Free Life 36, April 2000, Dennis O’Keeffe on Political Correctness, Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 36, April 2000
ISSN: 0260 5112

Political Correctness and Public Finance
Dennis O’Keeffe
Studies in Education No.9, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 2000, 114pp, £10 (pbk)
(ISBN 0 255 36478 4)

In this book, Denis O’Keeffe explores the connection between public finance and totalitarian ideology, and how the resulting “political correctness” presents a threat to our civilisation as great as – though more subtle than – either national or Marxian socialism.

For many, political correctness is a bit of a joke – a matter of renaming firemen as firefighters, or trying to decide whether a black man or a white woman deserves higher status as a victim. For Dr O’Keeffe, this is to take a dangerously superficial view of what political correctness represents. It is not a joke. It is, much rather, a set of linked propositions about race, sex, culture and sexual preference that may not be challenged without danger to livelihood or sometimes even personal safety. These propositions have established themselves in education, in public administration, and increasingly in the media and in every area of private life. They have been accompanied by an abandonment of all those disciplines that strengthen the critical faculties – literacy, numeracy, and a regard for the intellectual traditions of the West. These have been undermined by what may be called asymmetric relativism. We are told that nothing can be proved beyond reasonable doubt, even in the sciences, that the boundaries between right and wrong cannot be sharply defined, that to denounce welfare dependency and self-destructive indulgence is to be “judgmental”. There is no corresponding diffidence about the rightness of any politically correct proposition or the actions suggested by it.

Of course, some people who hold these propositions have no very malignant agenda. They believe – and rightly – that black people, women and homosexuals have had a bad time in the past, and that a certain bias in their favour now, and an avoidance of offensive language, is wholly right and proper. But in its essentials, political correctness is an excuse for persecution of dissent, and is as much a betrayal of the vaguely liberal values from which it feeds as the Inquisition was of the Christian faith. It is not about freedom and equality within any existing society, but is about the separatism and supremacy of certain groups. Dr O’Keeffe explains:

The claims it makes about race, sex and culture imply an utterly bleak and non-negotiable reality. In each case a hated enemy is identified – men, white people, Western culture – and identified as irredeemable. Men are seen as intellectually and affectively quite remote from women, as are white people from blacks. Non-European cultures are viewed as having nothing in common with mainstream European culture. It is alleged that humans vary cognitively in terms of race, sex and culture, to such degree that we should think of white consciousness, science and art as utterly different from black mentality and thought, of the male mind as making no contact with the female mind and so on. [pp.45-46]

Anyone who accepts this has abandoned belief in one human race and in the likelihood that people of different origins can live together in peace and mutual tolerance. Though political correctness is most often pushed by those who used to be Communists, it is not in its nature Marxist. That always at least was claimed as a universalist creed that could resolve all differences between person and person. What we have here is much closer to national socialism.

The claim that men cannot coexist with women, or whites with blacks, is very like the claim that Germans cannot live with the untermenschen…. PC is an… ideology… [that] asserts congenital differences…. Like Nazism and Fascism before it, PC has inherited from European romanticism a mania for separation. Like these movements PC retains the equality principle in a restricted form. Just as the Nazis wanted equality among Germans and for them alone, so the various currents of PC remain egalitarian for their chosen groups. [p.46]

Though there have been thousands of victims of political correctness over the past few decades, few of these have suffered more than loss of income or status. There has been yet no politically correct Auschwitz. But this is to take a static view of the ideology. It is in its essence totalitarian and murderous in its desired consequences. To deny its danger on the grounds that it has so few victims is much the same as saying that Marxism in 1916 or national socialism in 1932 was not really dangerous.

His definitions stated and explained, Dr O’Keeffe now goes on to show how political correctness is almost entirely a product of government finance in education. He grants that government has been paying for education in Britain and America for a very long time, and the worst effect of this has been inefficiency and the discouragement of better alternatives. It is only in the past generation that political correctness has taken over education. But again, he says that dwelling on this truth shows a misunderstanding of social dynamics. Public finance enables education to be colonised by totalitarian ideology just as not wearing an overcoat in winter exposes you to higher risk of catching a cold – that you do not catch one for several years does not invalidate the claim that getting cold lowers resistance to infection.

The problem with public finance in education is that it makes government and not parents the customer. Governments do not have the same direct interest in ensuring that the curriculum is acceptable in the moral and financial sense; and though parents can organise to pressure governments into demanding changes, this requires commitment and political skills that few can be bothered to acquire. Dr O’Keeffe gives one example of resistance:

A plan by the Local Education Authority in one of the big London boroughs a few years ago to have the schools teach that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexual love was thwarted by massive opposition from Catholics, Moslems, Sikhs etc. [pp.81-82]

But as the public choice economists have shown, a majority will defeat a small but passionate minority only in those few cases where the majority is equally passionate in the other direction. In all else, the minority will get its way. Unpopular notions can be imposed in the public sector in ways that they cannot in the private.

It is Dr O’Keeffe’s opinion that

in the absence of public funds the growth of destructive ideologies would have been far less likely. [p.72, italics in original]

He continues:

Could the dangerous initiatives of sex education and other forms of ‘values clarification’,… have been mounted without public funds? Would many parents, before the long years of supply-led propaganda, have paid straight cash for children to be taught to call husbands and wives ‘partners’ and see sexual activity only in terms of self-gratification and prudence? Would people have directly surrendered scarce income to have children urged to ‘negotiate’ the moral order? [pp.72-73]

One of the problems with political correctness is, as said, that it feeds off liberal values that to some extent most people accept. Therefore, criticising political correctness can sound like a critique of liberalism. Dr O’Keeffe does not approve of homosexuality, and has a generally conservative view of sex. I think most libertarians would be happier with a concentration on how political correctness is an attack on freedom of speech and association. However, Dr O’Keeffe’s solution to the problem is one on which we can all agree. Cutting off all public finance to education and ending compulsion in education will not end the problem, but will confine it to a few exotic outposts where it will no longer be able to do the harm that it has done and threatens yet to do. In short, he wants to reprivatise education – to make it once again a matter for parents to decide. In addition, he wants an attack on the rest of the public sector. For Dr O’Keeffe, big government is not bad only or even mainly because it is economically wasteful, but because it enables an erosion of the moral order.

This review is inevitably short and cannot do full justice to Dr O’Keeffe’s book. I will therefore conclude by saying that it is easily one of the most original and interesting things published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in recent years. It provides a unified view of political correctness and an analysis of the public sector that combines elements of conservatism and libertarianism into a potentially devastating attack.

Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)

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