Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In defence of bossyness

This post designed to annoy most of the bloggers that I agree with on most things (though, I suspect, not Pootergeek).

Like most people, I find it hard to resist the impulse to complain about ‘nannying’ or to question the predilection of most liberal democracies for banning things, but it is worth bearing in mind that – in focusing upon it – one is leaving oneself open to the charge that you are fetishising liberty and the expense of democracy. See Mr Bobbio for details*.

I dislike the smoking ban, for instance- and I say that as a recently reformed ex-smoker. And if I cared either way, I’d probably object to the hunting ban as well. But I can defend both – the former with plain reason, the latter with a defence of representative democracy (paraphrase: you have to accept the flaws in the least-worst system available to you).

Most perceived liberties fulfil the role of a constitutional safeguard (they're all unwritten here, thank da lord) – they are an exception that has been put in place to safeguard minorities. A bit like the cultural exception in other debates. They are often unwritten and cultural, and they are the hidden wiring (like public service broadcasting, and the ability of the state to invest in culture, to ride my own hobby-horses into this argument) that makes democracy better than every other system of government.

So liberties are important. But if you constantly carp on about the loss of specific liberties (hunting, smoking, putting feet on bus-seats) without – at the same time – acknowledging the fact that technology, secularism and globalisaton provide us with many new liberties as well as relatively small restrictions, then you are – objectively – a conservative.

Most of us enjoy many many more liberties now than we did, say, twenty years ago. To think otherwise is to either be looking at the world through a glass darkly, or to be a conservative propagandist.

So, reader, which one are you?

*apologies for sending you off to read a book in order to reinforce an argument. Pressure of time, and all that. It is a very good book though.

6 comments:

Richard said...

I agree

chris said...

But isn't it a funny coincidence that the freedoms we've gained have all come through impersonal economic and social change, whilst those we've lost have come from conscious state action?

dsquared said...

The problem with this argument is that it could probably also be made by Putin or Chavez. Making one's overall view of civil liberties depend on the timing of 3G rollout looks like a losing proposition to me.

(Also, "putting your feet on bus seats"? Strawman at all? How about "requiring a police licence for peaceful protests in Central London"?)

Shuggy said...

So liberties are important. But if you constantly carp on about the loss of specific liberties (hunting, smoking, putting feet on bus-seats) without – at the same time – acknowledging the fact that technology, secularism and globalisaton provide us with many new liberties as well as relatively small restrictions, then you are – objectively – a conservative.

What Chris and Dsquared said. Also, are we supposed to recoil at the word 'conservative' in horror? The smoking ban is a trivial thing - but then there's detention without trial, the compromise of the right to silence, restrictions on free speech etc. I really do wish the British legal conventions had been conserved here - so if that makes me a conservative, then so be it. And if locking people up without charge is 'progressive', you can shove it.

You could also acknowledge that new technology also allows for more surveillance and supervision of our lives, as well as more liberty.

Finally, I think most people would agree that it isn't just the small political liberties that have been restricted: the workplace, for most people, is a more restrictive place than it used to be. Less scope for fun. I'm bored. So are my class. It's near the end of term and there's only 9 of them in. It's a nice sunny day and it'd be good if we could pop out to the park. But these days I need insurance and permission forms from their parents to do this.

I'm totally fed up and want to go home.

MatGB said...

This post designed to annoy most of the bloggers that I agree with on most things

Pretty much; Chris, DD and Shuggy have spoken, I have little to add other than a point I made at Richard's; by restricting traditional freedoms domestically, we make it harder to criticise authoritarians internationally, Putin in particular has compared his measures to ours, but his are much much worse.

There's no real justification for most of the restrictions we've had inflicted on us, so I'll continue to oppose them.

Paulie said...

Chris,

I’d contest that. The way that people drive cars, divide communities and generally make the environment unpleasant has removed many of my liberties. I can’t even allow my children to step outside my front door unsupervised because of the way that people drive. That is a liberty that has been gradually removed by impersonal social and economic change, and not the state.

This is an example of where other people’s liberty has reduced the social capital available to me.

I look to the state to moderate the behaviour of drivers and impinge upon their liberties to protect mine. Don’t conclude from this that I’m a greenie nut or even objectively anti-car by the way – I understand that cars = prosperity = other freedoms for me. It’s just that liberties get chipped away in small bits rather than large ones, and usually by social and economic forces rather than the state.

That’s why I used the feet-on-seats illustration. I understand why DSquared highlights it, but my liberty is impinged upon more by low-level disrespect than it is by any of the restrictions on my right to carry our pointless protests in Westminster (something that I regard as an attempt to rival representative democracy anyway – the foundation of all of the liberties that we enjoy). I don't mind restrictions on demonstrations in Westminster at all.

I used the feet-on-seats example to illustrate the point that there are lots of very small annoyances that contrive to remove people’s liberties. I’m no Victor Meldrew, but my wife experienced lots of low-level anti-social behaviour on a regular bus journey that she makes in the evening, and as a result, she’s had to make other arrangements.

There is a bigger post to be written about high-profile curbs on liberties, and how the traditional concept of democracy / liberty is changed by civvy-wearing non-state enemies, but either way, I don’t envy politicians in their role of safeguarding those liberties (something that they do far more than any state that is more of a direct democracy does) while at the same time working in a political culture that holds them responsible for the murderous acts of terrorists.

But either way, minor social and economic infringements of my liberty bother ME more than any state impositions – and I bet most people would say the same if they were to think it through.

Shuggy – I agree with you about the disrespect for professionalism – but I don’t see how that directly applies to this argument. However, as a taxpayer, I hereby give you permission to go home. Just show this note to your boss and they can take it up with me if they don’t like it.

Matt,

Putin was able to compare his measures to ours secure in the knowledge that there would be a good deal of fuckwitted headnodding in this country - that there is a section of opinion in this country that sees the continuum between civil liberty beefs in this country and those that we hear about in Russia.