Wednesday’s Child: An Old New Order
A university friend of mine, Peter Baldwin, whose book on the pandemic I mentioned here some months back, has just come out with another. The title is Command and Persuade: Crime, Law, and the State across History. Were I a libertarian, it would always sit on my bedside table, next to a tome of Ayn Rand and a sepia print of the Unibomber in a silver frame.
Trouble is, I’m not a libertarian. As a denizen of the residually free West, I perceive my habitat as the eventual Lebensraum of totalitarian predators that have encircled it, with the consequence that I wish the state that governs me to grow stronger rather than weaker, even if this should deprive me of ever more liberties. At any rate, such is my emotional impulse. Whether in reality this putative Leviathan would defend its denizens from the surrounding predators better, or at least for longer – or else, to the contrary, would be more likely to conspire with them against its own people, as authoritarian juntas often conspire with totalitarian dictatorships – is simply something I don’t want to think about. As I say, I’m not a libertarian because my emotions are in the way.
The author of this remarkable book, however, is under no obligation to spend time in the mind of this particular reader, a Russian émigré’s mind warped by decades of jaundiced geopolitical speculation. Baldwin is a historian who is addressing readers for whom libertarianism may well become an emotional as well as a ratiocinative lifeline, and the wealth of scholarship he marshals is extraordinary. Mind you, there’s not so much as a hint in the book that its author is a libertarian himself, or even harbors any more than very broadly libertarian sympathies. But his masterful handling of the subject matter, as indeed the translatory impetus he gives to the subject itself, is such that his book would make a libertarian of Pol Pot.
At times Command and Persuade reads like one of those “Did You Know?” or “Food for Thought” sidebars in Sunday newspaper supplements, but this only goes to prove that it is not a drily academic tract – as one might expect of a 450-page text fully one-fourth of which is taken up by footnotes – but highly readable and intellectually entertaining. Here is an almost entirely random sample, from a chapter entitled “Crimes of Thought”:
Sin and crime were eventually separated out. The transcendent religions of the Axial Age – Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, then Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – desacralized the world. God and the divine were elevated to a higher plane, no longer interacting much with the mortal and certainly not on a daily basis. By the nineteenth century, the legal reformer Anselm von Feuerbach was able to argue that God could not be insulted and that he certainly would never stoop to exacting revenge for injured honor.
Did I know that? And did I know that “the first national police force, the French marechaussée from the 1760’s, had 3000 men, the French army 400,000,” while today the police force in the United States all but outnumbers the US Army? Or that “the last known duel with a lethal outcome in England was fought by two Frenchmen”?
The book is a feast. I’m proud to have known the Chef de Cuisine when he was still an entremetier, a humble kitchen hand, with a portrait of Karl Marx pinned to the wall over the dormitory bed that we shared at university. His was the top bunk, which was just as well, because I never washed my clothes and slept with my shoes on when drunk.