Although he was used to dining with friends every Sunday, on one occasion Adam Smith ‘retired to bed before supper; and, as he went away, took leave of his friends by saying “I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place.” He died a very few days afterwards.’
Alas, the circumstances of a death are never so graceful, when confronted in reality. Professor Ken Minogue, born in 1930, died last week on a plane from the Galapagos to the international airport of Guayaquil. The island of San Cristobal hosted a special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. Ken had been the President of the Society from 2010 to 2012, before Allan Meltzer took over.
A professor at the LSE, he was a disciple and friend of Michael Oakeshott, with whom he shared many things: a conservative ‘attitude’, a deep knowledge of history that vaccinated him against any kind of historicism, and a splendid mastery of the English language. This short piece on ‘The Elusive Michael Oakeshott’ provides the perfect introduction to both of them.
Ken owes his fame to his The Liberal Mind, a 1963 classic now reprinted by Liberty Fund. His The Servile Mind, published in 2010, proves that he actually experienced a recent, impressive second intellectual youth. The Servile Mind is one of the few very great books of our age, a treasure trove of wisdom and ideas. The book explores ‘the evident problem with democracy today’, namely that ‘the state is preempting - or “crowding out”, as the economists say - our moral judgments’. Ken believed free societies to be joint associations of individualists, and feared for their future as the government increasingly removes responsibilities from any and each of us.
He knew that asking people to be self-reliant is nowadays a hard call, mostly mistaken for some vague nostalgia of Victorianism. As he wrote in The Servile Mind,
‘Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into responding to each new problem by demanding that the government should act. That we should be constantly demanding that an institution we rather despise should solve large problems argues a notable lack of logic in the demos. The statesmen of times past have been replaced by a set of barely competent social workers eager to help 'ordinary people' solve daily problems in their lives. This strange aspiration is a very large change in public life. The electorates of earlier times would have responded with derision to politicians seeking power in order to solve our problems. Todays, the demos votes for them.’
Minogue's view of the growth of government interventions was founded upon the tendency of contemporary democracies to do away with personal responsibility. ‘Democratic politics extensively consists’, he wrote most recently, ‘of the conversion of abstract classes of vulnerability or hardship into images of a persuasive kind’. People stop being individuals and become part of ‘classes’, eligible for government's benevolence. This transition from nightwatchman to 24/7 ‘helper’ not only endangers public finances (as the European welfare state is basically bankrupt) but also pollutes the circumstances that in the West allowed us to experience a higher degree of liberty than others.
Ken was a true intellectual, equally at ease while discussing Thomas Hobbes, Henry James or Gioacchino Rossini, and at the same time the most charming and the wittiest of persons. You were a great man, Ken. We will miss you dearly.
This article was originally published on the Econlib website on 29 June 2013 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Liberty Fund Inc. Liberty Fund is a private educational foundation dedicated to increased knowledge of a society of free and responsible individuals.