Monday, October 27, 2003

The Emperor's New Clothes

Lew Rockwell telling the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" at the Mises Institute’s 2003 Supporters Summit in Auburn, Alabama, on October 25:

Let's gain some insight into how governments travel the trajectory from high prestige to humiliation, by looking at the well-known tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes," by Hans Christian Anderson. It has much to teach us about the nature of the state and its stability in good and bad times.

In the story, an emperor had the ambition: to be well dressed. He loved nothing more than showing off his clothes in procession, so that people might be ever more convinced of his glory. Now, we might think of this as a metaphor for the ideological dressings that cover the state, of which there are many. The philosophers tell us that all societies need a coercive head to insure justice and fairness. The political philosophers say that the people demand a head of state to represent their interests. The economists tell us that the state is essential to the provision of public goods. The historians tell us that the state is indispensable for making war, which is said to provide the essential hinge of history. The justifications multiply and change as often, and with as much caprice, as the emperor in the story changes his suit of clothes.

Some tailors of pre-established reputation are employed to make him the finest set of clothes he has ever worn, but these are very shrewd tailors. They come up with the idea of positing the existence of fabric that can only be seen by the smart and can't be the seen by the stupid. The emperor is thus unwilling to admit that he can't see the cloth. He is driven by vanity to praise the tailors as brilliant, observe the glorious beauty of the cloth, and eventually wear it in a processional. He is surrounded by sycophants who are similarly unwilling to tell what is true.

He first sends a minister, who thinks: "Oh dear, can I be so stupid? I should never have thought so, and nobody must know it! Is it possible that I am not fit for my office? No, no, I cannot say that I was unable to see the cloth." Instead of admitting the truth, then, he says: ""What a beautiful pattern, what brilliant colors! I shall tell the emperor that I like the cloth very much."

Next comes the "honest courtier" who we might think of as the bureaucrat. He is shown the cloth and thinks: ""I am not stupid. It is therefore my good appointment for which I am not fit. It is very strange, but I must not let any one know it." He praised the cloth, which he did not see, and expressed his joy at the beautiful colors and the fine pattern.

Finally the emperor himself is shown the cloth.

"What is this?" thought the emperor, "I do not see anything at all. That is terrible! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be emperor? That would indeed be the most dreadful thing that could happen to me." "Really," he said, turning to the weavers, "your cloth has our most gracious approval;" and nodding contentedly he looked at the empty loom, for he did not like to say that he saw nothing. All his attendants, who were with him, looked and looked, and although they could not see anything more than the others, they said, like the emperor, "It is very beautiful."

Onward goes the agenda of wearing the unseen clothes at a major procession, and, sure enough, the population participates in the illusion. In the most dramatic and hilarious scene in the story, the emperor walks in the procession, as all the people yell: "The emperor's new suit is incomparable! What a long train he has! How well it fits him!"

Everyone knows how the story ends. A young child, too naïve to understand the exalted status of the state and thus to know what can and cannot be thought and said, notes very simply: "But he has nothing on at all." Another man, said, "Good Heavens, listen to the voice of an innocent child!" The spell is broken, and all the people lose their fear and cry out: "He has nothing on at all," exactly echoing the words of the child.

It is significant that the voice that shattered the illusion was not that of an intellectual, a bureaucrat, a politician, or even a clergyman. It is also significant that the voice did not come from the masses of people who had gathered to observe the state in all its glory. These people instead were all willing to suppress what they knew was true in order to retain their position and not depart from received opinion.

Instead it was the voice of a child that told what was true, someone too unschooled to know the merit of repeating propaganda and too young to be afraid to speak plainly. He did not observe something others did not observe. What was different was his willingness to speak about it. He caused enormous humiliation to the state, but he did not pull a gun or a knife. He did something far more powerful: he said what was true.

That a young person said what was true when no one else seemed willing is itself significant. Murray Rothbard was fond of quoting Randolph Bourne on the virtues of youth: "Youth puts the remorseless questions to everything that is old and established – Why? What is this thing good for? … Youth is the leaven that keeps all these questioning, testing attitudes fermenting in the world. If it were not for this troublesome activity of youth, with its hatred of sophisms and glosses, its insistence on things as they are, society would die from sheer decay…. Youth is pessimistic toward the present and gloriously hopeful for the future. And it is this hope which is the lever of progress – one might say, the only lever of progress... "

Once exposed by this young person, as the crowds join him in observing the absurd reality, does the emperor run and hide? No, he thinks to himself: "I must bear up to the end." And he continued to walk. We are told that the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train that did not exist.

In short, the emperor knows that, in some sense, he has always lived a lie. He is no more glorious and exalted than anyone else, and he may well be less so. But he has done well so far by pretending otherwise, pretending to be above the common folk and especially fit to rule them, so why should he change this posture now? The truth about him has always been there for those who could see it, but somehow the system worked. Now that everyone could see what was true, what could he do but continue the racket in hopes that the system would continue to work for him?

The story ends there, just at the most interesting part. One wonders how the affairs of state differed the next day? Was the emperor more or less tyrannical? Was he more or less successful in taxing the people? Was his rule more or less secure? We cannot know the whole outcome, but we can know that his status had been seriously diminished. And if we are to think of this as an allegory for the role that ideological garb plays in covering the affairs of state, we know that a major myth had been shattered and thus the grip of the state over the population weakened, even to the point at which the emperor might have to abdicate.

  • Read How States Fall and Liberty Triumphs @ LRC
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