‘Was he then, alone, in the possession of a memory?’

So wondered Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, as he watched his fellow citizens cheer bad news from the government. Media propaganda for the regime had phrased it in a way to make it sound like good news.

What was the bad news?

As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a ‘categorical pledge’ were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week.

Cutting the chocolate rations by one-third is a big blow from a government that even rations people’s food. What did media report?

For the moment he had shut his ears to the remoter noises and was listening to the stuff that streamed out of the telescreen. It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week.

How did his fellow citizens react?

This is what fascinated Winston: the different ways in which others bought the regime’s line.

And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours?

Yes, they swallowed it. Parsons swallowed it easily, with the stupidity of an animal. The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically, passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week the ration had been thirty grammes. Syme, too-in some more complex way, involving doublethink, Syme swallowed it.

Was he, then, alone in the possession of a memory?

The stuff of dystopian fiction

Imagine how it must be to live in a society where:

  • the authorities ration how much chocolate you can eat which businesses can be open
  • the authorities pledge not to cut the chocolate ration to allow businesses to reopen on April 29
  • the authorities actually reduce the chocolate ration extend the shutdown of businesses to some unknown date well into May and possibly much later for many businesses
  • the media report cutting the chocolate ration as “raising” the ration extending the shutdowns as a “reopening” plan
  • the people believe the propaganda, and some are even fanatical in furiously tracking down and denouncing anyone who doesn’t
  • you find yourself wondering if you’re the only one who possesses a functioning memory

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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