That Sheep May Safely Graze – Old Article

Sean Gabb

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 153
26th September 2006
14th June 2006
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That Sheep May Safely Graze
by Sean Gabb
This evening, the 26th September 2006, the BBC will broadcast its latest Whistleblower programme. This investigates the sharp and often illegal practices of court bailiffs. They are accused of tricking debtors—and frequently third parties —out of thousands of pounds that are not owed. According to a report in The Daily Mail, the bailiffs in one firm are accused of:

  • Doubling or tripling a judgment debt, and then appearing generous by deducting £100—and keeping the whole excess for themselves;
  • Telling the relatives of debtors that they would have their own possessions seized;
  • Threatening debtors with violence;
  • Breaking and entering the premises of debtors and of third parties. So far as they are true—and I have not seen the programme in question—these accusations show patterns of behaviour of which I was not previously aware. Now, of course, if the law has been broken, those breaking it, and those procuring its breach, must be punished. If the law has been abused, it must be changed, so that the rights of debtors and of third parties are more effectively protected. There can be no doubt of this. Laws exist to shield the innocent and to protect the legitimate rights of all. They should not be suffered to exist as a systematic weapon for the unscrupulous. This being said, the story raises a disturbing thought in my mind. This is to what extent people who think and behave like sheep deserve to be treated like human beings.

    If someone knocks on your door waving a piece of paper and demanding money, it is reasonable to expect that you will insist on reading that piece of paper. If you do not understand the meaning of the words on that piece of paper, it is reasonable to expect that you will demand an explanation of its meaning. If a satisfactory explanation is not given, it is reasonable to expect that you will seek advice from someone else who is competent to give such advice. If you stand aside and let him in to burgle your home, you have—in what is still a country based on law— consented to your own oppression. I believe that some of the victims whose stories are told in the programme could not be expected fully to insist on their legal rights. There is the story of a man dying of cancer, who was plundered because someone else had illegally used his disabled parking badge. There is the story of children terrorised with the threat that their mother would be sent to prison for non-payment of a debt. But many of the victims of these bailiffs were adults operating under no obvious defect of health. These people do not seem to have behaved reasonably in the face of purported authority. So far as they failed to challenge the legality of what was done to them, they largely have themselves to blame. Now, I can hear an answer forming to what I have just said. “Sean” it goes, “you are middle class. You have a legal education. You are not particularly frightened of the ordinary organs of the British State. You know roughly what your rights are and how to get them respected. These are poor and ignorant people whose attitude to authority is one of terrified respect. They do not know what their rights are. They do not know how to find out what these are or how to enforce them. You cannot expect them to behave as you might in their position. You are speaking like one of those people who give libertarianism a bad name.” There is something in this answer, and English law has tried for many centuries—if not always consistently or very well—to take it into account. The phrase “poor and ignorant people” is enshrined in the Rules of Equity. Judges have sought to apply contracts with such people with a requirement on the stronger party of just dealing. The problem is that, during the past hundred years or so, the poor and ignorant have been given the same political rights as everyone else. They are allowed a say in the election of a government. They cannot be trusted to look after their own affairs. But they are trusted with a vote that allows others to look into our affairs. If this were a problem affecting five or perhaps even ten per cent of the adult population, it might not be a serious nuisance. But is a problem that, during the past hundred years of so, has been greatly compounded. When he was alive, I used to discuss with Chris R. Tame to what extent many people, even in the better ages of our country, were two legged sheep. How many people, I would ask him, knew why they should be angry with Charles I and James II? How many people were in the habit of demanding due process of law in their dealings with the authorities? His answer was always “enough people to make a difference”. The difference between then and now is that there are not now enough people to make a difference.

    On the reasons for this change, I could write a book and still not do justice to the theme. But there are a number of reasons obvious enough not to need more than a cursory treatment. The first of these has been the rise of an extended welfare state. I have no principled objection to some state welfare. If people are, through no gross negligence of their own, in want, I will consent to pay taxes for their basic relief. This covers some maintenance for themselves, so health care, some education for their children. The law should not encourage claims. It should, much rather, encourage self-help and should encourage voluntary provision for much else. But I do not wholly reject some role for the State in relieving certain kinds of want. However, the welfare state we actually have goes far beyond these minimal functions. It discourages self-help. It tends to co-opt voluntary provision—where it does not positively discourage it—into the agency of the State. It has raised up an army of people whose attitude to the authorities is one of supplication. They have resigned care over their own affairs to the authorities, which stand over them as a parent does to a child. It is asking too much to expect such people to retain any habits of self-respect or of independence. When faced with the demands of authority—whether real or purported—they will defer. I do not need to enter into the further question of how such deference arose and is sustained. It may be purely a cultural change in response to changes of institution. Or it may be— as I suspect—a genetic change in the character of the British people. We lost close on a million of our best young men in the Great War. We lost millions of others in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to emigration. Is it possible that those who remained—these being less brave on average and less resourceful—then bred further generations of the similarly unfit? Is it possible that their breeding of these further generations was facilitated by welfare policies that externalised the costs of procreation? There is, I do suspect, something in this argument. But I do not need to go any further in its development. And it would lead me into connected arguments that it might not be in my best interests to elaborate. But indiscriminate welfare, I do not see any reason to doubt, has raised up an army of two-legged sheep. I turn to the second reason. This is the general corporatisation of our economic life. Until a few generations back, most people in the middle classes were self-employed. If they paid income tax, they dealt directly with the authorities. Regardless of whether they earnt enough to pay the modest income taxes of the day, they had to make all the important decisions of their lives for themselves. The great majority of middle class people nowadays are the salaried employees of large organisations. Whether these organisation are openly departments of state, or are state-privileged trading bodies in the formally private sector, they expect and impose habits on their employees of external reliance. These people resign everything from career development to pension planning to their employers, and defer in just about all matters to their line managers. They sell their time to a single client. If they are dissatisfied with the deal, they look for another. And never think to expand the number of clients. The effect has been very similar to welfare corruption. Most people in this country, of whatever degree, are not self-reliant individuals. Even if they acquire an intellectual understanding, they do not directly understand how free people think and behave.

    This explains much of how this country now operates. It explains the endless scare stories in the media—everything from “global warming” and “passive smoking” to the alleged danger of letting ordinary people own and use firearms, to the case for omnipresent surveillance cameras on the roads and in other public places. It also explains the demands that “something must be done”. Little of this nonsense, I agree, comes spontaneously from the people at large. It proceeds in nearly all cases from the agenda of various interest groups that want power and income for themselves and their clients. But the successful unpicking of our ancient ways proceeds from the fact that we are—for whatever reason—no longer the people among whom those ancient ways emerged and took hold. We have become like the Roman People of the early Principate. These were no longer the people who had faced down Hannibal outside the gates of their city. They were no longer even the people who rioted at the funeral of Julius Caesar. There were instead the tame people who let the funeral of Augustus pass without disturbance, and of whom that frustrated conservative Tiberius spoke when he condemned himself for having to govern a nation of swine. If there is ever a successful reaction here to this unpicking of our ways, those directing it will need to make some hard and radical decisions about the nature of political accountability. I believe those Victorian liberals were wrong who insisted that all adults could be trusted with the vote. But there was enough in their insistence for conservatives not to fight tooth and claw against the extensions of the franchise. But most people now are not to be trusted with the vote. This applies most obviously to those unfortunates who appear to have let themselves be plundered by dishonest bailiffs. It also applies to those who feel more than commonly sorry for them, and to all those who are content to have control of their lives be fought over by the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron. Some of these people have good incomes and nice houses. Some have good taste for clothing and antiques. Some have considerable formal education. But they are not the equals of those who cried “privilege” against the Ministers of Charles I—or who took up arms against him, or even for him. Some accountability is necessary for all constitutional government. But the nature of this accountability is not always most effectively based on universal suffrage. It cannot be so in a nation where the majority are in the legal sense “ignorant”.

    What it should be after any Great Reaction I cannot yet say. But I will watch this evening�s episode of Whistleblower with an uncommon interest.


  1. This is an excellent and timely republishing of earlier material by Sean. It’s highly probable that increasing numbers of people could find themselves in this sad position, in the coming months, owing to the gross economic failings of eighteen years of socialism and its imitations in the UK.

    This essay deserves wider syndication.

    The terrible strategic problem, moreover, of whether there are enough sentient and politically-informed people left in Britain to mount some kind of robust opposition to the creeping (and now overt) authoritarianism that afflicts us, ought ot be addressed.

    For my part I agree that you could lay much of the blame for this not just on the harrowing losses of mostly sane, brave, committed and relatively highly-educated young men in the two World wars: these events caused deep, possibly irreparable wounds to this Civilisation and to the human bonds which cemented it – like Frodo who carried the Ring, was injured by the Chief Bureaucrat on Weathertop, and ever afterward suffered pain and intermittent horror, these wounds will never be truly healed.

    Yet I would also suggest that the state assault on British education, its content, and its original rooting in Liberal Classical values, has lately been the main contender for guilt. You can’t maintain a population of human sheep fr very long if you allow such things as – (1) a grand, sweeping view of joined-up-history, rich in detail and cause and effect, (2) literacy that’s based on Latin , greek and proper grammar such that everyone knows what words REALLY mean, as opposed to what politicians say they mean, which is usually the opposite, and (3) a critical, skeptical view of public statements by officials, grounded in wide knowledge of geography and science both of which are encouraged by wide reading and inspired, messianic teachers. Sadly many of these would have been lost in the great conflicts mentioned, but also these made some new ones. Both Sean and I, and many others of our age group, have had the good fortune to have known some of these men, and to have been taught by them if only for a little time.

  2. Sean and David:

    The political and economic arrangements which people are subjected to do indeed — all too often — lead to a sort of “learned helplessness” which makes them incapable of asserting themselves and their rights. Form the “Twelve Year Sentence” of “school” through the moulding of individuals to act as interchangeable components in ‘top-down’ workplaces, people are not exactly encouraged to say: “Not with my life, you don’t.”

    I remember having a discussion with Dave Davis at his home where I expressed my concerns about genetic influences. At that time, he thought that the ‘convergence on the median range’ was sufficient to offset this worry.

    Karl Popper’s work really set me thinking about the role of social institutions. My proposals in:

    are the result. Criticism is always welcome!



    PS: JRR Tolkien was invalided out of the Army with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during WWI. He went on to give us the finest writing in the English language. That Western society survives is in no small part due to his work, which has inspired millions.

  3. Dear Tony,

    “SCHOOL” !!!! (I love your tone of phrase! I spend some hours of every waking day, nearly, trying to undo the effects of “school” on young people.) Some of us yet do Heavy-Lifting-Work, at the proverbial coalface of British-State-Diseducation, trying to shore up some of the rockfalls……

    Agree about JRRT. His intergrated “oeuvre” will go down, in time, along with the KJBible and Shakespeare (and others – I favour Kipling highly myself, and John Buchan) as among the finest and most powerful literary works of Man anywhere at any time.

    (Most of) the Booker “Prize” no-no’s (or should it be “Prize No-no’s” ?) will “disappear into the mud and slime to which they naturally belong” (not my phrase but a Buchan one from the early pages of “Mr Standfast”, arguably his greatest adventure story. I read out General Hannay’s spoken epitaph for Pieter Pienaar at the end of Standfast, adapted from Bunyan but used by Buchan, at my old-dad’s funeral in 1999; there was “not a dry eye in the house” !!

  4. Dave:

    Thanks for your reply.

    My three schools were each very different.

    Warren Road was a fairly standard State Primary. I worked hard, because I wanted to build roocket-ships to get at least some of us off the planet before the madmen in power blew the place up. I “won” a scholarship to Dulwich College. I wanted to go to Bromley Grammar with my friends. “Father” nixed that.

    After being suspended seven times and expelled twice (an all-time record!) I was swept off to Australia where the President of the Australian Bar Association found me a place at Geelong Grammar School.

    Most of my memories there are happy ones. The school took it for granted that training you to earn a living was silly (since the kids were the sons of Australia’s elites), and they set out to find out what you were good at, then they helped you shine. I still got expelled, two weeks before my Matriculation exams, for refusing to be beaten in the House showers by the prefects.

    I received a standing ovation from virtually the entire School the day I left. >:-}

    Until then, my schooldays had been like this:

    I was molested when I was 8, and the perp made me run home without shoes and socks over stony paths. He got six months in a borstal.

    At 9, I was blinded for five days when someone threw a pint of creosote in my face while I was playing alone.

    At school, they were repeatedly caning me on the upturned fingers of my left hand, to make me right-handed. I couldn’t write or play the piano for days.

    At 10, I was pushed to the bottom of Darrick Wood swimming pool by six of my schoolmates, who then stood on me until I lost consciousness underwater.

    The same year, a funeral car smashed the back of my head in outside Orpington Hospital, and I was in a coma for five days.

    At 11, I had “won” a scholarship to Dulwich College, a Koncentration Kamp for Kids. I was told I couldn’t be a rocket scientist. No escape…

    The first year kids had to parade and swim in the nude, while senior prefects looked on from the balcony. Good-looking kids then started getting beatings, five mile runs in the rain, three hour “gym” sessions with little clothing, detentions and suchlike. When they looked like “cracking”, it would be explained to them that having a “Senior Protector” would stop all that. When the kid asked “How do I find one of those?”, the Senior Prefect who was on the balcony would be suggested. The kid would then be inducted into sexual and pther forms of servitude, with reminders of what would happen if he didn’t want to “participate.”

    Little kids were caned in 2 hour beating sessions in the Prefects’ Common Room, while prefects looked on, doing things to themselves under newspapers. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just thought it was cruel.

    I was “suspended” seven times and expelled twice, after being sent, aged 14, to the tender mercies of Dr. William Sargent, the world authority on brainwashing and ablation electroshock…..

    Escape at last!

    The present Headmaster Graham Able has offered what apologies he can. So Sean needn’t emulate the finger-wagging pointy-eared legal leprechaun in Eminem’s “Just Lose It” video. >:-}



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