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by Theodore Dalrymple
Ivan R Dee, 2001
Review by Max Hocutt, Ph.D. on Dec 6th 2002

Life at the Bottom

In A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century father of modern socialist thought, urged his fellow Frenchmen to believe that the misery of the poor and downtrodden was entirely the fault of a greedy and grasping few who, enthralled by an unnatural desire for property, had usurped more than their divinely allotted share of things, leaving too little for the needs of their fellows. The awful result, Rousseau said, was the complete and utter corruption of human nature.  Lacking enough in the way of material goods to meet even their most basic needs, the poor had turned to pillage, prostitution, and pilferage by way of compensation, becoming in the process dependent, distrustful, dishonest, dirty, and diseased. At the same time, the rich, who possessed more of the world’s goods than they could use and enjoyed unwarranted power over their fellows as a result, had become wasteful, boastful, arrogant, and cruel as well as drunken, dissolute and depraved.  In The Social Contract, Rousseau allowed that, to restore both the witless poor and the wicked rich to their natural good health and kindliness, it would be necessary to redistribute wealth. Taxes for the propertied; government welfare for the propertyless.  From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.  (Yes, Rousseau said it before Marx.)  Equality for all.

In the nineteenth century, another French intellectual, the utopian socialist Auguste Comte, held that, to restructure society so as to achieve equality, intellectuals and politicians would need to be guided not by a reactionary religion, which now merely helped prop up the old and unjust order, but by a revolutionary science of sociology, which would expose its rotten foundations. According to the fundamental postulate of this new science, everything —including human behavior—is a scientifically determinate function of its causes and correlates; so, there is no such thing as freedom of will and, therefore, no such thing as responsibility for one’s actions.  In fact, it was said, the individual human being does not so much act on as react to his external circumstances.  Therefore, it is in the outward—particularly the social—environment that we must seek the causes and cures for the vices of the poor and prosperous.  Furthermore, ‘cure’ is literally the right word here.  Evil is not sin but sickness, and misbehavior, however wicked, is never the agent’s own fault but always that of “society.”  Therefore, the just and humane prescription for crime must be not punishment but therapy, not correction but compassion; not judges but physicians.  To explain is to exculpate; to understand is to forgive.

We are often told—especially by those who have no taste or talent for it—that philosophy is an idle pursuit that makes little difference to anyone’s workaday life.  This is a delusion that can survive only in the minds of people who take too shortsighted a view of human affairs.  No one who knows anything about the 20th century history of the West can fail to be impressed by how thoroughly the philosophy—or, if you prefer, the ideology—just adumbrated has permeated its institutions and imbued the world view of its populations.  The Soviet Union and its satellites were meant to embody the humanitarian ideals of Rousseau using the scientistic methods of Comte. These states have now failed, of course, but the socialist principles that they tried to enact are still very much with us.  Every society in Western Europe has a welfare state devoted to the confiscation by taxation of what is deemed to be the undeserved wealth of the rich and to its redistribution by government bureaucrats to the equally undeserving but less fortunate poor. Similar policies are in force in greater or lesser degree in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Mexico, and Japan.  True, most of these states have market economies, but it is widely believed that, because capitalized markets generate inequality as they generate wealth, they constitute regrettable, if unavoidable, obstacles to “social justice,” a notion that has been both emptied of all reference to desert and disconnected from all belief in reward for talent, hard work, or contribution to the happiness of others.  In  the countries just listed,  inequality is invariably equated with inequity and attributed to exploitation, from which it follows that the prosperous and powerful can have done no right, and the poor and powerless can do no wrong.  One is hard put to imagine how embrace of a political philosophy could be more complete.


Or more disastrous if we are to believe Theodore Dalrymple’s compact, 250-page, work describing how the Weltanschauung just described has created and corrupted the British underclass, the group that was meant to be its main beneficiary.  A psychiatrist, himself of humble origins and the son of a militant Communist, Dalrymple works in a slum hospital and a nearby prison in Birmingham, England, where he spends his off duty hours writing exquisitely crafted, acutely sensitive, and surpassingly intelligent essays about the problems and pathologies of his patients. This book is a collection of twenty-two of these essays, the earliest published in 1994, the latest in 2001. Each of these diminutive masterpieces seamlessly weaves perceptive accounts of the miserable lives of Dalrymple’s patients with passionate denunciations of the social institutions that were meant to improve their lives but have instead made them worse.

As Dalrymple views the British underclass that he serves, it now suffers neither from poverty nor from oppression, as usually presumed, but from self-destructive habits that are fostered by policy makers and government bureaucrats guided by beliefs that have filtered down, often in garbled form, from intellectuals who do not know what they are talking about because they do not live with it. To support this charge, Dalrymple gives us not statistics but anecdotes, heart rending stories about the people with whom he has for decades had daily contact. He acknowledges that these stories would prove little if taken singly, one by one, but he rightly believes that they acquire evidentiary force as well as emotional power when, told together, they begin to display a pattern. (For a statistical argument reaching similar conclusions, consult Charles Murray’s now classic but still sound Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980  (Harper Collins: 1984)).  His aim here is to assemble enough anecdotes to make the pattern manifest.  Some of his anecdotes are about Indian Sikhs and Pakistani Muslims, who not only cannot get along with each other but also cannot adapt to secular Britain; but these form a sub theme.   Most of the stories are about whites, who constitute the greatest part of Britain’s still growing underclass.

Dalrymple’s account of this class begins with anecdotes about violent criminals—murderers, rapists, thieves, burglars, drug addicts, and abusers of women.  The most notable thing about them is how they all reject responsibility for their actions, blaming it on society instead, while claiming to be victims of mental affliction and environmental circumstance.  Thus, one man excused his chronic thievery on the grounds that he had an “addiction” to stealing, and another excused his habit of assaulting people on the grounds that he lacked control over his temper.  Both suggested that Dalrymple would be to blame for future lapses if he failed to effect instant and effortless cures of these self-diagnosed maladies.  The thief also thought the wealthy were at fault for not sufficiently protecting their valuables; and the brute blamed the women he battered for provoking his wrath.  Other men even denied being the agents of their actions: “The knife went in,” was the phrase used by more than one murderer.  As Dalrymple observes, sophisticated and convoluted rationalizations like these are not likely to have been thought of without the help of intellectuals, who—as we noted in the beginning—have encouraged belief that, since the causes of conduct always lie outside the criminal, it is not he but “society” that should be made to answer.

On the standard social science answer, what society is guilty of is letting the lupine rich drive people to crime by making them poor.  Therefore, what society must do to absolve itself is eliminate poverty by redistributing wealth.  Dalrymple’s response to this popular theory is to point out —this time using statistics—that it does not fit plain facts.  The virtual elimination of poverty in Britain and elsewhere has done nothing to reduce the rate of crime; on the contrary, it has multiplied it.  Given any sensible definition of poverty, the underclass in Britain is no longer poor.  With the government providing housing, food, schooling, medical care, and monthly checks to nearly a third of the population of Britain, no one need lack basic comforts, much less material necessities.  By world standards, in fact, the “poor” are rich.  Yet, contrary to what would be predicted on the theory that crime is caused by poverty, the crime rate in Britain is now several times higher than it was in generations past, when poverty was both real and extensive. Crime is also rampant in such wealthy countries as the United States and New Zealand, but it was rare in the truly poverty stricken places in Africa where Dalrymple once worked.  This lack of correlation does not jibe with belief in causation.

 In Dalrymple’s view, the main cause of the spectacular rise in crime with the rise in prosperity is simple reluctance of the police to do their jobs. As Dalrymple angrily demonstrates with more stories, the police in modern day Britain often show less solicitous concern for the victims of crime than for its perpetrators.  Frequently repeated offense against the law is not enough to get a man jailed where the police, afraid of being derided as tools of the dominant class, believe that hardened criminals have a special claim on victimhood status that entitles them to special tolerance. Thus, a man who successively assaulted the nurses in Dalrymple’s clinic and a physician in another hospital was not arrested but twice turned loose in the street outside, leaving those who had called the police in fear that he would return to take vengeance on them. (Instead, he filed a lawsuit against the hospital’s security staff for its use of “excessive” force in restraining him.)   Similarly, a middle-aged woman’s pleas for protection went unheeded although she had been repeatedly robbed in the street near her regularly burglarized and frequently vandalized home. As Dalrymple observes, police practices of this sort encourage criminals by sheltering them from both shame and fear of punishment, while denying basic security to their hapless victims.

Dalrymple’s parlous tales about brutal and predacious men are followed by equally horrifying vignettes about the women who take up with them, bear their children, and suffer their beatings.  In one essay, we are told of a sixteen-year-old girl who had dropped out of school to live with a succession of violent men.  Typical of many other young women of her social class, she thought that leaving home to have fun and babies would be more exciting than going to school, and she believed that her consorts were displaying their affection for her by battering her during fits of jealous rage over imagined infidelities. When the severity of her lacerations (bruises, a broken jaw, etc.) caused Dalrymple to suggest that it might be prudent of her to leave the man who had beaten her, she indignantly replied that she could take care of herself.  Reminded that men are on average stronger than women, she rebuked him with the retort,  “That is a sexist thing to say.”

 Here, again, Dalrymple detects failure in the public institutions that are supposed to serve the underclass. The schools, whose job was to educate this young woman, had instead merely indoctrinated her in the pernicious nonsense of political correctness.  She had had no real tutelage in grammar or mathematics.  No attempt had been made at preparing her for a better and more satisfying life. Instead, in accordance with an intellectually fashionable “multiculturalism,” she had been taught that the self-destructive but egocentric behavior and coarse speech of the illiterate underclass are as good as the more restrained conduct and mannerly speech of those who were her social superiors. There had been for her no discipline in either liberal arts, practical skills, or personal virtues that she would need to earn a living or keep a household and raise children, much less rise in the world.  Instead, clumsy attempts at entertainment had been coupled with tiresome lessons in the rhetoric of class warfare.

Hers was not an exceptional case. As Dalrymple observes, even the most intelligent members of the British underclass tend to leave school early.  Excruciatingly bored by daily repetition of supposedly “relevant” but useless trivia, they decide to take up what will turn out to be an even more boring existence watching television during the week and going out to clubs for drinking, dancing, and casual sex on the weekends.  Lacking not only the skills with which to gain employment but also all interest in the larger world, these dropouts will have learned nothing in school that might help them interrupt preoccupation with their own unhappiness or break their sense of futility.  They will live for the excitement of the moment until drugs, debauchery, and degradation rob the men of their vigor and leave the women saddled with a passle of illegitimate children whose diverse fathers are nowhere to be found.   But no need to worry.  The state that failed to educate them will not fail to provide them and their children with the housing, food, medical care, and spending money that they might otherwise have been able to take pride in earning on their own. Having taught them to concern themselves only with their immediate needs and pleasures, the state will keep its end of a Faustian bargain by taking care of their future, devoid of meaning as it has become.

  Over and over again, Dalrymple reminds us that the demoralized behavior displayed by such pitiable people is not the result of poverty.  That they live in squalor he acknowledges, even emphasizes; but he insists that this is not because they are poor.  The problem of the underclass is, rather, that they have self defeating habits reinforced by public policies based on false ideas created by air headed intellectuals who do not have to live with their mistakes.  The underclass now have the material means to satisfy their animal needs. What they lack is the spiritual and moral wherewithal to rise above these base needs, and Dalrymple blames the government for that fact and the intellectuals who put the government up to it.  By saving people in the underclass from the need to struggle for a living, the paternalistic government denies them their birthright as human beings.  By encouraging belief that middle class aspirations are a form of treachery and middle class behavior is a form of reproach to their compatriots, this same government discourages these same people from seeking anything better. 

To illustrate his point, Dalrymple tells about the local housing agency, which eagerly provides apartments to slatternly young women with the illegitimate children of absent fathers, but does nothing to help a young woman with gumption enough to find an honest job and ambition enough to desire more education.  Why not?  Because a government devoted to serving need alone must not ask what caused the need, and a government devoted to achieving equality above all things must not discriminate on the basis of merit or desert.  As Dalrymple observes, people unlucky enough to be patronized by such a government are being systematically taught to behave in ways that do not serve them but degrade them.  In his view, the system serves only the bureaucrats whose jobs it justifies.  Thus, he tells of an agency that runs a smelly hovel for 95 homeless persons from clean and modern offices housing 41 well paid staff.

 However, hard as he is on the politicians who created this misbegotten system and the bureaucrats who administer it, Dalrymple is even harder on the intellectuals who inspired it and continue to apologize for it in the face of steadily mounting evidence of its horrific destructiveness.  Although it is possible that these intellectuals do not know what they are doing, Dalrymple is not about to ask God to forgive them.


© 2002 Max Hocutt


Max Hocutt, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, the University of Alabama; author of Grounded Ethics:  The Empirical Bases of Normative Judgments (Transaction: 2000).