give their views of what Britain may be like in the year 2000. This, it seems, was his main chance.

Consider first one of his major conclusions:

It looks at the moment as if we can expect to see an increasing bureaucracy, bureaucratic involvement in virtually every aspect of the lives of individual citizens. If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, this will mean a gradual reduction in the freedom of choice and individual responsibility in such things as housing, the education of children, health care, the ability to acquire or inherit personal property, to hand on commercial enterprises, and the ability to provide for old age through personal savings and, perhaps most important of all, the freedom of the individual to exploit his skills or talents as suits him best.

Similar gloomy predictions have been made in many quarters in Britain for some time. The forecast of growing bureaucracy has long been heralded as only one symptom of a general complaint that has come to be known as “the British disease.” This disease is an amalgam of excessive taxation, low productivity, a low growth rate, strong disincentive effects of a welfare state that encourages people to increase their leisure at the expense of employment, and the increase of debt, especially foreign debt.

But in recent weeks there has been such improvement in the economic news of the external financial position of Britain, that considerable euphoria has broken out in government and near-government circles. It is true that sterling has now been converted to a hard currency. The British balance of payments, moreover, has made a dramatic recovery. Inflation rates too have been brought down from extraordinary heights, and now the hope is to reduce them to below 10 percent per annum by early 1978. Finally, there has been remarkable successes in obtaining oil from Britain’s North Sea.

Others are less jubilant. Inflation is still at a high rate, they point out; and so is unemployment. Judging from past experience, moreover, governments that preside over growing national incomes will be as tempted as ever to pre-empt the proceeds of growth in further extensions of subsidies to unremunerative (but politically “sensitive”) industries, to the extension of the welfare state, to further nationalization, and to a new expansion of bureaucracy.

North Sea oil, meanwhile, will not last forever (not much beyond the turn of the century). If there is a breathing space provided right now by such a “bonanza,” the opportunity should be taken seriously to diagnose Britain’s internal structural problems once and for all. For these do clearly persist despite the latest short-term evidence of external improvement.

Excessive Self-Interest?

It seems to be in the company of these observers, and in this context, that the Prince has openly placed himself.

What factors would we take into account before trying to look into the future? One of the most important is ordinary human nature, and if we are going to consider the future in these islands, we should look at this nature as it appears in the British character.

The Prince cautions that the law is “only as good as legislators make it, as sensible as the judges interpret it, and as effective as its enforcement.”Self-interest is certainly the most powerful characteristic of most people, and it applies not only in the strictly economic sense. Politicians, bureaucrats, social snobs and even churchmen have a primary interest in the field that occupies their attention. Like all facts of life, ambitions and self-interest are neither good nor bad in themselves; they only become good or bad in the way individuals give them expression.

The unscrupulous pursuit of ambition and self-interest, whether by individuals or groups, for whatever purpose, without any restraint, has always ended in disaster.

Prince Philip’s argument, however, does not lead to the stale exhortations of the Utopian romantic who expresses the wooly sentiment that if only we would all “live for the community and not for ourselves” all would be well. Rather, the argument (in our interpretation) develops into a more sophisticated and balanced one.

Prince Philip’s position indeed comes near to the broad philosophy of Adam Smith. Self-interest should not be snuffed out. It needs, instead, to be harnessed to wholesome ends. This can be done within a framework of appropriate institutions where there are clear rules, predictable consequences of violating them, and the absence of arbitrary power. The law, in other words, could be a stronger pillar in the system. But, shrewdly, the Prince cautions that the law is “only as good as legislators make it, as sensible as the judges interpret it, and as effective as its enforcement.”

A Stronger Moral Code

While self-interest should be allowed much more scope, the necessary restraints on it can be provided ultimately by individuals themselves in a world of abundant voluntary moral restraint.

The only completely certain restraint is self-control based on the voluntary acceptance of certain moral and ethical standards and principles. And this has been a country in which individuals have been inspired by or, to put it another way, had their behavior modified by the Christian ethic.

More precisely, Philip’s argument is that moral values and wise institutions complement each other: both are necessary conditions for civilization. If we do not watch the development of our institutions they might eventually contradict rather than support our ethical and spiritual values.

To take a very crude example, it was the combination of the doctrines of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party — more commonly known as Nazis — with a latent popular prejudice against Jews, which produced the concentration camps and gas chambers. This ghastly inhumanity was certainly not in keeping with the normal behavior of the German people and quite beyond the range of expectation.

Any final estimate of life in 2000 A.D. depends, therefore, on a guess as to which way “the battle of the minds” is going to go.

Prince Philip and Political Theory

The Prince posed the choice between a political philosophy which sees all power vested in the state which then concedes privileges to individuals, and the alternative position that the individual counts first and that inherent human rights exist. In the latter view, the State exists to preserve and protect the individual’s human rights to liberty and integrity.

But if we accept that the individual is of paramount importance, we must also accept that individuals, whatever their job or occupation, must have a common moral code to guide their attitudes and actions. Without this essential qualification, society would be reduced to anarchy. This is not a new choice. Every generation in every community has to make this decision at some time or another. On the face of it, the obvious choice would be the philosophy of the individual. Unfortunately, such a system depends upon individual restraint and good sense, and it is really too much to expect that everybody would behave like an angel all the time.

If we accept that the individual is of paramount importance, we must also accept that individuals must have a common moral code to guide their attitudes and actions.It is this human weakness which is always seized upon by the zealous reformers and those who always know better to justify their ambition to order the lives of their fellow citizens. The fact is that whichever choice is adopted or imposed, it is always easy to find fault with it, but provided there is open competition to find faults and offer remedies, all is reasonably well.

The Prince insists on the necessity for more long-term views to replace short-term expedients. The latter road leads so easily to irreversible despotism. We expected too much from government. It is impossible that perfect efficiency can be imposed by it, and even if it could the tradeoff is not worth it.

The pursuit of absolute efficiency in a free society can lead to unexpected consequences. Corrections of real or imagined faults lead to controls. Then, as the controls mount up, the costs and the bureaucracy, which is required to operate the controls, begin to escalate and the emphasis is no longer on the welfare of the individual but on the economic viability of the state.

Gradually — and always with the very best intentions and almost unnoticed by the people — the power of decision passes from the individual to a ruling group and the more power a ruling group gathers to itself the more it seeks to protect its position against individual opposition and criticism.

Once the law ceases to protect the rights of the individual from the gang — any gang — freedom is lost. There is a great and growing number of countries which have got into this situation and there is ample evidence of the restrictive way of life which has developed within them even to the extent of forcibly preventing their citizens from leaving their country, if they should try to do so.

Freedom Indivisible

A major problem is that each individual sees things from only his point of view and does not appreciate enough the fact that freedom is indivisible.

The media will fight if the freedom of the press is threatened; the law will fight for its independence; the businessman will fight for his right to exercise his initiative; the worker will struggle for his right to join or not join a union; and so on; but few of them recognize that an attack on the liberty of any one of them is an attack on the liberty of all of them.

Once a determined government begins the process of eroding human rights and liberties — always with the very best possible intentions — it is very difficult for individuals or for individual groups to stand against it.

The royal speech questioned the simple-minded attachment to unsophisticated and popular notions of democracy. Here it contained strong echoes of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill in their apprehension of what the former called “the tyranny of the majority.” The implication of the Prince’s observations is that the tastes of the “biggest gang” in the end will dominate all others and society will become uniform and homogenized.

We have developed a theory of democracy which holds that the will of the majority shall always prevail. This is very different from the concept of democracy as a system for arriving at a consensus where finally there is a compromise between conflicting points of view and where simple head counting is only used for special purposes.

Quite important consequences flow from the new theory of democracy. For instance, in an industrial society, the proportion of people living in cities and working in the major industries is much greater than those living in small towns and villages and working in small companies or on the land.

Few people recognize that an attack on the liberty of any one of them is an attack on the liberty of all of them.Furthermore, the proportion of unskilled workers in industry is much greater than the total of skilled, managerial, self-employed and professional people combined.

At this point, the Prince’s insight seems to lead him intriguingly to a recognition of some of the findings of the new American study called the “economics of bureaucracy.” That study predicts the further growth of bureaucracy for several special reasons – including the increasingly strategic position that the bureaucrat holds in providing advice to governments, advice that always, and apparently inevitably, leads to an expansion of the bureau’s budget and sphere of influence. But once under way the expansion can be cumulative, and for a special reason.

If we regard bureaucracy as comprising all people who in some capacity or another work for the government — including teachers, postal workers, policemen, and the like, the significant fact is that all these people have votes and an above-average propensity to exercise them at the ballot box. Naturally, they will all be well disposed to a government that grants their separate departments handsome budget expansion. Politicians serving the political market will accordingly be tempted to pass legislation conducive to the growth of public funds destined to boost the demand for public personnel still further. Once this group has reached a critical size in political importance a “tipping point” or a point of no return is reached. In the words of Prince Philip, “There is a new factor which will become increasingly significant: the people employed directly and indirectly by local and central government may soon outnumber all other groups put together.”

The Destruction of the Market

After such a “tipping point” has been passed, legislation will occur with new vigor and will cover all corners of life. Among the earliest victims of this feverish process will be the free market. In Prince Philip’s terms:

Black markets may well begin to flourish, while the major financial and commercial markets will decline. Consumer products will tend toward an average standard with a gradual elimination of items of better quality … the take-home element of wages and salaries will become relatively less important as all the major necessities will be provided free — in other words out of taxation, and also because fringe benefits associated with employment and trade unions will increase. This dependence on fringe benefits for even the basic elements of existence will ensure a very high degree of job discipline as the loss of a job would not be cushioned by the accumulation of savings or property, while employment direction may well make unemployment benefits more difficult to obtain and incidentally, it is worth bearing in mind that slavery is no more than a system of directed labour and fringe benefits.

The end of Prince Philip’s speech contained an embryonic theory of nationalism, a theory that views nationalism as a kind of calculated despotism over the minds of citizens. Such mind-control (and Prince Philip quotes freely from George Orwell) enables governments to conduct subtle propaganda to prevent their peoples from migrating to other, more desirable countries.

Whereas individuals in particular occupations recognize an affinity with individuals in similar occupations in other countries, the existence of an exclusive nation is the vested interest of national governments. Experience shows that the more powerful governments become, the more they tend to encourage a spirit of exclusive nationalism and a hatred and suspicion of anything foreign or multinational.

The Prince predicted that official nationalism “will lead to increasing state responsibility in cultural, sporting and economic activities and the gradual suppression of anything which does not suit the government economic policies or which does not appear to do justice to the national cultural ideal.” Was the organization of the Olympic games close to his thoughts at this point?

Can British Traditions Survive?

All the above predictions, the Prince conceded, might seem almost fanciful in the British context. Was it not unthinkable in Britain with its tradition of freedom and tolerance that such things could happen?

I can only say that there were people to be found in many other countries who felt the same way, but the unthinkable happened to them. And if you feel now I ought to suffer the same fate as Jeremiah, let me finish with a chilling sentence from the BBC’s interview of the Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn: “It is not how the Soviet Union will find a way out of totalitarianism, but how the West will be able to avoid the same fate.”

In the history of mankind, liberty has been experienced for only short and sporadic periods. And today it is enjoyed in only a few areas in the world. Freedom, indeed, seems to be a situation of unstable equilibrium. It is an unusual circumstance that calls for unusual men. Prince Philip could well be one such man.

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Dr. West, Professor of Economics at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, is the author of several books, including Education and the State and Adam Smith: The Man and His Works.