Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication
Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication

Interview with
Tom Bethell
by Karen Minto and David Oyerly

Biographical note

Tom Nethell
Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Bethell: I grew up in England, and attended boarding schools from the age of seven. Ill-advisedly, I then attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and even served in Her Majesty's Navy as cadet and midshipman, before realizing that the military was not my metier. Oxford University came as a relief. I was an undergraduate there from 1959-1962. My "major," though it was not called that at Oxford, was an unusual course called PPP, which stood for Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology. I was the first student at my college (Trinity) to matriculate in it. One had to take psychology, which was behaviorist and experimental, and in addition, I did philosophy.

Like undergraduates everywhere, I knew next to nothing when I went to Oxford, and desperately needed the kind of survey courses that they have at American universities. They liked to flatter themselves at that ancient institution of learning that the undergraduates didn't need anything so middlebrow. Which of course they did. As a freshman, you found yourself seeing a tutor within a week of arrival and then going off to the Bodleian Library to prepare for an essay due by the following week. Hard to believe, but they still didn't have Xerox machines in those days, and so you sat in a big reading room with hundreds of other silent, journal reading undergraduates. I would be ogling girls, mysterious creatures, and sporadically trying to read articles in journals like Mind, hardly a word of which I would understand. The approaching essay would be named, let's say, "What Is Truth?" My tutor was a very nice man, a logician named E. J. Lemmon. He was young, I now realize, perhaps in his early 30s, and I believe had been a student of Tarski's. A couple of years after I left Oxford, around 1964, Lemmon went to UCLA, climbed a mountain and the poor man died of a heart attack.

The big names in philosophy at Oxford at that time were A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle. John Austin had died about a year before I went up. I had very brief encounters with both Ayer and Ryle. I attended a lecture by Ryle, a distant, dry, austere figure, standing on the podium and making abstruse distinctions which were lost on me. He was then at the height of his renown, just a decade after the publication of The Concept of Mind. This was a book that anyone then reading philosophy had to read. It was influential indeed, but my impression now is that, in its attempt to reduce mental states to statements about behavior, it was utterly wrong-headed. I wonder how it is regarded in the philosophy departments today. That I even have to ask shows how out of touch I have become.

On the surface, at least, Ayer was more "democratic," with his matey soccer comments and his common-sense air. He gave a seminar at teatime in one of the colleges, and I remember going once, to a room filled with perhaps twenty students, some of them terrifyingly knowledgeable and self confident. Ayer himself held forth confidently, and I remember thinking, as I have often thought since about many other things, that I could understand the solution—if only I could understand the problem. So I was all at sea.

Q: So, did you learn anything there?

Bethell: I don't want to give the impression that I learned nothing at Oxford. Like many an undergraduate, I thought that philosophy and psychology held the key to understanding the "meaning of life." When I took those courses, I found myself studying instead the meaning of words and the behavior of rats in mazes. The initial impulse was to think that one had been shortchanged, intellectually. Now I don't think so. I learned something valuable, if not life's meaning. In psychology, I learned what science was and was not, and this was reinforced by some philosophy of science Karl Popper's principle of falsification, for example. As for Oxford philosophy, it was under attack just at the time I went up, in a book by Ernest Gellner called Words and Things. There was a lot of glee among those of us who so naively thought: Why aren't they teaching us about the meaning of life! I had no recognition of the sub-Marxist nature of Gellner's attack.

I now realize that for well over a hundred years, great fog banks of philosophizing, mostly Germanic, had been allowed to pile up undisturbed. There was then, and no doubt there will always be, a great need for the sharp, illuminating breeze of plain language, for clarified discourse, for an insistence upon definition. Read Bertrand Russell on Hegel in his History of Western Philosophy to appreciate the service that fog-dissipation can perform for philosophy. You may also find yourself laughing. The willingness to impress others by speaking obscurely is one of the greatest temptations of philosophy, and we should be grateful to the Oxford philosophers who attacked that tendency. Even if they had, ultimately, nothing more positive to offer—and I'm sure that they did—they performed a useful service by blowing away a lot of unnecessary confusion.

Q: Why did you move to the United States?

Bethell: The main reason was that I wanted to go to New Orleans. Music had been a strong influence on me as I grew up. Bach and Mozart were wonderful, but after Beethoven, I felt, it was all on a downhill path. Then something quite new and wonderful happened in New Orleans. I became very interested in that, and resolved to go there. It was to me a mysterious and wonderful thing that a new musical form had arisen in the U. S. around 1900—just at the time when it became undeniable that the European classical tradition was exhausted—finished; an arena only for opportunists of the avant-garde who exploit the gullibility that always surfaces along with the word "art." So I got a job teaching at a prep school in Virginia (Woodberry Forest), which I fondly imagined, looking at a map, was somewhere near New Orleans. It turned out to be 1000 miles away. In the early 1960s a good many of the early jazzmen were still living, some were even still playing.

Q: Can you say something about the development and history of jazz? What do you think of popular music today?

Bethell: The new musical language arose spontaneously in New Orleans, without the guidance of intellectuals or theoreticians of any sort. In the St. Louis area the same thing happened at the same time, with the sudden appearance of ragtime. And the blues emerged, also simultaneously. This was a near miraculous confluence, and it has never been explained. The jazzmen in New Orleans I spoke to could not begin to explain how it had happened. Not that they were interested, particularly. It's as though they were the unconscious "carriers" and transmitters of a musical language that had appeared only recently, but whose origin was as much a mystery to them as it was to everyone else. We probably know less about the origins of jazz 100 years ago than we do about musical developments in Europe 500 years ago.

At a purely subconscious level, the birth of a popular art-form that really was artistic had something to do with the emergence of America as the dominant nation in the world. It's all a great mystery, I'm afraid, and I've never begun to fathom it. I would have to add that the cultural indicators today do not bode well for the future of the country. We have seen great technological advance, along with great cultural decline. Amazingly, jazz unfolded along the same lines as the European classical tradition. It went from "classical" (New Orleans) to romantic (swing, big band) to modern (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker) to avant-garde and experimental (instantly forgettable), in the course of a single century. In popular music, there has been tremendous decline, especially in black music: from Motown to Rap in 20 years. Let's not pretend that was progress.

Q: Is there any popular music you like today?

Bethell: Waylon Jennings I love! I have been to hear him "live" more than once, and I'm a great fan. A lot of that country music from the '70s and even the '80s is sounding better and better. I would go and hear people like Reba McIntyre and Tanya Tucker and love it. Garth Brooks bores me, though, and I fear that Nashville is being contaminated by the same sissy, "caring" element, of which we already have a surplus in this country.

Q: Your book, The Noblest Triumph, is very a very tight, focused work; were there any notable deletions that you had to make, but nonetheless regretted?

Bethell: No, I didn't have to delete anything. And given the horror stories one hears about New York publishers, I have to say that my experience with St. Martin's Press was very good. There was no censorship, no political correctness, no ideological interference; no attempt, for example, to change pronouns to "he or she." My impression is that this atmosphere of toleration is dictated by economics more than anything. Most publishers are understaffed for the number of books they put out, and if they see that a manuscript that has been accepted is literate and tolerably well written, it is, increasingly, passed straight to the copy editor. In other words, authors increasingly have to be their own editors, and are allowed to have their own way, politically. My book went to a copy editor who works on contract for St. Martin's, and he did an excellent job, I thought, making good substantive suggestions in addition to grammatical and syntactical ones.

Q: Is there anything that you now wish that you had included in the book?

Bethell: I had intended to have a chapter on Mexico, describing the very insecure and limited property rights in that country. I collected material, but in the end never got it written. I knew after a certain point that I had more than enough for the book. But I now wish that I had done it. The subject is important because those who object to the vast immigration from Mexico in the past 20 years seem to have no idea of its real cause. It may be stated as a general rule that, given normal conditions, people would rather live in the country of their birth. Mexicans are no exception. They would happily stay in Mexico if they could find work there. And they would be able to find work if they had secure property rights. The agricultural communes, the ejidos, still have not been privatized. If there were as many people in this country pointing that out as there are agitating for chain-link fences along the border, something useful might come of it.

Q: Why did you write the book? Was there any particular motivation?

Bethell: I knew that private property was one of the most important institutions of Western Civilization, and I could see that it had been neglected. That was the starting point. If you are going to write a book, you might as well take on something important, and if you can find something that has also been overlooked, you're in luck. Property filled the bill. As far as I could see, it had been attacked far more extensively than it had been defended. So little has been written about it, compared to its importance, that I have no doubt that further important discoveries about property are yet to be made. It will be interesting to see what Richard Pipes makes of the subject.

Q: Richard Pipes of Harvard, the historian? He is writing a book on property?

Bethell: Yes, a wide-ranging book, dealing with the Russian experience and comparing it with the British; and with chapters on various other aspects of the subject. It's impressive that he took on a project of this magnitude while in semi-retirement. He is 75, after all. His book, called Property and Freedom, will come out in 1999.

Q: How long did it take you to research and write your book?

Bethell: I started working on it about ten years ago. Of course, in that time I was involved with a lot of other projects, including writing a monthly, 2000-word article for The American Spectator. The great difficulty was that I had no real outline of the book in my mind. There was no story line, so to speak. I could see that the classical economists had overlooked the subject, and that would be a chapter. The Soviet experience without private property would be another. I knew the U. S. had undermined property rights in various strategically placed countries in the post-war period; that would be another. I suspected there was something peculiar about the famine in Ireland; why had that country been unable to industrialize? That became a chapter. I realized that property in the Arab world was insecure. That was worth discussing. And so on. It slowly grew and reshaped itself as I wrote. And rewrote.

Obviously the amount of research I could have done was infinite—as it would be if one were to write a book about Western Civilization. One of the great benefits of taking a long time is that you can read over what you have written with detachment. If a year has passed since you wrote it, you can read a chapter as though it were written by someone else. The things that need changing stand out blatantly.

Q: You speak quite highly in your book of John Locke's defense of property rights. But isn't his theory essentially a labor theory of value? Does it have any relevance to a modern economy?

Bethell: I'm not sure that I speak highly of it, although I do take note of it. My feeling is that far too much attention has been paid to Locke's role in the defense of property. He devotes one chapter of his Second Treatise to property; and this in turn has attracted a vast amount of attention from modern academics, especially those on the left. They imagine, wrongly, that if only they can find a flaw in his reasoning, they will have undermined the case for private property. In The Right to Private Property, Jeremy Waldron (a student of Ronald Dworkin) devotes almost a hundred pages to Locke's argument. Academics were scribbling literally thousands of anti-Lockean pages even as the Soviet Union was crumbling and the Berlin Wall tumbling. It gave me some pleasure to point out that these modern-day admirers of central power are "objectively" aligned with the theocratic apologists of the Stuart tyranny, with whom Locke was in contention.

The point is that the case for private property would be just as strong if Locke had never written anything at all. That case is borne of human nature, not 17th century philosophy. I also doubt if Locke's arguments made any difference to the common law, which was already moving strongly in the direction of securing property rights and the enforceability of contracts. The simplest argument for private property is the minimal one. Property rights have to be assigned somehow if chaos is to be avoided, and the only alternatives to private property—communal or state ownership—don't work, can't work and never will work. Leave it at that and wait for one of the anti-Lockeans to come up with a defense of something else—state ownership, for example. But of course they wisely avoid doing so.

I want to put this more strongly because so much has been written about it by philosophers. The need for private property would be just as great even if no philosophical defense of it had ever been written. In sharp contrast is the case for "building a new society," as the socialists put it. That case really was created by intellectuals, and in the real world it soon ran up against intractable human nature. Private property is the other way around. Human nature demands it, and that cannot be changed, however brilliant or feeble the arguments on either side. The exponents of the common law in England would have understood the point. Their procedures and precedents, giving security to property, evolved in the courts without advice or consent from intellectuals.

Q: I was surprised that you gave so much attention to William Godwin, compared to Rousseau. Godwin is usually dismissed as an ineffectual crackpot, while Rousseau, of course, is considered to be a major influence. Why did you reverse their positions?

Bethell: It's true that Godwin was a bit of a crackpot. So was Rousseau, however. It's also true that Rousseau has been far more influential in the 20th century than Godwin ever was. I remember a few years ago talking to a professor of French at Stanford, Robert Cohn, a very good fellow who realized, as he approached retirement, that everything he had worked for was under attack by the modern-day vandals of the academy. To illustrate the point, he told me that Rousseau was on the reading list of no fewer than six academic departments at Stanford.

The importance of Godwin is that he launched the first major attack on property in the modern era, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Rousseau had attacked it, too, but his criticism was less significant, and Rousseau himself in the 18th century was not nearly so influential as he later became. Godwin based his attack on the new idea of progress. Human nature was improving of its own accord, and this would soon render private property unnecessary. This led straight to Marx and the "new man." Rousseau, by contrast, was merely nostalgic. Like the Romans, he looked back to an Eden before the Fall.

There's one point I would like to make in Godwin's favor. He disputed with Robert Malthus on the question of population—it was he who inspired Malthus' original Essay—and today everything Godwin said on the subject has been borne out. The Malthusian claim was falsified in Malthus' own lifetime. Yet everyone agreed at the time that Malthus had won the debate. Life really is unfair!

Q: Has anyone criticized this aspect of the book?

Bethell: No. Unless one is reviewed in places like The New York Review of Books, alas, reviewers are almost never given the space to examine a book in the kind of detail you are kindly giving it here.

Q: At the beginning of the book you describe the idea of progress as dangerous and that at the heart of it is the idea of a greater human perfection. But hasn't there been a real progress both materially and socially? Are both concepts of progress invalid? Does material progress require a belief in human perfectibility?

Bethell: No, it doesn't. You are quite right. There are two concepts of progress, and one should carefully distinguish between them. There has been real material progress, of course. Compare 78 rpm records with compact discs, or old cars with new ones. I'm not quite sure what you mean by social progress, as distinct from material. The soaring divorce and illegitimacy rates don't indicate social progress to me. But what 19th century thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx had in mind was a kind of automatic improvement of human nature that was thought to be occurring as a result of the forward movement of history. Hardly anyone believes that today. Bertrand Russell commented on Marx's "cosmic optimism," in believing that everything was inevitably getting better and better.

Incidentally, the application of that idea of progress to biology resulted in the theory of evolution, I am convinced. Darwin wrote his Origin of Species at a time when the faith in what one might call metaphysical progress was strong. He duly discovered "progress" in the rocks.


from Full Context, Vol. 11, No. 3
(January/Febraury 1999)

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