The Machine Stops


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Anyone who is interested in individual liberty must have read the 1909 EM Forster story 'The Machine Stops.' If you haven't (and shame on you), then go and read it immediately.

When I started to write this article, I was going to mention the story in passing and then go on to talk about the way the State of today is slowly failing to provide even the things it promises, in the same way the Machine of the story does. But having reread the story myself for the first time in years (shame on me), the relevance of it smacked me in the face, to the extent that I thought, 'Surely someone must have done this already and recently' ' comparing the Machine of the story to the monolithic, ubiquitous and uncaring State of today. Or could it be that this was Forster's point, which I had completely missed? Apparently not, since none of the libertarian or English literature websites I looked at mentioned it. Indeed, there was no mention of the political overtones of the story at all.

My motivation for starting this article was a letter I received from my local police force. I live in rather an out-of-the-way place, and therefore have a 'monitored' burglar alarm. When triggered, it dials a pre-programmed phone number and reports the situation. Once upon a time, these alarms were connected directly to the police, and when they were triggered, a policeman came to check out what was going on. As the years have passed, the police have backed steadily away from these devices (ostensibly because of the level of false alarms). Now my alarm calls a 'monitoring station' staffed by a private security firm, and I have to pay (again) for their services. Instead of calling the police, they call me, and if I fail to confirm that all is well, they call the police. If there are too many false alarms in a given period of time, the police will stop attending altogether. Every couple of years, the police reduce the threshold which will cause you to be denied the service your taxes pay for. The engineer from the alarm company tells me that it is his opinion that in time, the police will stop attending domestic burglaries altogether.

Now, I have no issue with the private monitoring side of the deal. It's a freely agreed contract which I can cancel at any time (and indeed, I have done, canceling our contract with a previous firm for poor performance). What I do have an issue with is the police posture. I have no choice but to pay the taxes that supposedly ensure their attendance. (These taxes having risen by more than the rate of inflation for each of the last 10 years.) If there are too many false alarms, they will stop attending. How is this reasonable? They've had their taxes, where is my 'service'? I cannot sack them, I cannot choose to use another police force. This is simply extortion ' a protection racket which would be illegal if operated by a private individual.

The police are not the only example I have come across in recent months. Take the example of NHS Dentistry (in theory, 'free' dentistry in the UK is provided by an arm of the socialised National Health Service). Because of contractual disputes between the dentists and the NHS, and the failure to train enough dentists, it verges on the impossible to find an NHS dentist in the UK . Once again, the State 'promises' to provide something, collects the fee (taxes) and reneges on its promise. Again, this would be illegal if a private individual did it.

The worst example of all, which has been much publicised in the UK of late, is that of pensions. State pensions have always been a Ponzi scheme (today's taxpayers provide pensions for yesterday's taxpayers) which, as is apparently customary in any venture organised by the State, would be illegal if operated by a private company. Now that the size of the working population is decreasing, the State is saying that people will have to work longer and save more of their own money for pension provision. Yet, at least in the UK , any individual's attempt to save more money is thwarted by that same State.

My point (rather drawn out, I know) being that Forster's story is scarily prescient; the State (at least in the socialist form seen in the UK) seeks to provide ubiquitously, and like the Machine, is failing. It collects the money but does not supply the services. It passes laws and does not enforce them. The nonsensical (and non-existent) so-called 'Social Contract' between people and State is being broken. And the people can do nothing about it, since it is not really a contract at all. The State Machine, which 'promised' to provide from cradle to grave, has been shown to be not only based on a lie, but the few pathetic benefits it did provide are now broken, inadequate or simply unavailable.

Forster's story is yet more accurate; towards the end, as the Machine starts to fail, the people complain to an uncaring Central Committee, which does not respond, and eventually the people decide that the poor food, foul air and all the other strictures must be for their own good. Is this not the position of Statists everywhere? That the State Machine provides the best of all possible conditions, and that any fault with that provision must lay with those who complain, not with the provisions of the State Machine?

At the end of Forster's story, the Machine fails completely, and what remains of mankind is freed in a cataclysm to make a new beginning; those remains being the people who refused, at great personal cost, to have anything to do with the Machine in the first place. I pray that Forster's story is not as predictive in this respect as it appears to be in others, but I fear that it will be.

If you didn't read Forster's story before you read this article, go and do so now. What a pity that this was the only science fiction he ever wrote. One can only wonder what else he would have predicted.

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