Much ado about nothing: Labor's attempts to ban fox hunting

June 25, 2000|By George F. Will

LONDON -- Not all that long ago, Britain's Labor Party wanted to nationalize the "commanding heights" of the economy. Today, the miniaturization of politics being a transatlantic phenomenon, the party wants to ban fox hunting. It is wrong again, and in ways that illuminate a certain dreary sameness about the supposedly transformed Labor Party.

The debate about fox hunting, which has waxed and waned for years, recently came to a rolling boil with the publication of the report by Lord Burns' committee. The report is a long, judicious assessment of the environmental, economic and other facets of the issue. It includes this priceless bit of British government speak:

"There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the effect on the welfare of a fox of being closely pursued, caught and killed above ground by hounds. We are satisfied, nevertheless, that this experience seriously compromises the welfare of the fox."

But a fox's lot often is not a happy one, for good reasons. And the resurgence of this issue, at a moment when the "old Labor" leftists are becoming restive about the vacuity of Prime Minister Tony Blair's "New Labor" program, is telling.

The angry pursuit of those who pursue foxes has been an occasion for dusting off Oscar Wilde's description of fox hunting -- "The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable." Hunters have responded by brandishing Macaulay's observation that the Puritans banned bear baiting not because it gave pain to bears but because it gave pleasure to spectators. Both witticisms are pertinent.

Foxes are part of what an unsentimental Englishman called "nature, red in tooth and claw." They are pests that must be controlled. They are fierce and cunning carnivores that can take a fearful toll on -- seriously compromising the welfare of -- sheep, chickens and other livestock. Which is why far more foxes are killed by shooting, trapping, snaring and poisoning than by foxhounds.

And although fox hunting does serve the social purpose of controlling a pest, it is done for pleasure. Still, the debate about fox hunting, which involves a lot of talk about potential environmental and economic consequences of a ban, suggests a troubling British casualness about allowing, even inciting, government to take bites out of the freedom of individuals.

British "progressives," like their American counterparts, divide their time between praising "diversity" and "tolerance," and trying to legislate against and regulate behavior they disapprove. Fox hunting is a right exercised by a minority in Britain, where tyranny of the majority is all too possible.

Deriving pleasure from protracted pain inflicted on animals that do no social harm -- e.g., cockfighting and bullfighting -- is barbarous, and such cruelty is ripe for proscription. But is it respectful of human liberty -- is it perhaps contrary to human nature -- to ban all pursuits of wild creatures for pleasure?

Opponents of fox hunting -- how many, one wonders, are vegetarians, or refuse to wear leather? -- must, by the logic of their arguments, look askance at almost all hunting and even fishing: Should Britain criminalize anglers who put live trout into their creels?

When, as seems likely, the Labor government bans fox hunting -- perhaps precipitating a mass slaughter of many of the 19,000 foxhounds, most of them unsuitable for pets -- much work will remain for the militantly compassionate.

The Spectator magazine's weekly item "Banned Wagon," a "survey of the things our rulers want to prohibit," recently reported that 24 members of Parliament -- mostly Laborites, of course -- have signed a motion condemning a chain store for selling pets, and calling for a ban on "trading in live animals," which the signers consider akin to the slave trade.

Thus does the miniaturization of politics, combined with a cloudy notion of "compassion" as the sovereign political virtue, tend toward absurdity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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