What's wrong with the world?

In 1910, G.K. Chesterton (one of my favorite authors -- I highly recommend The Man Who Was Thursday and the Father Brown mysteries) diagnosed all the world's problems.  You can read his famous diagnosis, What's Wrong With the World, at Project Gutenberg.  And if you do so, you'll find that Chesterton was a bit of a monster.


If you don't want to read the whole thing, you can read Scott Alexander's excellent review.  Chesterton's ideas are wildly conservative, but they are beautifully written:

What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
Now (to reiterate my title) this is what is wrong. This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul. If soap boiling is really inconsistent with brotherhood, so much the worst for soap-boiling, not for brotherhood. If civilization really cannot get on with democracy, so much the worse for civilization, not for democracy. Certainly, it would be far better to go back to village communes, if they really are communes. Certainly, it would be better to do without soap rather than to do without society. Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wires, wheels, systems, specialties, physical science and frenzied finance for one half-hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a common tavern. I do not say the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.

Chesterton goes on to explain why modern (liberal) values are wrongheaded; he is against feminism, he opposes educating the masses, he is appalled by socialism and against industry.  His opposition is rooted in appeals to what he believes are universal values: the desire for order and prosperity, for equality, for each child to have a chance at happiness.  Of course he twists these values in the service of (what I believe to be) awful ends.

It is heartening, though, to see how thoroughly his brand of conservatism has lost.  Chesterton concludes his essay with a description of contemporary technocratic attempts to reduce the prevalence of lice among poor children:

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. Yet it could be done.

He ends with a beautiful appeal to what he believes must be a universal value, desired by all:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

That is, he believes it incontrovertible that little girls should have beautiful long hair!  If you ever doubt that we've come a long way in the last century, remember: the last, unquestionable value, the denominator of Chesterton's thought, is just unimportant today.  That red-heard she-urchin should be able to cut her hair however she damn well pleases.