Purification in China
To which extent is private morality (moral rules not enforced by government) necessary in a free society? This is one of the many interesting questions raised by James Buchanan in his 2005 book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative.
A tyrannical government faces a very different question: How much, and what sort of, morality will sustain or threaten its rule? This question is illustrated by the new purification campaign launched by the Chinese government (Ryan McMorrow, “China Launches Internet ‘Purification’ Campaign for Lunar New Year,” Financial Times, January 26, 2022):
The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet regulator, has instructed officials to sweep away “illegal content and information” and target celebrity fan groups, online abuse, money worship, child influencers and the homepages of media sites. …
The edict is the latest step in Beijing’s clampdown on the entertainment industry as authorities purge content deemed immoral, unpatriotic and non-mainstream from online culture.
The concept of private morality is fuzzy under a totalitarian government, which naturally wants to control all morality and shrink the private domain in that area too:
President Xi Jinping has unleashed a broader effort to reshape Chinese social mores and culture, diminishing materialism and western influence in favour of a more nationalistic and homegrown approach.
The most controlled societies typically show an austere and prudish ethics. The poverty that usually goes hand and hand with tyranny is an explanation. Yet, it is not clear that an austere morality is the only sort compatible with tyranny. The panem et circences (“bread and circuses”) offered by Roman emperors may be helpful to other tyrants. In the (literary) literature, we meet both the austere life of Orwell’s 1984 (although gin provides a security valve) and the medicated dolce vita of Huxley’s Brave New World. Our own soft tyrannies, as Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw for democratic regimes, are more of the brave-new-word kind. Can the state lead to Nirvana? What we can say is that the more totalitarian is the political regime, the more everything, including morality, must be oriented towards achieving Leviathan’s goals:
Censors have also escalated their culling of content deemed to be misaligned with the Communist party’s priorities.
It is a safe conjecture that publicly imposed morality undermines private morality, including habits of honesty, fair dealing, and trust. Generalized cheating and stealing were endemic under the Soviet empire. Those lucky enough to own a car, it was reported, had to remove their windshield wipers at night lest they were stolen (see Nina and Jean Kéhayan, Rue du Prolétaire Rouge (“Red Proletarian Street” [Paris: Seuil, 1978]). The tyrant can’t have both obedient and honest subjects. In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued a related point: totalitarianism, including unlimited majoritarian democracy, signals “the end of truth.” Without the conviction that there is such a thing as truth, there can be no morality except for the idea that the ends of the political rulers justify the means.