Wednesday, March 21, 2012

There Should be a Law...

Why is it that public discourse focuses, with such ruthless concentration, upon the State, government and legislation? Why is it so difficult for people to understand that, though these realities are unquestionably important, they are not of such overriding importance that we should discuss nothing else?

If you declare that you are opposed to something—for instance, casinos, or 24-hour trading hours—many people immediately assume that you are calling for the government to ban these things.

Well, that may be so. I would be all in favour of a government ban on 24-hour shopping. But I don’t have to support such a measure in order to decry gambling or rampant consumerism, or anything else.

In the same way, if I declare my support for some institution or some philosophy—marriage, say, or poetry that rhymes and scans, or patriotism—then many people will instantly assume I am arguing that we should support these things through tax breaks, or changes to the English syllabus, or the pictures that we put on postage stamps.

Similarly, if I express support for censorship, my listener assumes I mean State censorship. I might. But I might also mean censorship by libraries, schools, radio stations or any other public forum.

This is the most insidious form of “statism” there is, and it is common to libertarians, liberals and conservatives. Perhaps the problem is that we have become too influenced by the image of the “town hall” and the “public square”.

Samuel Johnson wrote: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, the part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” It could be that "laws or kings" have more influence over us today than they did in Johnson's time, but there is still a great deal of truth in those lines.

I believe this form of thinking was the biggest mistake of Irish nationalism in the twentieth century—we became so fixated on the colour of the flag that flew over our parliament, that we neglected the more important parts of national revival—tradition, culture, social habits, folklore, dress and all the million other things that lie outside the realm of politics. Now we have a country of our own but we are less Irish than we were under the British Empire.

Think, too, how tedious it becomes to hear Irish atheists attacking the broadcasting of the Angelus on RTE, or religious education in State schools, or the presence of a Christmas crib in the GPO! We know what they are really opposed to—not religion imposing upon their lives, but religion itself. Let them just come out and say it—believers are big enough to take it. Let us have an honest debate about what constitutes the good in human life and human society, without hiding behind these sulky, juvenile protests over which side of the bedroom belongs to us.

After all, when “the public square” becomes a bullet-ridden no-man’s-land, nobody wins.


  1. A very interesting post which has set me thinking, and I feel perhaps a blog coming on, or maybe a longer comment later.

    For the moment, I certainly want abortion banned, and would not vote for anyone who was prepared to tolerate it.

  2. I totally agree with you. It's not that I'm particularly anti-statist or libertarian or anything like that. I just don't like the way public debate always seem to focus on the role of the state and of law. There is so much to the common good and the common interest that lies beyond that.