Efficiency and liberty — Great Britain

Discussion between E. M. Forster and Capt. A. M. Ludovici,
with Wilson Harris in the chair

The Listener 19, 1938, pp. 497–498, 530–531

- p. 497 -

I believe in liberty. I don't regard her as a goddess, and shan't be defending her on those lines. Liberty is not a goddess but a condition which occurs in human society, and the more of it there is, the more will each individual be able to do and say and think as he likes. No individual can be absolutely free and no society could exist if he were. But do let's have as much freedom as possible, and too much of it rather than too little.
        I believe in liberty firstly because it makes for variety of character, whereas in an efficiency regime you tend to get only two types, the bossers and the bossed, both of them pretty nasty. The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something and don't see life in terms of power. Such people found great religions or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested research, or they may be what is called "ordinary people" who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their friends. All these people need to express themselves, and they can't do so unless society allows them liberty to do so.
        Then I believe in liberty because it means criticism, and if there isn't public criticism there will be hushed-up scandals. That is why I believe in the Press, in spite of all its lies and vulgarity. That is why I believe in Parliament. Parliament is often sneered at because it's a talking shop. Well, I believe in it because it is a talking shop. I believe in the private member who makes himself a nuisance. Abuses often get put right just by being mentioned. Occasionally, too, a well-meaning public official starts losing his head in the cause of efficiency, and thinks himself God almighty. Well, there'll be questions about him in Parliament, and he has to mind his step more carefully in the future.
        Parliament reminds me of my third reason for believing in liberty. I believe in it because I'm English, and it has played a large part in our history. We've got habeas corpus, for instance, that precious possession. The best rough-and-ready way of discovering whether a country is free is to ask the question: "Can people be imprisoned without being produced in front of a magistrate in court?" In England they must be produced, owing to habeas corpus. And we've got the bill of rights too. We are not the freest country in the world — the Scandinavians are probably that — but we are well up on the list, and I'm proud of it. Now I'll sum up the dangers to liberty in this country, as I see them.
        First, there's the danger that comes from idealising force, and bringing it into the foreground to be worshipped, instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I admit that society rests upon force. But all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations,

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occur during the intervals when force hasn't managed to come to the front. I call these intervals "civilisation", and I want them to be as frequent and lengthy as possible.
        The second danger is hero-worship. Oddly enough, an efficiency regime can't be run without a few heroes stuck about in it too carry off the dullness — much as plums have t be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable. The hero is an integral part of the authoritarian stock-in trade. We in England don't produce him much; we produce varying types of humanity, a much finer achievement. But people who can't get interested in the variety of life, and can't make up their own minds, long for a hero to bow down before and to follow blindly. The third danger is the tendency of government departments — more particularly the Home Office and the police — to usurp the functions of Parliament and promote legislation by regulation. In a very insidious way, and for the sake of efficiency, they are impairing our inheritance.
        A fourth danger is the libel laws, or rather the way in which they are being applied. Such laws are of course necessary. The Law of Obscene Libel was passed to prevent the sale of pornographic literature, and the Law of Defamatory Libel to prevent individuals being wrongly and maliciously attacked in newspapers and books. But in both cases they have been pressed beyond their original purpose, with the result that works of serious scientific importance or of imaginative value have ben destroyed.
        A fifth danger is recent legislation, particularly the Incitement to Disaffection Act into which I haven't time to go.
        Well, that's my case for liberty and against efficiency. I shouldn't mistrust efficiency so much if it guaranteed safety. I have yet to be convinced that it does. All courses seem to me perilous, and I prefer the peril which carries on the human heritage and recognises individuals as individuals.


However desirable liberty may be, it has obvious limitations. No form of government can allow one man's liberty to interfere with his neighbour's. In a democracy like England even this rule is often ignored, but the question is, how far should everybody be allowed to say, think and do as he likes? As regards free speech in England, although, when he does say what he likes, the average man's wisdom and experience make it unlikely that he will say anything original or helpful, if he says anything merely unpopular or distasteful to the organised forces behind publicity, he is as quickly switched off as if he were in the totalitarian state.
        As to thinking what he likes, this, as a rule, he cannot do in any case. In all countries the atmosphere is so full of standardised ideas that the average man can hardly have a thought that is not in the air about him. The curious thing is that he feels free and original while having such thoughts. Thus the majority of us in modern England imagine ourselves perfectly free while being doomed to think that everybody has a right to his own opinion, although all mass opinion is today borrowed. We also absorb from our atmosphere that a sense of humour must be cultivated at all costs, and that it is right to provide for the physically unsound at the expense of the sound, that congenital physical defects are no bar to love and marriage, and so on.
        As to doing what we like, the democrat Bentham, with staggering superficiality, said: "The greatest possible latitude should be left to individuals in all cases in which they can injure none but themselves, for they are the best judges of their own interests." But, unfortunately, men are not the best judges of their own interests. Even in the matter of correct feeding, hygiene and so on, this is not so. Hence the necessity felt throughout history by responsible rulers, such as Moses or Manu, to give the people rules and beliefs regarding exactly how to live if they are to serve their own best interests. In any case, I cannot see how rulers, even in a democracy, who punish an attempt at prompt suicide in the individual, can logically leave men free to act in a way involving slow national suicide. And if freedom is based on no preliminary establishment of sound ideas about the way to live, national suicide necessarily follows. Only when a people's conduct is guided by sound ideas and beliefs can rulers safely sit back and leave all but criminals free. But even this freedom is, of course, largely illusion, even in a democracy.
        In modern democracies like England, however, freedom is supposed to exist chiefly because all may vote on questions they cannot possibly understand, and are free to make the wrong choice in a hundred fundamental ways in their private lives. If a free people's conduct is dictated by unsound rules and beliefs, the fact that they are free does not save them, and a government must interfere to arrest rot. Hence dictatorships and bureaucratic tyrannies tend to follow spells of freedom based on unsound beliefs and rules. Hence, too, Plato's view that democracies must lead to despotism. This has happened in some states of America and in Germany, where only healthy marriages, for instance, are allowed. In Great Britain, too, the government has at last felt bound to interfere, but being a democracy it has done so in a timid and ineffective way, and is now trying to correct the appalling effects of free conduct based on unsound ideas by launching a health campaign which hardly touches the evil.
        If we look at Great Britain after her long spell of freedom of conduct based on unsound ideas and beliefs, we certainly have small cause for self-complacency. For over a century the people have been pouring from the country into the towns, thus losing wholesome work, healthy family life, healthy surroundings, and character. Ill-health and physical inferiority have resulted. And since the birth-rate has been allowed to decline in all stocks, good and bad alike, no considerable source of regeneration has been preserved. Nor has there been any attempt to adjust the people to their new lives. Their feeding and many of their other habits are deplorable, and they have no knowledge of healthy mating. The resulting physical and mental wreckage has jeopardised Great Britain and her future, and it has imposed crushing burdens on the sound minority, and forced increasing family limitation upon them. It has also crippled industry just when it had to struggle against new and resourceful competitors. Agriculture has suffered, too, not merely from rural depopulation and the loss of skilled agricultural craftsmen, but also from unwise husbandry, and this despite the fact that it is dangerous to depend, to the extent we do, on the outside world for food.
        Even the people's mental condition has suffered. Coupled with a relaxation of discipline all round, and a public demand for sensationalism and highly spiced entertainments, there has developed a stampede into black-coated occupations, and a disquieting increase in suicide, insanity and juvenile delinquency. To correct all this, a wise government ought long ago to have interfered drastically. It must now do so more and more. Unfortunately, being democratic, it is likely to try to

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promote sound conduct by feeble, ineffective and costly libertarian schemes rather than by strict legislation or, better still, by rigorously inculcating the ideas and beliefs on which sound conduct is based, while continuing to grant freedom.

FORSTER:  I absolutely sympathise with your remarks about the decay of country life, and the growth of black-coated workers. I can agree with you, too, on our present exaggerated sense of humour. It is perfectly ridiculous, the fetish we make of it, this sense of humour, nowadays. I also agree that it is wrong to provide for the physically unsound at the expense of the physically fit, though I must say I didn't know we were really doing so, and I would agree, too, that more instruction on marriage and sex generally is desirable. So there are a lot of detailed points of agreement; on the other hand, we do differ on the big points. I have one chief question I want to ask you. I want a list of "sound" ideas.

LUDOVICI:  Well, what happens in history is that the regimen of a healthy flourishing people comes to be codified by a great legislator, and that codification registers the very healthy taste in the people which has produced their flourishing condition. But all codifications of laws about hygiene and a few of the marriage laws are really registrations of the sound instincts of a flourishing people by their legislators.

HARRIS:  But who sets the criterion? Who decides what ideas generally are sound? The Archbishop of Canterbury? The Prime Minister? Mr Lansbury? Lord Beaverbrook?

LUDOVICI:  Either the wise men in a community, or it is found among the traditions of the people. Take the laws about leprosy in the Middle Ages. It would sound ruthless today to read out the burial service over a sick man and cast him out of society, and to punish him if he tried to come into crowded communities, or to put a bell on his sleeve so that mothers might be warned to drag their children out of his path as he walked along the street. But such legislation was very severely enforced in the Middle Ages, and it undoubtedly did rid England of leprosy entirely without the help of modern hygiene and modern medicine.

HARRIS:  Possibly you're right; I am not very well versed in leprology. But how far do you extend the principle? Have Forster and I to regulate our lives according to other people's ideas, and, if so, whose?

LUDOVICI:  Well, an enormous amount is now known about health and hygiene, and I think you would do better to regulate your lives according to what is known on the subject than to follow what is now conventional in England, because convention in England is obviously producing an enormous amount of ill-health.

HARRIS:  But who is to tell you what you should do; who determines the soundness of ideas?

LUDOVICI:  That's quite another question. I should say that even where there is no scientific knowledge such as we possess today, there are in all societies wise and healthy men, true aristocrats, examples of flourishing life in their own persons, and they usually have reliable knowledge or instincts as to what should be done in most circumstances of life. And, as a rule, by using them as a guide and following them, you would be able to flourish also.

FORSTER:  So you can't really give me the list of sound ideas I was asking for? You can only refer me to the aristocracy. I think the aristocracy have great virtues but also great defects. I don't think they have been very careful of the conditions and conduct of those beneath them. For instance, haven't they usually tried to keep others in a servile state?

LUDOVICI:  I don't think so. The very snobbery of mankind makes ordinary people want to follow the example of the aristocrats.

FORSTER:  But are they allowed to, and do they get better when they do?

LUDOVICI:  I certainly think they are allowed to, if the aristocrat is the right sort of person: if, as Disraeli said, he has that "essential quality of aristocracy" which is "the superiority of the animal man", they will benefit by following him.

FORSTER:  They didn't set much of an example in eighteenth-century France.

LUDOVICI:  No, I agree that in the eighteenth century the aristocrats in France were pretty deplorable examples. They were living away from their estates; they were round the king; they certainly were not leading healthy lives, I agree. Now, I would like to know, Forster, how you would justify the consequences of the long spell of freedom in England as I have enumerated them — whether you don't agree, for instance, that there has been an enormous amount of mis spent life, ill-health, frustration and, what is more serious, a decline in some of our most important industries? And take suicide. The number of suicides per million of the population has gone up exactly twenty per cent in the last ten years.

HARRIS:  Is that general throughout the country, or only some particular area?

LUDOVICI:  The suicide risk in London today is twenty per cent greater than it is in the provinces, and it's the same in many other large cities. Juvenile delinquency has also definitely increased; attention has been drawn to this in Parliament several times. In 1930 there were 700 more cases than in 1929. In 1934 and 1935, despite the decline in boys of 8 to 14, the figures rose by a further 2,000 each year.

HARRIS:  Our prison population, anyhow, is steadily falling. That rather suggests that our treatment of young offenders is successful. It seems quite clear that they don't grow up to become criminals.

FORSTER:  I think your figures are impressive, Ludovici, but your main question, I believe, was whether I am content with the results of democracy.

LUDOVICI:  Yes. How do you justify the consequences of the long spell of freedom in England if, as I think it can be proved, there is this decline in what is certainly our oldest industry — agriculture — and all this crippling illness and disease affecting our other industries?

FORSTER:  My reply to that is that your diagnosis is all wrong. Whatever you see and don't like, you blame on democracy. I think most of our troubles come from quite a different source - and a much less mysterious one. The fact is that we live in a small island with coal and iron in it — that's the real root of the trouble. From that we get industrialism, and the secondary evils which we both deplore. And I want to ram this home by the example of another country, which you will hardly accuse of being democratic — Japan — where you have just the same situation: Japan has industrial troubles and her totalitarian government doesn't seem to be any better at solving them than we are.

HARRIS:  And couldn't you cite another country, Belgium? There you have a country largely industrial, which still keeps its agriculture and small holdings because they've learned how to combine agriculture and industry in a way that we haven't.

FORSTER:  Yes, I agree Belgium can be quoted. My point is that Ludovici must not blame democracy for our troubles.

HARRIS:  Well, of course, I agree with you there, though I certainly think something more might be done in England to balance agriculture and industry, and by some method a little more scientific and enterprising than mere subsidies to farmers.
        Now, here's another point. Forster, you spoke of the danger that the law of obscene libel might prevent the publication of works of scientific importance. That, of course, depends on what's genuinely scientific. I am bound to say that judging from the freedom of language that characterises some books that are published and some

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plays that are staged, playwrights and authors who go beyond that don't seem to me to have much to complain of, if the law steps in.

FORSTER:  I think they have; my main objection is that the law works so uncertainly. We never know where we are. I agree that some books shouldn't be published, but then you may get a serious work like Havelock Ellis' Psychology of Sex. You know it was suppressed?


FORSTER:  And the Law of Defamatory Libel — are you, as an editor, Harris, satisfied with that?

HARRIS:  No, I am very dissatisfied with it. There must, of course, be a law of libel. No journalist, or anyone else, ought to be free to traduce anyone, or cast aspersions on his character, irresponsibly. But juries have a habit of awarding swinging damages in cases where the worst that could be charged against the paper is inadvertence, or the publication of a paragraph just capable of being construed in and adverse sense though it obviously was never meant that way. Let us by all means have a law of libel, but a drastically amended one, difficult though the drafting of it may be. But we were really talking about industrialism.

LUDOVICI:  Forster, you said that the country would be industrialised anyhow, owing to its natural endowment of coal and iron. But surely it isn't necessary, just because a country is endowed with coal and iron, that it should become as unhealthy as we have become — if the rulers appreciated their responsibility, of course. But in a democracy, where people are free to go wrong in the most important concerns of their lives, there is nothing to protect them against their own bad taste, their own undiscriminating choice. There is no one with the prescience, the foresight and, above all, the authority to adjust the people to their new lives, so that they can keep their health.

FORSTER:  I think that lack of prescience can be found in all types of government. It is apparently to be found in Japan. Harris has reminded us that it is not found in democratic Belgium, nor I imagine in Sweden.

HARRIS:  There's one point on which I would like to hear a few words from both of you — the question of labour camps. I would be very grateful, Ludovici, if you would say why you think compulsory labour camps desirable; and why you, Forster, think they are undesirable — assuming, of course, that you do think they are.

LUDOVICI:  Yes, Harris, I do regard labour camps as desirable. I have visited them in Germany, and I have seen them at work; and I think they are a good thing, for various reasons. First, they tend to mingle all classes together, and therefore don't allow class prejudice to develop in your people. They inculcate discipline upon those who join them, at a time, very often, when it is most essential that some sort of discipline, both mental and physical, should be undergone. And, thirdly, they give everybody in the nation a rigorous bodily training and a knowledge of hard work. That is to say, men who are going to be lawyers or doctors find out how to wield a spade, and in later life they are far more likely to have sympathies with those who get their living by a spade.

HARRIS:  And therefore you would make them compulsory for all classes? What do you think of that, Forster?

FORSTER:  My objection to them is that they would lead to mental standardisation. People would have less chance of developing their own personalities and becoming creators and critics in after-life — which is what I want people to do. Of course, as regards the mixing the classes, I do think that is very good; and as regards better health and physique, that again is very good.

HARRIS:  But taking everything into account, you would oppose compulsory camps, would you?

FORSTER:  Yes, unless they were run by a government which I trusted and which allowed free reference to them in Parliament. No such government has adopted them so far.

HARRIS:  You wouldn't go further, and deny the right of the government to compel people to attend, in order to make them better physical beings whether they liked it or not? You start, I take it, with the doctrine that subject to his not doing anything to injure anyone else, a man ought to be free to do what he likes with himself?

FORSTER:  Yes. So I'm against all compulsion, in theory, but I admit that some sorts are less objectionable than others in practice.

LUDOVICI:  Forster, you talk about the evils of standardisation — making people alike. But are you really genuinely struck with the great differences between people in present-day England? What strikes me most of all is just the opposite — their extreme standardisation.

FORSTER:  Do you feel that way after you know people at all well? I agree that sometimes they all appear to be alike, especially if you regard them as fodder for some institution, but when you get to know them as individuals, some turn out dull, and others all alive and kicking.

LUDOVICI:  But labour camps won't alter or get rid of these fundamental differences. Dull people will exist always, just as brilliant people will exist always. They are born, not made, you know. But the standardisation you complain of seems to be a standardisation imposed by environment, irrespective of basic personality. And I can see that about me everywhere in England anyhow. And it isn't as if the tyranny of this standardisation were due to a few lofty spirits. Remember that it is standardisation under a democracy, which means that the value of an idea in modern England is not judged by the superiority of some great spirit who inspired it, but by the materialistic test of how many bodies, how much weight in mere flesh and bones, has turned the scales in favour of it.

HARRIS:  Not merely bodies. Every human body has some kind of a mind attached to it. But now there's a point, Forster, which Ludovici raised, which seems to call for a word from you. He spoke earlier of dictatorships and bureaucratic tyrannies rather as if they necessarily went together. But isn't there rather a serious danger of a democracy like ours suffering equally from bureaucracy?

FORSTER:  Not equally, because of that blessing, Parliament. But, of course, it is a danger, as many critics including the Lord Chief Justice have pointed out. Legislation by regulation, as I have suggested, is a growing evil. Is that your view, Ludovici?

LUDOVICI:  Yes, but my point was that it is the freedom of action in fundamental matters which in democratic states produces chaos, and it is this chaos which calls for official interference. Unfortunately, this official interference is usually merely pettifogging and tiresome. Although it never dares to deal with fundamental questions, it does lead to a large amount of regimentation. Thus, free democratic states ultimately land themselves in the worst kind of tyranny.

FORSTER:  My own observation doesn't bear this out a bit. Nor does my reading of history.

HARRIS:  So you end by differing. Well, that, I suppose, isn't really surprising. But there are points of agreement — many of them. Both of you, for example, go a good way together in your feeling about labour camps, though you, Forster, are definitely against compulsory camps, and you, Ludovici, definitely favour them. Where I think you differ fundamentally — and it isn't any use disguising the difference — is that you, Forster, think the less people are governed, and the more they are left to live their own lives in their own way, the better; while you, Ludovici, believe in people being very thoroughly governed for their own good, though I'm still not perfectly clear where your government is to draw its authority from. That, as I say, is a fundamental difference, and it certainly isn't confined to you two. It runs through the whole of society. We haven't bridged the gulf, but we may have narrowed it a little by debate and discussion. If we have, that, I think, is rather a point to Forster, for his thesis, the thesis of democracy, is that it is through debate and discussion that the right road is discovered in the end. If we went on long enough no doubt we should discover it.