Volume 2, Number 1, Winter, 1984


Big Nurse, Not Big Brother

By William D. Grammp

What George Orwell predicted for 1984 and what has actually come to pass makes one believe that Big Brother has given way to Big Nurse. Instead of a dictatorship that degrades people in order to turn them into servile non-entities, the governments of the West seem to want to look after them as if they were children and the state was a nursemaid.

Those who are fond of such governments call it the Caring State. It looks after its charges (or claims to) in sickness and in health as well, in old age and infancy, in their years in school, the years before and the years after. It keeps dangerous toys away from children and dangerous automobiles from fathers. Around each mother it places a mantle that protects her and the family from food they should not eat, clothes they should not wear, and furnishings they should not want.

In Britain the government, after much thought and even more talk, decided to permit the few television stations it allows to operate, to broadcast at breakfast time. Previously, there had been no programs until much later in the day.

The French government in its wisdom has decided that people who like popular fiction should pay more for it so that people whose taste runs to more serious matters can pay less for their books. This is to be done by prohibiting the sale of popular books at bargain prices and using the additional profit so generated to subsidize books that are unpopular, but worthy.

In Sweden the opera is paid for with the profits of the state lottery that tilts the odds against the bettors. From this, one may infer that a poor man who gambles ought to pay for the entertainment of the rich and if he doesn't like it, he can stop gambling and take up music.

All of this is far from what happened to Winston Smith, the hero of Nineteen Eighty Four who was tortured and tormented until he not only submitted to Big Brother but loved him. When Orwell wrote, the horror of Stalinism was before the world and seemed to foreshadow the future. What in fact has happened since the novel was published in 1949 is a lessening of the dictatorships of Eastern Europe and China. They are still bad enough; nasty, brutish, and unfortunately, not short. But they are not the abominations they once were.

Today a suspect in the Soviet Union may find himself incarcerated in a lunatic asylum; in the past he was taken into the cellars of the GPU and shot. Lech Walesa does not worry about being unable to leave Poland to receive the Nobel prize; he worries about not being able to return.

One reason for the change, an economist would speculate, is that dictatorial government is too costly for what it returns. To extend it to every feature of the life of everyone—as Orwell predicted would be done for the sake of the power of a few and for that alone—is not really necessary. Under Stalin the chance of a mass uprising may have been one in ten thousand. Under Andropov, the chance may be ten times greater, but that is only one in a thousand.

In the West there also could be economic reasons for what has happened, and they are different. The Regime of Big Nurse or the Caring State makes some people better off because what they get from government is more than its cost in the form of taxes they pay and the losses they incur from an inefficient economy, but that cannot be true of everyone. Why do losers consent, as they surely do, unless there has been a revolution that has escaped notice?

The answer may be in another novel—the kind the French government does not want sold cheaply. It is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey where Big Nurse first appeared. The hero there, first to his astonishment, then to his sadness, realizes that those who live under her rule do not do so because they have been compelled to but because they wish it. Winston Smith had to be bullied and beaten into submission to Big Brother. The subjects of Big Nurse are willing subjects. Who is the more pathetic?

William D. Grammp is a Fellow of the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California and a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Chicago, IL.

All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.
Creative Commons License
Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurists Society, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.