I recently read Zadie Smith's essay, "North West London Blues," in The New York Review of Books, and found it an insulting, devious, and roundabout way of trying to justify statism. The quote from the late Tony Judt tells it all. Here is what he said:
"We have freed ourselves of the mid-20th century assumption – never universal but certainly widespread – that the state is likely to be the best solution to any given problem. We now need to liberate ourselves from the opposite notion: that the state is – by definition and always – the worst available option."
Yes, finally humanity has made some spotty progress away from statism, from relying on government coercion to try to solve problems but, of course, those who love power – always for the greater good, naturally – are unhappy with this. Ms. Smith knows that respecting and protecting individual rights would be major obstacles to the statist ambition to do "for us" what she and her hero in this essay (Helen, the owner of a bookstore that seems to rely on state funding) believes "we really want but don't know we do." By implication, since we don't know it, we must be made – forced – to accept it from those like her and all the supposedly well-intentioned petty tyrants who would dish it out with the aid of the power of government.
Okay, so at times some of us don't know what is best for us; in that case, if it is important enough, we need to be convinced, not coerced. Anything more is a non sequitur! Exactly why some group is privileged not just to know some of what is best for us but also to coerce us to follow their guidance is quite unclear (unless we are children or invalids and they are our parents or guardians). Just because now and then some others among us know better how we should proceed it doesn't follow at all that they may assume the role of our parents and disregard our own choices, be they wise or not. So long as what we choose to do doesn't encroach upon anyone's rights, we must not be intruded upon. We may be advised, implored, urged, nudged and so forth but only when we consent will our compliance be justified, an instance of having seen the light and taken the proper course of action because of it. Statism is vicious paternalism, the treatment of the citizen as an infant.
None of this means that everything the petty tyrants propose is silly or vile, only that they must leave it at proposing what they deem wise and just instead of imposing it. Who are these folks anyway to take themselves as humanity's drill sergeants? Yes, there might now and then be an emergency that justifies pushing others around a bit but it must never be allowed to become routine, the way of the world! That is the reactionary politics of feudalism, mercantilism, monarchism and so forth, not the politics of free men and women.
The idea that Ms. Smith and her bookstore manager Helen are authorized somehow to compel us all to do what we should – be it reading books or promoting various left-liberal causes – is out and out misanthropic. What they may provide is education, advocacy, some imploring, but never any coercion however much they are convinced that we need their forceful direction.
It never follows from the fact that someone knows what's best for another that this other may be regimented in line with that knowledge. At most what follows is that advice may be given or a peaceful movement be initiated! The best evidence of civilization is that people treat each other as in possession of the capacity to reason and then to take advantage of that capacity, rejecting all the temptation of the barbarians to compel one's fellows to do as one deems right. Only defending against those who use coercion upon us justifies resorting to force, not even the superior knowledge of how we all ought to act.