On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and Their Children in Our Day

by John Holbo on March 11, 2008

No. Nothing to do with Spitzer. I’ve been reading some of the works of 18th Century right-wing blogger German counter-Enlightenment intellectual Justus Möser. (Wikipedia.)

There are two short pieces by Möser included in a pretty good anthology, Conservatism [amazon], edited by Jerry Z. Muller.

Let’s get into it. The first essay (1772), whose title I borrowed to make you read this post – good title, eh? – was a fiery retort to ill-conceived reform measures by certain enlightened Hapsburg emperors (that’s code for: ‘liberals’) to abolish guild requirements that applicants be “conceived by honorable parents in a pure bed.” Why the hell should bastards be allowed to hold down decent jobs?

In some states more has been done for whores and their children in recent decades than for wives in the last millenium. Every enlightened intellectual set out as soon as possible to free illegitimate children and their mothers from all possible shame, and thought he deserved the praise of the entire human race for having freed from all reproach the poor, innocent offspring of a love that was forbidden, but all too tempting. These measures were noble motivated: nature, humanity, and humanitarianism clearly favored them. Yet they ultimately demonstrate the power of the unpolitical philosophy of our century. Once again fashionable humanitarianism triumphed over civic sense. It was at best the application to political institutions of Christian charity, which ought to be voluntary. When it comes to civic rights, one cannot move directly from the voice of nature or abstract rights. For in the state of nature there is no institution of marriage, and as soon as one transers concepts from the state of nature to the state of civil association, one falls prey to a dangerous confusion, whose actual results are more detrimental than are at first imagined.

I’ll pick up the pace.

It is true that marriage has its burdens and discomforts, and that many prefer being single … [But …]

Our ancestors, who were guided by experience rather than by theories, always demanded a certificate of honorable birth before they admitted someone into their guilds and clubs … Had someone sought to show our ancestors that illegitimate children on the whole displayed more genius than others or that they were entirely innocent of the guilt of their parents; had someone sought to demonstrate to them by reference to the principles of savages that the greatest whores must of necessity have been the most beautiful, attractive, and charming, since they were so widely sought … [well, the ancestors would have had some pretty sharp words.]

Don’t imagine, incidentally, that our ancestors did not recognize the hardships which have motivated our progressive intellectuals to sympathize with the whores. The sack in which our ancestors drowned those who committed infanticide to free themselves from their shame shows only too clearly … [I am sure you see what the sack shows clearly] … thwarting the efforts of progressive legislators

[I can’t say that the argument is entirely clear. But the idea seems to be that letting the children of whores work will greatly encourage whoring, while only somewhat mitigating the shame of it, ergo only somewhat mitigating infanticide, leading to a net increase in drowned whores.]

… In states where marriage loses its value, the punishment of crime must become harsher [no mere drowning in a sack for you, doxy!] …

Just as the disgrace with which our ancestors burdened a whore in order to preserve legitimacy was rational and appropriate, so too is the blot which they placed upon illegitimate offspring. The same logic holds … [Divine law “disincentives” – his term, not mine – sin even unto the fourth generation.]

A law which makes illegitimate children equal to legitimate ones is a policy error so momentous that I don’t see how the humanitarianism of our age can forgive it.

Oh yes he did. He concern-trolled the humanitarians. With a sack of drowned whores. You can say that you saw it on Mulberry Street.

But this is just a warm up for his next act. Diving 500 feet into a glass of water labeled “No Promotion According To Merit”.

To an officer:

While it touches me, dear friend, that your merit is so little recognized, still, your demand that the State should solely look to true merit is, if I may have your kind permission to say so, the strangest product of an hour’s idle contemplation. I, for one, should – paid or not – never remain within a State in which it is a rule to award all honors solely on the basis of merit. Rewarded, I should not have the heart to appear before a friend for fear of humiliating him; and unrewarded, I should live under somne sort of public calumny, because everybody would say of me, That man has no merits. [Paging Will Wilkinson.] … public service could not even exist if every promotion were based solely on merit [due to mass resignations, apparently] …

[snip several paragraphs about how awarding promotion on the basis of social status and seniority alone can keep us off the road of meritocracy, “a clear path to most extreme slavery.”]

Therefore, dear friend, give up your romantic thoughts of the happiness of a State where everything goes according to merit. When men rule and where men serve, birth and age, or seniority of service, are still the safest and least offensive rules for promotion. The creative genius, or the man of real virtue, will not be harmed by this rule; but an exception of this kind is very rare and will also only give offense to evil souls.

I’m thinking maybe a ‘not’ got dropped from that last sentence. But I’m not sure.

And no, apparently none of this is tongue-in-cheek. Although it is whimsical in tone. Very odd. Like if it turned out, after all, that Swift really had it in for the Irish to an unusual degree.

The thing that’s fascinating about it is that, a decade before Burke inaugurated modern conservatism as a political philosophy, all the stock rhetorical moves of the wingnut op-ed are already up and running. The anti-PC grumbling plus moral panic wires crossed with perverse incentive structures wires. There’s liberal-bashing, minus any hint of liberalism. Classical liberalism, that is. Burke is, obviously, Möser plus the ability to agree with Adam Smith about most things. Which is why Möser was born a pitch-perfect parody of modern conservatism, avant la lettre. He is a parody expressing the doubt that grafting individualism and laissez faire onto traditionalism makes sense.

Anyway, I am now officially a big Justus Möser fan. I think we should get together some sort of collective translation project, just so Sadly, No! can read the stuff.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Prostitution
03.12.08 at 3:27 pm
Spring Break Blogging Roundup « The Long Eighteenth
03.17.08 at 4:33 am
Diminished Disgrace « Northernplanets
03.20.08 at 1:24 am



vanya 03.11.08 at 4:13 pm

Ausgezeichnet! Any links to Moeser in the original?


John Holbo 03.11.08 at 4:21 pm

I think Project Gutenberg has some.


"Q" the Enchanter 03.11.08 at 4:25 pm

Truly a revelation.


Barry 03.11.08 at 4:49 pm

“That man has no merits. [Paging Will Wilkinson.] … public service could not even exist if every promotion were based solely on merit [due to mass resignations, apparently] …”

I’m sorry, but I couldn’t locate a relevant Will Wilkinson post – were you referring to a specific post of his?


Russell Arben Fox 03.11.08 at 4:58 pm

Actually, I think Möser’s argument against relying too much on merit has a great deal of…er, merit to it. (Of the egalitarian and socially democratic sort, not the aristocratic type, though obviously the latter is what Möser was thinking of.)

As for whores and bastards, I have no comment.


The Modesto Kid 03.11.08 at 5:08 pm

Yep, this is terrific stuff. It’s like Johannes Goldberg before there was a Corner.


Colin Danby 03.11.08 at 6:11 pm

Muller has a nice essay on Möser in _The Mind and the Market_ (Knopf 2002). I used it in a seminar this Winter. Möser’s remarks on peddlers and trade are interesting, and more generally the way he uses locality and local history to ground arguments.


SN 03.11.08 at 6:55 pm

For more on Möser and German conservatives before conservatism, take a look at Klaus Epstein’s 1966 Genesis of German Conservatism.


tom bach 03.11.08 at 7:38 pm

Jonathan Knudsen wrote what was and might still be the standard treatment of Moser:
1. Jonathan B. Knudsen, Justus Möser and the German Enlightenment (Cambridge UniversityPress, 1986).


John Emerson 03.11.08 at 8:15 pm

My great-great-great-great-great-great-great aunt Elizabeth Emerson was hanged for lewdness. Cotton Mather tried to counsel her but said that she was intransigent. She was also accused of infanticide, but the charge was lewdness. Her partner was not charged.

By contrast, her sister Hannah Dustin became a heroine by scalping 10 or so Indians who had kidnapped her. There’s a statue to her somewhere in new England.

Her father, Michael Emerson, my great-great….great grandfather, was the first Englishman in the western hemisphere to be convicted of child abuse.

So anyway, that’s where I got my elite status.


Watson Aname 03.11.08 at 8:56 pm

Many have speculated there was something genetic going on with you, John.


Kenny Easwaran 03.11.08 at 9:07 pm

What does all this say about merit pay for public school teachers?


Kelly 03.11.08 at 9:20 pm

Kenny; Perhaps this…
Group seeks to pay nation’s 10 ‘worst’ teachers
The Associated Press

BOSTON — Critics who say unions block education reforms and make it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers will offer $10,000 to 10 instructors deemed to be the nation’s worst to quit their careers.

The Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, is inviting nominations for a contest to determine the nation’s worst unionized teachers.

The “winners” will be offered $10,000 each if they permanently resign or retire from any career in education — if they sign a release allowing the group to publish their name and the reason for their selection.

Rick Berman, the center’s executive director and a former labor lawyer, declined to offer specifics on his group’s supporters.

Reg Weaver, a spokesman for the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, said school district evaluation policies include strict criteria to ensure that teachers face consequences for poor performance.

Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, noted that Texas teachers don’t have collective bargaining.


Will Wilkinson 03.11.08 at 10:30 pm

Barry, I wondered the same thing. Maybe this?


John Holbo 03.12.08 at 1:34 am

Hi Will, I just thought you’d be interested in the extreme claims about happiness and status.


John Holbo 03.12.08 at 2:55 am

Also, thanks for the recommended readings, tom and sn. Also, John Emerson: your family rules.


Will Wilkinson 03.12.08 at 3:41 am

John, Well thanks! I am!

I do love the very clear expression of the thought that assigning positions according to merit will lead to unending humiliations. This was a pretty common view, wasn’t it? That rigid hierarchy, having nothing to do with desert, was a recipe for both social and personal peace? If one knew one’s place, and could aspire to nothing else, one could just chill and learn to love the virtues, such as they are, of one’s station and its duties. God knows what he’s doing. Of course, leave some positions upon to extraordinary talent, but be sure not to get people’s hopes up. That would be too cruel.

Not as interesting as drowning infanticidal whores in sacks, though.


Will Wilkinson 03.12.08 at 3:42 am

upon = open


Dan S. 03.12.08 at 3:55 am

So anyway, that’s where I got my elite status.

You know, every now and then I’ve idly wondered if you were related to those Emersons . . .

And are you aware of this? (see episode 7 of series 1 . . .)


gr 03.12.08 at 6:33 am

Hmmm… the attack on the principle of merit doesn’t strike me as altogether ridiculous. The view is still rather influential in Germany, especially in the public sector, and not necessarily all for the worse, imho. The idea of not basing all status on (sometimes rather arbitrarily defined) ‘merit’ and constant competition does seem to be conducive to the well-functioning of certain institutions. German public services are clearly superior to those in Anglo-Saxon countries, and more so where they have been more resistant to being cannibalized by neo-liberal politicians.


John Holbo 03.12.08 at 7:24 am

“The idea of not basing all status on (sometimes rather arbitrarily defined) ‘merit’ and constant competition does seem to be conducive to the well-functioning of certain institutions.”

I actually thought about saying something of the sort myself. I didn’t, in part because it was funnier just to make fun. I agree that it is an interesting question: the limits of the efficiency of meritocracy. But it is also true that Möser is not really asking the interesting question. He is trying to defend an extreme position by posturing as though the only alternative is an opposite sort of extreme (which, as you point out, would have its own problems.)


John Emerson 03.12.08 at 12:44 pm

The husband of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” author Anita Loos was the gay film director John Emerson. So was Dred Scott’s owner. No apparent relation in either case. I have done considerable research in the John Emersons of the world.


The Modesto Kid 03.12.08 at 2:38 pm

Count me as surprised that Dred Scott’s owner was a gay film director.


John Emerson 03.12.08 at 4:17 pm

Kid, the world is bigger than you thought.


Random African 03.13.08 at 5:48 am

When men rule and where men serve, birth and age, or seniority of service, are still the safest and least offensive rules for promotion.

that’s the key word, people.


sonofcivilservants 03.16.08 at 2:54 pm

John, maybe you put it up as a public translation project. I speak German, I would translate one page. The texts itself are in the public domain. So should not be a problem. See project Gutenberg or just use some scan from Google Books.

One commenter says that in Germany today civil service not to be based on merit is still a powerful idea. I do not think this is true at all. I am German and both of my parents are civil servants in Germany. The reasons why German civil service works well is that civil servants are extremely well paid and top talent is drawn into it. Many civil servants are barred by law from strikes, including all teachers, policemen and anyone in a bit higher position in administration. German civil service is very merit-based. Indeed even top politicians usually come from quite ordinary families: Schroeder’s mom was a single mom cleaning lady, Angela Merkel’s father was a pastor in east Germany and she is a physics PhD (unlike an Ivy undergrad degree, you cannot buy that one). Hiring into civil service is mostly based on centralized examinations and specialized exams. Just as an anecdote: A friend of mine, from an upper middle class family living in a cozy suburb full of professors, lawyers and doctors, after his Abitur with ok grades wanted to become a policeman (his grades roughly put him in the top 20% of the entire age cohort). He got rejected on basis of a minor knee condition he had (though he was still an athlete). That’s how selective they can be! The NYPD or any other US police agency, apart from the FBI maybe, can only dream of such applicants, let alone turn them away. Being a civil servant, say a high school teacher (Gymnasium) in Germany enjoys similar status to being an engineer, a lawyer or doctor. My father still recommends I rather become a German civil servant rather than, say a Wall Street banker or consultant.

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