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The Terrible Bargain: Prophetic Words from C. S. Lewis on Scientocracy

John G. West
Photo: C. S. Lewis, via Asar Studios/Alamy (Celestial Images).

If there is one thing I could get people to read to understand our current situation, it would be the essay “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State” by C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote the essay originally as a newspaper article in 1958 for the Observer in London. His theme was the growing push for technocracy, or as he sometimes called it, “scientocracy” — government run by experts in the name of scientific knowledge and technical expertise.

I think Lewis was spot-on when he described scientocracy’s dangerous allure:

We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers — a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians — a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

“Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again.” Alas, during the past two years I think we have made the bargain again. Reading Lewis’s essay is the first step to understanding the dangers of where we are heading — and to equipping ourselves with arguments that might help turn our culture around before it is too late.

Scientocracy in Depth

After you read Lewis’s essay, don’t feel like you need to stop there. Lewis explored the theme of scientocracy in more depth in his novel That Hideous Strength and his non-fiction work The Abolition of Man. And if you want to dig really deep into Lewis’s ideas on science and culture, get The Magician’s Twin: C .S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, where 11 scholars analyze Lewis’s prophetic case against scientism for today. You can also watch a documentary based on the book, available for free on YouTube.

And if you want an American perspective on the history of scientism in public policy, you can always turn to my history of social Darwinism, Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.

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barbarianscultureDarwin Day in AmericaPoliticssciencescientismscientocracySocial DarwinismsorcererstechnocracyThat Hideous StrengthThe Abolition of ManThe Magician's TwinWilling Slaves of the Welfare State