Monday, August 06, 2007

The best defence of liberties?

Shuggy is taking Roy Hattersley to task here for his heretical take on J.S. Mill's notion of liberty.

I don't think that this is a matter that can be taken too lightly. Democracy and liberty circle each other (would it be too pretentious to describe it as a dialectic?), and it is often very tempting to jump in on the side of liberty. When we do, it is possible that we do so at the expense of democracy.

Politicians are always cursed with having to make the case for why they should tell us what to do. We - the public - rarely feel obliged to apologise for the damage we would do to each other if we weren't compelled to behave properly by politicians. Yet 'majorities' often oppose measures that they are eventually convinced of - once they've seen them imposed and understood the sense behind them.

Taking Shuggy's examples, both the seat-belt rules and the smoking ban (not just in pubs, but on the bottom, then top decks of buses, trains, the tube, aeroplanes, hospitals, offices and so on), were initially resented. But most smokers I know (and I was one for long enough myself) either looked forward to the creeping bans or welcomed them in retrospect.

Most of the opponents of these bans would not advocate their repeal now, I think?

As far as I can see, the real question is "how far do elected politicians know what is good for us - and are there points at which they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves?"

Many self-declared liberals (and I think Shuggy may be one of these) tend to take the view that there are very very few areas in which politicians know what is good for us more than we do ourselves.

I'm not so sure though. Put crudely, I'd suggest that Shuggy appears to be a little over-confident about our willingness to avoid self-harm if drugs were more freely available, or our willingness to embrace seat-belts if we hadn't been required to do so. It is possible that he is right of course, but it would be a lively experiment to find out the truth.

That we often do stuff that turns out to be bad for us is beyond doubt. It's our right to make mistakes, surely? But I'd also suggest that we often do stuff that *we think* is bad for us - and we do them anyway. This is a more ostentatious exercise of our liberties, and again, it's fair enough in most cases.

But let's go a step further and argue that sometimes, we do things that we think are bad for us, and we wish that someone would come along and stop us from doing them. Or that - once they've stopped us, we recognise that they were either right to do it - or that it isn't another thin-end-of-the-wedge on the way to some totalitarian nightmare. Fags and seat-belts, for example.

This - I think - highlights one of the oft-hidden charms of European liberal democracy. Liberalism was often conflated with conservatism in the nineteenth century because it represented a genuine fear of the tyranny of the majority that manifested itself in resistance to democratic reform. Democracy would leave the majority to impose confessional, property and cultural norms on the rest of us. To over-ride 'aristocratic' wisdom.

Liberties were designed to minimise this. There isn't enough time to make the arguments for why such a tyranny would be disastrous. And - from the days before universal suffrage, it was a very sensible thing to worry about.

But the big surprise was just how humane and tolerant representative democracy is. We didn't stop hanging people in this country because some pressure group of lawyers managed to triangulate Parliament into banning it (as they have done, regrettably, with smoking). We ended the drop because people were prepared to accept that an elected group of representatives would behave more humanely than they would do themselves.

When the majority wanted the rope brought back (led by demagogic newspaper editors, naturally), Parliament defended humane principles. As it did with homosexual, race relations and marital reform in the 1960s and 70s. Enoch may have spoken for Britain, but it destroyed his parliamentary career.

Also, liberties - when they are removed - tend to be removed with some sensitivity, and with safeguards and negotiations. And this isn't just for what political philosophers have remarked as the 'aristocratic' (in the classical sense) nature of parliamentary democracy. It's often naked self-interest. Politicans have to appeal to cross-cutting alliances, and an insensitive injunction can lose you your job.

Politicians are better at defending our liberties than we give them credit for. They are more aware of the unreasonableness of pressure groups and newspapers than anyone. And they will continue to be the real defenders of our liberties as long as the many attempts to make democracy more direct continue to fail.

That last sentence is the bit that worries me though - and regulars here will know that it's the main preoccupation of this blog.

Update: Politicians are good at dealing with slippery slopes as well. Hat tip: S&M.


Graeme said...

"I'm not so sure though. Put crudely, I'd suggest that Shuggy appears to be a little over-confident about our willingness to avoid self-harm if drugs were more freely available, or our willingness to embrace seat-belts if we hadn't been required to do so. It is possible that he is right of course, but it would be a lively experiment to find out the truth."

There is an interesting bit in last week's Economist that touches on this. The article is about drug strategies in Britain, and it points out that marijuana use has declined since it was downgraded to a class C drug. This doesn't exactly prove that Shuggy is right--for one, the statistics are only about 16-24 year olds and it appears that the numbers are self-reported, so who knows how accurate or generalisable they in fact are; beyond this, downgrading a drug is a far cry from making it widely available--but it stands to reason that he may be.

Will said...

You're more correct than Shuggy.

That's for sure.

Shuggy has turned into some Burkean nitwit. I've told him this to his face and he just denies it but he is wrong. Tradition isn't the concrete that binds -- It's the concrete that stultifies. Shuggy needs to get back to the idea of life -- (life) isn't an externalised prison that he or you inhabit -- The primary reason him/you/we feel like our lives are/is not your/our because it isn't.

The grave that is present society -- we will dance upon. Make the paving hard shit.

Vindico said...

Hattersley has simply shown his true old labour colours. What business is it of his whether a person takes drugs or doesn't wear a seatbelt? He is instinctively wanting to help people for their own good, implying he knows best. I'm afraid i fall very heavily on the libertarian side and blogged about my thoughts here

Nice blog though. just discovered it.

Will said...

Could I just add -- when i left my comment i was pissed on cheap wine.

I become all poetic when that happens! :)

(sorry Shuggy x)