What Modern Governments Can Learn from King Arthur and Merlin

What Modern Governments Can Learn from King Arthur and Merlin

If you want to understand the great theories of government, the historic philosophies of state, then you could study J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”, F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”, and the works of Locke, take a trip to the dark side with Marx, Engels and Hobbes — make sure to expunge their evil from your mind with “The Naked Communist” — or at least check out their SparkNotes.

It could take you many hours, much thought, and make you incredibly livid at the government…

…or you could save yourself a lot of time, effort, and if you have children involve them too, by reading a too often overlooked classic of English literature, T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”.

A fantasy novel about King Arthur, not exactly my kind of book, the 1958 classic includes in its early chapters a simple yet effective exploration of competing political philosophies, the wizard Merlin transporting the young, future king Arthur to the realms of differing species — fish, hawks, ants, geese, and badgers — each with their own ways of governance. 

The fish live under the strongman dictatorship of “might is right”; the hawks, though magnificent in their ridiculous way, live under oppressive martial law; the badgers are bookish but isolationist; the geese, free-wheeling but propertyless individualists, look out for each other in spontaneous order and meritocracy; yet it’s the ants that are most memorable. 

The ants live under the totalitarianism of socialism, with their one-sentence constitution inscribed over the entrance to the colony: “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY”. 

Somehow our current political leaders took this not as a warning but instead a guiding principle. 

Of course, we are not yet at the level of the ants — unless you’re reading from North Korea, which demonstrates how humanity can degrade itself — but increasingly, once everyday choices are being herded into one category or the other, forbidden or compulsory, or at least coercively discouraged and coercively encouraged. 

Here in Britain, a plan to forbid the branding of cigarettes, ditched for being ineffective, is now back with a vengeance, set to be enforced before the general election. All bread is likely to be compulsorily “fortified” with folic acid, despite fears that this may mask deficiencies in older people and objections to forced medication of the entire population. And local councillors are being encouraged by government health officials to put fluoride in the water supply.

Bizarrely, all of these intrusions — except the plain cigarette packaging — are already commonplace in the United States! 

Now, with the logic of a chocolate tea pot, e-cigarettes — which emit only harmless water vapour — are being prohibited because, apparently, they “normalise smoking”, in presumably the same way remote controlled cars normalise dangerous driving, water pistols normalise mass shootings, and kids wearing baseball caps normalise William Hague.

As a child my sister would tie Barbie dolls to the tracks of my train set, speeding the locomotive at them, so presumably being a villain in a black & white silent western movie was “normalised” in our family? It is, of course, insanity. 

Similarly the rubbish is only collected every other week in most English boroughs, so as to effectively make recycling compulsory. The House of Lords now wants to prohibit “buy one get one free” offers to reduce waste.

Parents are now not only told by schools what their children can wear (strict uniform, rather than dress codes), how they do their hair, and what they can feed them for lunch, but are now prohibited by law from taking them out of school! 

Likewise in the US, already fortified in bread and fluoridated in water, health insurance that people do not want, covering treatments they do not believe are ethical, is now compulsory — “the law of the land” as leftists ridiculously repeat, as if that makes it beyond criticism.

In cases now heading for the Supreme Court, Barry Goldwater’s fears about the Civil Rights Act intruding on private business are colliding with gay marriage as wedding photographers and bakers face fine if not imprisonment for not wanting the custom. A Christian guest house owner in England was likewise prosecuted. 

Like the sign over the entrance to the ant colony: “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY”. 

Yet as well as offering warning, T.H. White offered an alternative. In a discussion, Sir Kay suggests “there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings — you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way from saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests by the sword.”

Sounds familiar to the modern ear, yet it was rejected by the book’s Merlin: “There was just such a man — an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ.

“Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.”

It is that lesson in forbearing force, respecting individual freedom and seeking persuasion rather than coercion that T.H. White dedicates the earlier chapters of the book to teaching the young Arthur, which our nanny-state meddlers have forgotten, and which voters must demand from candidates – otherwise there is just one direction we are travelling in: 

“EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY”. 

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