Whilst I was back in America (marking a holiday ostensibly commemorating the success of some dissident English people who were quite happy to be quit of that country) I discover that the Mayor of London – Boris Johnson, has stirred up many of my colleagues with a speech remarkable as much for its rhetorical bluster as it is for its deification of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I don’t really pretend to understand current British politics at all, and my sense of Boris Johnson prior to this was that he was this bizarre advocate of bicycles who also blamed their riders for their inability to survive lorry strikes. Perhaps giving people the means to kill themselves in the name of economic development is actually a Conservative thing in this era. I don’t really know.
But it’s Johnson’s invocation of history, as well as science and religion, that has me more knowledgeably confused. In particular I’m left wondering how he did on his own history A-levels (the exam which he so castigates) given his fond reminiscence for some gloried era of 1750-1865, when “we” as he puts it, “were by far the most politically and economically powerful country on earth.” While Johnson presumed to channel the dead and tell us what Thatcher would do if she were with us right now, I want to summon up a similar spirit from the vasty deep, taken from the midst of Johnson’s imagined golden age.
In 1792, William Paley (already well known for his book on Moral and Political Philosophy, and not yet the author of the Natural Theology) penned an essay whose very title is extraordinary: “Reasons for Contentment – Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public.” This was published widely in pamphlet form by the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, and Paley takes a rather conservative position (somewhat to the right of Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution)
The entire pamphlet is a rich feast for those whose preferences run to the shocking one-liner (perhaps we shall see the Mayor borrow from it in the future). But I am personally partial to Paley’s affirmation:
I (God knows) could not get my livelihood by labour, nor would the labourer find any solace or enjoyment in my studies.
Although Johnson seems to think that Britannia of this era was great economic power, that economic strength was certainly not felt by many people who lived in it. At the very least, there was widespread discontentment. The working classes who were drawing inspiration from the French Revolution, or from local movements against exploitive labour, or the nascent societies against British slavery (though Paley was also an outspoken abolitionist) give a pretty good indication that in imagining this to be an era of great economic success, a lot of people don’t count as part of Boris Johnson’s “we.”
Paley goes on to explain that there are great benefits to being of the labouring (or poor) class. Benefits which the rich men of leisure can never understand:
Another article, which the poor are apt to envy in the rich, is their ease. Now here they mistake the matter totally. They call inaction ease, whereas nothing is farther from it. Rest is ease. That is true. But no man can rest who has not worked. Rest is the cessation of labour. It cannot therefore be enjoyed, or even tasted, except by those who have known fatigue.
There are a few presuppositions and arguments put forward in this, some of which find clearer expression in Paley’s other writings. One is that people have natural inclinations towards certain types of labour pursuits, or to certain roles in society. Those natural inclinations give each of us an indication of the type of occupation that we are suited to. Paley, like many who understood the sciences of the human mind and of heredity of his day, presumed that there was an inherited component to this – that it made sense why those who had been artisans or farmers had offspring naturally suited towards those same occupations. Johnson seems to echo this wholeheartedly in his claims about IQ and natural inequality.
The reason for this, and the reason that labourers should find contentment is Divine Providence (in particular that aspect of Divine Goodness which the Natural Theology also promises)
But Providence, which foresaw, which appointed, indeed, the necessity to which human affairs are subjected (and against which it were impious to complain), hath contrived that, whilst fortunes are only for a few, the rest of mankind may be happy without them.
People have natural inclinations towards different occupations. These are largely hereditary, but they are also well-proportioned, so that society as a whole has the right ratio of artisans to famers to labourers to scholars to aristocrats. Through a diverse society made up of people following their god-given inclinations, the society as a whole can best function and ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the people.
This is where the most controversial of Paley’s theological positions, his “utilitarianism” comes in. A well functioning society produces the greatest joy and happiness for its consitutents. It is for that reason that divine providence has made it possible for “the rest of mankind [to] be happy without” great fortunes. One of the central arguments of the Natural Theology is to show that this principle of maximizing happiness occurs in nature. (In fact it’s on exactly this point that Darwin draws from Paley in the Origin of the Species.)
But Paley’s notion of happiness or of utility is a religious one that marks him as a different kind of utilitarian than Bentham or those who use the doctrine to justify an unrestrained free market. Ultimately, a divinely ordered society isn’t meant to bring about the most wealth or economic growth but the is supposed to bring about an ethical one, and one in which eternal happiness is also shared in greatest measure
It’s because of this religious vision of utility that Paley’s reasons for contentment don’t ring wholly disingenuous. Although people might be suited to different social roles, Paley does not find any sense that wealth or leisure is an indication of moral value
…some of the necessities which poverty (if the condition of the labouring part of mankind must be so called) imposes, are not hardships but pleasures. Frugality itself is a pleasure. It is an exercise of attention and contrivance, which, whenever it is successful, produces satisfaction.
Here is where we begin to see a breakdown of the similarities between Paley and Johnson, and perhaps an interesting criticism of Johnson’s gospel of greed. The idea that society functions better because of natural inequality is actually rooted in a overarching notion of divine providence (which is evidenced by both religion and by nature) and it is only able to work through the valorization of frugality and charity as means to an end. This is summed up by Paley in his Moral and Political Philosophy in the claim
that the condition most favourable to population is that of a laborious, frugal people ministering to the demands of an opulent, luxurious nation; because this situation, whilst it leaves them every advantage of luxury, exempts them from the evils which naturally accompany its admission into any country.
It is the role of other elements of society to give the labourers reasons for contentment, not just platitudes. A society that treat natural differences as a basis for a non-egalitarian society can only function (and should only function) if it is done in a basis of strong personal ethics. The strength of the British system for Paley, at the height of the period that Johnson seems to find most exemplary, is because of the cultivation of a personal virtue of frugality, not greed.
Whether or not Paley’s individually frugal but nationally luxurious society is sustainable (and divinely providential) is precisely what Thomas Malthus took issue with. Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population states that it’s unrealistic for a society to function in a way in which mere frugality can stave off population distress inevitably. However, in a footnote to the second edition of the essay (published after the Natural Theology) Malthus states that by 1802 Paley has come around to the idea that distress to some extent is inevitable. And that this idea of divine providence leading to a fruitful and successful society can only work if the “spread of luxury” is minimized. Even in the Moral and Political Philosophy, Paley had recognized that the society that the society that grows from the results of the laboring poor had an obligation to provide for their sustenance. This is almost exactly the opposite of what Johnson advocates in his valorization of wage gaps. Though Paley is by no means a revolutionary, his conservatism looks like a form of religious progressivism from the vantage of the 21st century.
Johnson’s present day claims of natural inequalities being good for society have their roots in the historical glorious era from 1750-1865 (leaving aside exactly from whom it was ever glorious) but the invocation of such a claim to valorize personal greed or advocate an abolition of the state’s responsibilities for the welfare of its people is a confusion of the highest order.