THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
Democracy, the State and Libertarianism
The limits of democracy?

The madness of youth writ old

When I was a naive youth of sixteen years, my headmaster called my father in for a discussion. I had been suspended from school for distributing revolutionary materials on the premises. I was the Vice Chairman in Wales of a Marxist-Leninist school students organisation; an offshoot from a Maoist splinter group several splinters removed from the party then recognised by Moscow as "the" Communist Party in Britain. Even by the 1970s, every creature with any aspiration to humanity had already left that.

The world seemed so unfair and I wanted to do all in my power to change it for the better. As a young male, of course, I vastly over-estimated that power. It's amusing now, but that miscalculation is a feature not a bug in humanity's software; a key engine in human progress. Young men are meant to be unrestrained by any sensible appreciation of their limits - even their mortality. We would all be living miserably in caves without that irrational self-belief.

I also wanted to be liked; not an easy thing for a bright, unsporty, boy in a bog-standard comprehensive. My peers - by and large - were reliably anti-intellectual. Loudly proclaiming my intent to build a better world was my alternative to being the class clown. As a means of endearing myself, revolutionary communism was a limited success. It did attract Mrs P., who told me later that - though she had no appetite for revolutionary violence herself - she thought "at least he's thinking, not like the other boys." Who knew?

Called into the interview with a headmaster who was as much a better chap than I thought at the time as my embarrassed dad, I asked defiantly what was wrong with wanting the world to be a better place. The answer, of course, is nothing - as long as your proposed solutions do not involve, as mine did, violence. I don't think it's too much to say that I was a little bit crazy at that point. I am not much embarrassed by that. Most 16-year old boys are crazy about something. Girls, football, drink or drugs perhaps. Politics was an odd choice from such a menu of delights, but there you are.

Over the years that followed, I progressed from believing myself capable of setting a path for all humanity to a more realistic appreciation of my limits. Most days, for most of my adult life, I was doing well if I could see a way forward for my clients, for myself and - in consultation with my wiser other half - for my family. People don't become older and wiser because they become more intelligent. The young man I am remembering was a lot sharper than I am now. We become wiser because all our mistakes teach us that a young man's boundless self-belief is a bit barmy and very dangerous - to himself and others. 

So what then to make of those who never lose that belief? Every politician who proposes the use of limitless state power to shape the actions of his fellow-humans is as barmy as that young man of long ago, without the excuse of youth. The ones who try to use it to shape their fellow-humans' speech or even thoughts are, in fairness to the young me, a lot barmier. They must know, in their hearts, that they are prone to mistakes in their own lives. What kind of insanity makes them think they can tell others how to live?

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