Chesterton on the State, Women’s Suffrage, the Death Penalty, and the Anarchy of the Home

Warning: If you have ever sincerely used the word “triggered” in a sentence, read no further.

My Facebook has informed me it is national Women’s Equality Day, the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Only at this site can you get this kind of goodness that is so horribly contrarian on not only women but voting, marriage, the state, and the death penalty. There is something in here to offend everybody’s sensibilities.

All that to say put G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World? on your reading list. G.K. Chesterton is an amazing writer and a peculiar thinker. You may not agree with all of it, maybe not most of it, but you’ll be better for it:

“Now anarchy is only tact when it works badly. Tact is only anarchy when it works well. And we ought to realize that in one half of the world—the private house—it does work well. We modern men are perpetually forgetting that the case for clear rules and crude penalties is not self-evident, that there is a great deal to be said for the benevolent lawlessness of the autocrat, especially on a small scale; in short, that government is only one side of life. The other half is called Society, in which women are admittedly dominant. And they have always been ready to maintain that their kingdom is better governed than ours, because (in the logical and legal sense) it is not governed at all….

“It must be remembered that the modern world has done deep treason to the eternal intellect by believing in the swing of the pendulum. A man must be dead before he swings. It has substituted an idea of fatalistic alternation for the mediaeval freedom of the soul seeking truth. All modern thinkers are reactionaries; for their thought is always a reaction from what went before. When you meet a modern man he is always coming from a place, not going to it. Thus, mankind has in nearly all places and periods seen that there is a soul and a body as plainly as that there is a sun and moon. But because a narrow Protestant sect called Materialists declared for a short time that there was no soul, another narrow Protestant sect called Christian Science is now maintaining that there is no body. Now just in the same way the unreasonable neglect of government by the Manchester School has produced, not a reasonable regard for government, but an unreasonable neglect of everything else. So that to hear people talk today one would fancy that every important human function must be organized and avenged by law; that all education must be state education, and all employment state employment; that everybody and everything must be brought to the foot of the august and prehistoric gibbet.

“But a somewhat more [classical] liberal and sympathetic examination of mankind will convince us that the cross is even older than the gibbet, that voluntary suffering was before and independent of compulsory; and in short that in most important matters a man has always been free to ruin himself if he chose.The huge fundamental function upon which all anthropology turns, that of sex and childbirth, has never been inside the political state, but always outside of it. The state concerned itself with the trivial question of killing people, but wisely left alone the whole business of getting them born. A Eugenist might indeed plausibly say that the government is an absent-minded and inconsistent person who occupies himself with providing for the old age of people who have never been infants. I will not deal here in any detail with the fact that some Eugenists have in our time made the maniacal answer that the police ought to control marriage and birth as they control labor and death. Except for this inhuman handful (with whom I regret to say I shall have to deal with later) all the Eugenists I know divide themselves into two sections: ingenious people who once meant this, and rather bewildered people who swear they never meant it—nor anything else. But if it be conceded (by a breezier estimate of men) that they do mostly desire marriage to remain free from government, it does not follow that they desire it to remain free from everything. If man does not control the marriage market by law, is it controlled at all? Surely the answer is broadly that man does not control the marriage market by law, but the woman does control it by sympathy and prejudice. There was until lately a law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister; yet the thing happened constantly. There was no law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s scullery-maid; yet it did not happen nearly so often. It did not happen because the marriage market is managed in the spirit and by the authority of women; and women are generally conservative where classes are concerned. It is the same with that system of exclusiveness by which ladies have so often contrived (as by a process of elimination) to prevent marriages that they did not want and even sometimes procure those they did. There is no need of the broad arrow and the fleur-de lis, the turnkey’s chains or the hangman’s halter. You need not strangle a man if you can silence him. The branded shoulder is less effective and final than the cold shoulder; and you need not trouble to lock a man in when you can lock him out.

“The same, of course, is true of the colossal architecture which we call infant education: an architecture reared wholly by women. Nothing can ever overcome that one enormous sex superiority, that even the male child is born closer to his mother than to his father. No one, staring at that frightful female privilege, can quite believe in the equality of the sexes. Here and there we read of a girl brought up like a tom-boy; but every boy is brought up like a tame girl. The flesh and spirit of femininity surround him from the first like the four walls of a house; and even the vaguest or most brutal man has been womanized by being born. Man that is born of a woman has short days and full of misery; but nobody can picture the obscenity and bestial tragedy that would belong to such a monster as man that was born of a man.” (p.170-71)

The quote takes place in the context of a discussion of woman’s suffrage and why up till then women had stayed out of politics (and largely still do to this day). Chesterton didn’t really have much of a problem with women’s suffrage as much as the idea that “when, therefore, it is said that the tradition against Female Suffrage keeps women out of activity, social influence and citizenship, let us a little more soberly and strictly ask ourselves what it actually does keep her out of. It does definitely keep her out of the collective act of coercion; the act of punishment by a mob.” By today’s sensibilities we are offended that their could a “Lord Chancellor but not a Lady Chancellor,” but we are much more comfortable that there could be a “headsman but not a headswoman, a hangman but not a hangwoman.” It may tell us as much about government as it does about women. “Government does not rest on force. Government is force.” And it has “rightly concerned itself with the trivial question of killing people, but wisely left alone the whole business of getting them born.” This it has left in the much more capable hands of women.

Chesterton connects this purpose of government with democracy and notes that in some sense the democratic participation in the making of laws made every voter a hangman. “All government then is coercive; we happen to have created a government which is not only coercive; but collective…Every statute is a declaration of war, to be backed by arms…. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him.” Now as individualists we certainly deny this, but it has some merit in the Misesian sense that even the most despotic dictators depend on a majority approval or at least willfulness to put up with it. It is still important to realize that every time you call for this or that to be banned you are calling for armed men to enforce those laws even to the point of death. He recognized later that the votes do not equal consent and by the large the public “plays the vote” as much as they have it.

In light of this Chesterton laments the end of the public execution (and I agree with him, if we are going to have the death penalty it should be in full view of the public square):

“On that disastrous day when public executions were abolished, private executions were renewed and ratified, perhaps forever. Things grossly unsuited to the moral sentiment of a society cannot be safely done in broad daylight; but I see no reason why we should not still be roasting heretics alive, in a private room. It is very likely (to speak in the manner foolishly called Irish) that if there were public executions there would be no executions.”

Even the hardest conservative might soften as question whether the punishment fits the crime were Snowden to hanged on the White House lawn instead of some remote prison basement. “The old open-air punishments, the pillory and the gibbet, at least fixed responsibility upon the law; and in actual practice they gave the mob an opportunity of throwing roses as well as rotten eggs; of crying ‘Hosannah’ as well as ‘Crucify.’ But I do not like the public executioner being turned into the private executioner. I think it is a crooked oriental, sinister sort of business, and smells of the harem and the divan rather than of the forum and the market place.”

“Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments; and all nations have been ashamed of them.” 

Chesterton’s point: the State is nasty business. It has had a long history of using the tool of legislation to legitimize what ought to be illegal and to enforce their claim with brutishness.

“Though some punishments are more inhuman than others there is no such thing as humane punishment. As long as nineteen men claim the right in any sense or shape to take hold of the twentieth man and make him even mildly uncomfortable, so long the whole proceeding must be a humiliating one for all concerned. And the proof of how poignantly men have always felt this lies in the fact that the headsman and the hangman, the jailors and the torturers, were always regarded not merely with fear but with contempt; while all kinds of careless smiters, bankrupt knights and swashbucklers and outlaws, were regarded with indulgence or even admiration. To kill a man lawlessly was pardoned. To kill a man lawfully was unpardonable. The most bare-faced duelist might almost brandish his weapon. But the executioner was always masked.”

Chesterton was not a pacifist, nor against the death penalty but “here,” he says “I suggest a plea for a brutal publicity only in order to emphasize the fact that it is this brutal publicity and nothing else from which women have been excluded” Women were pardoned as much as they were excluded from the crimes of statism:

“The mere modern veiling of the brutality does not make the situation different, unless we openly say that we are giving the suffrage, not only because it is power but because it is not, or in other words, that women are not so much to vote as to play voting…good motives as well as bad may have helped to keep women out of it. More than once I have remarked in these pages that female limitations may be the limits of a temple as well as of a prison, the disabilities of a priest and not of a pariah. I noted it, I think, in the case of the pontifical feminine dress. In the same way it is not evidently irrational, if men decided that a woman, like a priest, must not be a shedder of blood.”

“It is quite certain” said Chesterton, “that the skirt means female dignity, not female submission; it can be proved by the simplest of all tests. No ruler would deliberately dress up in the recognized fetters of a slave; no judge would appear covered with broad arrows. But when men wish to be safely impressive, as judges, priests or kings, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity. The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern.” Chesterton recounts later when  “I once answered a feminist (which means, I think, one who dislikes the chief feminine characteristics)..the question is not whether women are good enough for votes: it is whether votes are good enough for women.”

The question really is why should anyone (male or female) be allowed to coerce others by the vote in the first place. As I have said before the question of voting “rights” is an over inflated side issue. There are lots of problems with democracy. Democracy makes collectively possible for the broad masses to carry out actions otherwise illegal to carry out as an individual. As Bastiat wrote in the 1800’s:
“What agitates, excites, and unsettles the nations, would lose almost all its importance if the law had always been what it ought to be. In fact, if law were confined to causing all persons, all liberties, and all properties to be respected—if it were merely the organization of individual right and individual defense—if it were the obstacle, the check, the chastisement opposed to all oppression, to all plunder—is it likely that we should dispute much, as citizens, on the subject of the greater or lesser universality of suffrage?”

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