The Limits of Tolerance

By Tong, Raymond | Contemporary Review, July 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Limits of Tolerance


Tong, Raymond, Contemporary Review


TOLERANCE is clearly one of the prime virtues and its presence greatly improves the quality of civilised living. Its value is never appreciated more than when it is absent. Unfortunately, since good must for ever struggle with evil and dreams for ever clash with reality, tolerance is not always a virtue. As Edmund Burke once wrote: |There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue'. In almost every human situation there are limits beyond which tolerance becomes an agent of confusion, submission and disintegration. There are situations of indignity and oppression where conscience demands that the individual must either take positive action or get up and leave, while collectively there is nearly always some point beyond which the governed should no longer be prepared to tolerate the abuse, mismanagement or failure of a government.

Naturally it is much easier to oppose the government in a free society than in an unfree society. However, almost every government, whatever the nature of the society, must at some juncture be faced with the dilemma of deciding on the limits of tolerance in relation to some major problem, on how far the problem can be allowed to develop before there is widespread opposition among the governed. The degree to which it is capable of doing so and its firmness in taking the necessary decision are good indications of its quality as a government. In the long run there is nothing more disastrous than weak and indecisive government and nothing more advantageous than firm and decisive government. No matter what its objectives and policies are, no matter what its vision of the ideal society may be, one of the most important attributes of a successful government is the ability to take difficult decisions and to do so at the right time. Of course, the time to take a decision about the limits of tolerance with regard to a particular problem is not when the limits are actually reached, for then it may be too late, but at an appropriate time before the limits are reached. For example, a democratically-elected government faced with a possibly catastrophic issue, say with inflation rising steeply towards 30 per cent, should not allow itself to hesitate unduly. It should take appropriate action to reverse the upward movement of prices long before the limits of tolerance are reached. Whatever the problems confronting it, any responsible government, with the slightest mission to rule, must always be looking ahead, assessing possible developments, and deciding on the likely amount of opposition. Errors of judgement are likely to occur, but no government should ever knowingly permit itself to arrive at a point beyond the limits of tolerance on any major issue, for this could well be a point of no return.

One of the most important tasks of any democratic government is to defend and endeavour to improve the free society. Fortunately, in spite of all the changes it has experienced since World War 11, Britain is still in a better position to undertake this task than most other countries. This is perhaps to be expected, for more than any other country Britain has been responsible for the evolution and defence of democratic institutions. It has had a longer continuous experience of democracy than any other country and has exported its liberal thought and free institutions throughout the world to countries capable of accepting them. It would also appear from the political developments of the past few years that the British people have become increasingly aware of the fundamental link between the market economy and political freedom. Less and less have they been deluded by the soft option of distributing wealth, instead of creating it. More and more they have come to understand the deadening effects, both on enterprise and individual liberty, of a notoriously inefficient and wasteful nationalisation. To what extent there is a growing awareness of the danger of democracy being slowly undermined through the exploitation of its own generous and tolerant institutions it is difficult to say.

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