Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Plus ca change/Plus c'est la meme chose

Hat tip Brad Delong for pointing us to this amazing post by John Holbo which ought to remind all of us to read Crooked Timber every day. Holbo goes back to 1772 to investigate the origins of, as far as I can tell, Ayn Randian conservativistic thought or cannibalism and infanticide reconsidered as tools of moral authority. The title of the post is vaut le voyage:

On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and their Children in Our Day

Its a little hard to follow but the basic premise is this. Under old laws illegitimate children (the children of "whores") were not permitted to enter guilds or otherwise apprentice themselves into trades. Since they, by definition, couldn't inherit land from their fathers they were doomed to have no trade and thus no source of income. "Liberal" Hapsbourg authorities occasionally proposed to allow illegitimate children some rights to earn their living but all right thinking "conservative" thinkers opposed this on the grounds that it would simply encourage women to whore around and produce more illegitimate children. Holbo quotes at length:

"In some states more has been done for whores and their children in recent decades than for wives in the last millenium. Every enlightened intellectual set out as soon as possible to free illegitimate children and their mothers from all possible shame, and thought he deserved the praise of the entire human race for having freed from all reproach the poor, innocent offspring of a love that was forbidden, but all too tempting. These measures were noble motivated: nature, humanity, and humanitarianism clearly favored them. Yet they ultimately demonstrate the power of the unpolitical philosophy of our century. Once again fashionable humanitarianism triumphed over civic sense. It was at best the application to political institutions of Christian charity, which ought to be voluntary. When it comes to civic rights, one cannot move directly from the voice of nature or abstract rights. For in the state of nature there is no institution of marriage, and as soon as one transers concepts from the state of nature to the state of civil association, one falls prey to a dangerous confusion, whose actual results are more detrimental than are at first imagined."


It is true that marriage has its burdens and discomforts, and that many prefer being single … [But …]

Our ancestors, who were guided by experience rather than by theories, always demanded a certificate of honorable birth before they admitted someone into their guilds and clubs … Had someone sought to show our ancestors that illegitimate children on the whole displayed more genius than others or that they were entirely innocent of the guilt of their parents; had someone sought to demonstrate to them by reference to the principles of savages that the greatest whores must of necessity have been the most beautiful, attractive, and charming, since they were so widely sought … [well, the ancestors would have had some pretty sharp words.]

Don’t imagine, incidentally, that our ancestors did not recognize the hardships which have motivated our progressive intellectuals to sympathize with the whores. The sack in which our ancestors drowned those who committed infanticide to free themselves from their shame shows only too clearly … [I am sure you see what the sack shows clearly] … thwarting the efforts of progressive legislators

[I can’t say that the argument is entirely clear. But the idea seems to be that letting the children of whores work will greatly encourage whoring, while only somewhat mitigating the shame of it, ergo only somewhat mitigating infanticide, leading to a net increase in drowned whores.]

… In states where marriage loses its value, the punishment of crime must become harsher [no mere drowning in a sack for you, doxy!] …

Just as the disgrace with which our ancestors burdened a whore in order to preserve legitimacy was rational and appropriate, so too is the blot which they placed upon illegitimate offspring. The same logic holds … [Divine law “disincentives” – his term, not mine – sin even unto the fourth generation.]

A law which makes illegitimate children equal to legitimate ones is a policy error so momentous that I don’t see how the humanitarianism of our age can forgive it."

Holbo's comment "Oh yes he did. He concern-trolled the humanitarians. With a sack of drowned whores. You can say that you saw it on Mulberry Street."