2003 May 02 Friday
Theodore Dalrymple On Doubling Of British Prison Sucide Rate

In an article on the causes of the doubling of British prison suicide rates since 1983 Theodore Dalrymple provides yet another example of reformers who make society worse in order to make themselves feel better.

Until the 1980s, when the suicide rate rose, it was an offence in prison to harm yourself or to make a suicidal gesture. Unless the doctor considered that you had a bona fide illness that led you to act in this fashion, you were charged with wasting medical time, and lost remission. The abolition of this harsh-sounding regulation was replaced by a more ‘caring’ attitude, and conferred certain advantages in prison upon those who claimed to be suicidal, which resulted — as any sensible person would have expected — in a large increase in acts of self-harm, of which there are now at least 20,000 per year in our prisons. But the abolition of punishment for self-harm achieved its most important end: the gratification of the reformers’ narcissistic urge to feel humane.

Why have outcomes become less important than whether the supporters of a policy believe they have a sincere motive to help?

Jane Galt made a comment recently that captures this desire to believe that a preferred outcome can be achieved by just wanting it badly enough.

I've been an English major. And the unfortunate tendency for those who are verbally fluent and spend four years arguing their opinion through footnotes and elegant phrasing rather than data, is to believe that a nice turn of phrase is as important as hard data. It informs the glib politics of many in the academy who often seem to think that the amusing bon mots of a Doonesbury cartoon constitute serious policy thought. And the reaction I get when explaining, say, rent control -- that somehow I'm just being mean, and that if I wanted to, I could make it so that imposing rent control improved the housing stock rather than destroying it.

Jane builds on her argument in a later post where she reacts to the latest foolish ramblings of Norman Mailer.

There is something about our literary culture that has caused its prominent members to believe that words are the same thing as facts, more important than the objects they describe. They seem to think that one can make up any theory, no matter how ridiculous, and unless it is dramatically falsifiable, it's just as valid as a theory that starts with known facts and basic truisms about human behavior and builds from them. They think style is more important than substance.

And for some reason, they're mad because the rest of us don't take them seriously.

While she unbloggishly (yeah, I just made up the word but it works) doesn't provide a link to the full text of the Mailer piece if you want to read some incoherent nonsense you can go here or here. Mind you, I've decided that life is too short to read lazy-minded and not terribly rigorous big name celebrities even if they manage to get themselves published in otherwise quality newspapers. The major value of the nonsense is that it prods better minds to a level of anger or annoyance that motivates them to write something worth reading. But if you either savour nonsense or savour being able to read it and tear it apart in your mind line by line have at it.

To return to the Dalrymple article: What I wonder is whether the therapeutic state will continue to expand in scope and in the amount of damage it causes. Many institutions were run more wisely before universities produced large numbers of credentialed workers to staff the various institutions of society. Lacking the "benefits" of higher education in previous eras the management of many institutions, using what was then common sense and practical experience, made better decisions than the decisions that are now made by seemingly well meaning experts.

My suspicion is that at the root of all the trouble caused by the sorts of experts that Dalrymple describes lies a unwillingness to accept human nature for what it is. There is a utopianism about the moldability and perfectability of humanity (especially in the hands of credentialed experts) that causes the credentialed experts to pursue policies that make things worse.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 02 01:45 PM  Civilizations Decay


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