Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More free? Or less?

Shuggy has invited me to disagree with him about what he sees as a decline in the liberties that we enjoy. On the whole, I'm not even sure that I do disagree with Shuggy that much anyway. I just think that it all bothers me a bit less. For instance, Shuggy does a very entertaining line in blogging about things that annoy him. I'm not as good at this as he is, but it doesn't mean that a lot of petty impositions, or misguided centralisation don't bother me either.

One thing is for certain: I can't reply succinctly. Thinking about it, I was tempted to draw up one of those poxy mind-maps, but even that got too complicated.

However, I've got the day off. And I've got stuff to do. So I can reply, but this isn't a fully footnoted essay. More a series of observations that I think are pertinent: Many of them aren't really deeply held convictions, and some of them may even reflect poor research and misunderstandings on my part. The aim here is mainly to provide an impressionistic portrait of the state of our liberties - to show a different perspective on the subject.

Where to start? How about...

1. Our increased ability to reason, learn and develop
Well, in that post, I think Shuggy undersells the increases in 'liberties' that we have come to enjoy in recent years. For instance, we can learn more freely, cheaply, and with less constraint. The Internet is the autodidact's wet-dream-come-true. This is turning into a massive emancipation, I would argue. It makes minor subtractions to our gross liberty look feeble.

Better, more diverse, less conformist content of a social, cultural and educational nature is available at little or no charge, and the situation improves daily. The pre-Internet society had many of the traits of a society that burned books, and these traits are withering before our eyes. The increased speed of innovation is there for all to see and it would be pinching arguments from most liberals to point out just how emancipating this progress can be.

As an aside, this could also be the relativists wet-dream-come-true as well, but this worries me a lot more than it worries most self-styled 'liberals'. As a corollary to that, we can associate and organise in a way that we could only have dreamed of 15 years ago. Communications costs have plummeted. Barriers to entry into some parts of the mass media have evaporated.

None of these liberties, I'd add, are largely the result of political pressure or constitutional change. But in happening, they have changed our relationship with the state decisively in a way that most liberals will surely welcome?

That said, the state has reacted less furiously than I suspect that it would have done in the 1950s - perhaps because we are a lot more of a liberal society now than we were then?

There is also a liberalising agency that the state has performed in recent years. We can travel further. More cheaply. And - if we were more willing to embrace 'projects of the elites' in this country, we Brits would be able to do so without a passport in the way that most EU citizens can.

We can also go to places that are more liberal than they used to be. These liberties are - at least in part - the result of our own muscular liberalism. We - the EEC / EU countries - imposed liberal preconditions upon accession states (from Greece, Portugal and Spain, through to the former eastern-bloc countries). You can now go to east Berlin without being followed, and you can expect a fair trial in Spain when you get lifted holding an eighth. We made them provide these liberties before we let them into the EU.

You can go to many more countries and join the locals in protesting about their governments. You can even recruit the locals to campaign against your own as well if you want to. Which brings me to...

2. A right to participate in government
As I've observed, we can now work, trade, invest, and park our money elsewhere with a great deal more ease. But not all of these 'liberties' have a objectively liberal outcome, in that they often remove options from the majority in order to protect the privileges of the rich minority.

One of the greatest liberties that we enjoy is the liberty to participate in the social contract and to shape it.

For example, I would also like to vote for a government that would implement a greater tax-and-spend programme than the current one does. It would be in the short-term interests of most people I suspect, so it may be popular. But no viable option of this kind exists because the liberty that the wealthiest fraction of the population enjoy to keep their finances opaque curtails my electoral options here.

The social contract makes it possible for the wealthy to become more wealthy than they would be able to in Hobbes' 'state of nature', yet 'libertarians' have a curious knack of forgetting this when the other contractors ask for their facilitation fee (taxes).

I'd like to vote for a government that would shift taxation decisively away from indirect taxes (VAT, etc) and onto direct taxes (income taxes, etc). I can't do this because our government signed a multilateral treaty many years ago that effectively trumps the outcome of the next election. EU states can't compete on indirect taxation, I believe? So international treaties curtail my liberties.

All of that said, in both cases, I recognise that I enjoy benefits that arise of out of the withdrawal of these liberties. I understand that the open society results in more creativity and higher productivity. I understand that long-term international treaties enable us all to plan, and reduce the damage caused by footloose capital. And for these reasons, my concerns here are very lightly held.

Shuggy raises the withdrawal of our rights to protest as evidence that our liberties have been reduced. As I've said before, I'm not convinced that rights to protest give us much more than a symbolic freedom that actually clouds our understanding of what liberties really are. This brings me to...

3. A system of government that is inclined to result in social liberalism
Then there is the question of 'liberalism' in it's many meanings. I think that Shuggy and I have a similar, fairly limp-wristed, social liberalism.

We don't want people executed (with obvious exceptions). We don't want the police to be allowed to torture suspects and we want punitive sanctions to be geared towards rehabilitation. We want a state-funded open hand extended to the widow and a collective light shown to the child. We understand that the beggar doesn't really have the liberty to dine on caviar.

We don't like over-testing in schools or national curricula (?) and we acknowledge that any warmth that we feel towards corporal punishment (and we both do, I'm sure) is largely atavistic. I suspect that we are both, deep down, Guardian readers - no matter how much we fight it.

I think that my liberties are best guarded by people that I can elect. People who don't have too many unelected and powerful rivals that are beyond my control.

So I want the people that I elect to apply their distributed moral wisdom to legislate. All of my experience of politics has taught me that genuinely empowered elected representatives of the centre-left to the centre-right tend to (in aggregate) support the kind of liberal limp-wristedness that I do, and that as democracy gets more direct, that the outcomes are likely to be more illiberal. I fleshed this out here a while ago (in response, as it happens, to a post of Shuggy's).

In short, I want to see a policy-making mechanism that results in a more liberal settlement than we have at the moment - and I really haven't seen another blogger arguing this yet - nor have I found these arguments being criticised (er... yet!). So, finally, is my position broadly illiberal?

4. The essential pre-conditions for libertarian socialism
I also would like to see a greater level of political decentralisation, This would result in more liberal outcomes (both of the limp-wristed variety and the anti-statist one). Here's my back-of-a-fag-packet plan to bring this about soonish.

And I think that the state should be more active in promoting co-operative and mutualist solutions to social problems than it does. As such (decentralisation, Euro-federalism, mutualisation) I don't think I would have a problem in describing my position as being that of a libertarian socialist.

In short, Shuggy, I'm not going to push the envelope and claim that I'm actually *more* objectively liberal than you are.... but it must make you wonder, eh? ;-)

9 comments:

Shuggy said...

Hmmm, the first point that strikes me is a lot of the things you mention aren't liberties at all?

E.g. We can learn more cheaply because books are cheaper and we have the internet. This is a function of technology, rising wealth and freer-markets. These are increases in welfare, not liberty. They allow us to enjoy those liberties we have more - but that's another matter. (Just realised the markets reference opens up another set of problems - have to park that one for now.) But can people go to university more cheaply? Certainly not. In general, I would emphatically deny that our education system is more liberal than it was 20 years ago - but that deserves a post in it's own right.

Society's more diverse certainly - so arguably people are more free to be different. Yet so few of them are. I wonder why? Not sure about this one, I'll need to think on it. Homosexuals are more free, certainly. And I think, despite everything we hear, the religious are more free than they were 20 years ago. Provided they don't voice their disapproval of homosexuality. You see the problem: is society really more tolerant - recalling that there is no need for tolerance of things you approve of? In some respects definitely but in general I'm not sure. I'm thinking about how much time we spend in work in particular. Unless there's anyone who's really convinced that having goddam dress-down Fridays is a significant freedom, I think we can all agree there is much more managerial control over workers than there used to be - including quite intolerable invasions of privacy.

Again further down - the stuff about traveling more cheaply. We need to bring the market into this now. Consider the number of things you have counted as liberties that are really about consumer choice. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a good thing, by and large. But the same environment that gives us all this choice also gives us capitalists that interfere with our working lives and our private lives more than they used to. Then there's the whole business of the state interfering, hectoring, nannying, which I think you've just brushed off.

I don't think I would have a problem in describing my position as being that of a libertarian socialist.

Dunno comrade - there's more than a whiff of Milton Friedman in what you've written here, only he was more consistently liberal because as well as advocating greater consumer choice, he complained about government interference more than you. ;-)

There's more and some of this I've just written is a bit hastily considered. I'll think more on it. Meanwhile, thanks for the response.

Paulie said...

Yes - I am using 'welfare' and 'liberty' fairly interchangeably, but I think that - for the purposes of this discussion - our increased welfare gives us concrete choices that we didn't have. I can't see the problem with this?

Here are three points of yours that I completely agree with:

1: "I would emphatically deny that our education system is more liberal than it was 20 years ago" - I wouldn't even base that on the cost of entry either. The quality and diversity seems to have dropped dramatically (though students don't seem to spend as much time taking too many drugs and missing lectures / deadlines as they did in my day). It's all a very roundheaded obsession with 'workrate' as far as I can see. It's where English football went wrong as well.


2: "I'm thinking about how much time we spend in work in particular. Unless there's anyone who's really convinced that having goddam dress-down Fridays is a significant freedom, I think we can all agree there is much more managerial control over workers than there used to be - including quite intolerable invasions of privacy."


3: "...the same environment that gives us all this choice also gives us capitalists that interfere with our working lives and our private lives more than they used to."


On my lack of complaint about government interference, I'd say that increased government interference has it's causes, and I don't think that politicians are the heart of the problem here. They simply sign the cheques these days. I'm saying that - if this weren't the case - things would be better, and that our shrill hyperactive polity is the real culprit here.

On the 'nannying', this annoys me as much as anyone. But it's not the end of the world really. People have been telling me to eat my greens for over 40 years now and ignoring them has done me no harm ... er.... so far.....

Most of it makes reading a newspaper very annoying, but I can't remember the last time it really imposed itself on me. We had a health leaflet through the door that told me that I was in a bit of a risky position according to some indicators (I am going to have to start eating vegetables that haven't been deep fried, I'm told) and I binned it.

stephen said...

Shuggy raises the withdrawal of our rights to protest as evidence that our liberties have been reduced. As I've said before, I'm not convinced that rights to protest give us much more than a symbolic freedom that actually clouds our understanding of what liberties really are

If the right to protest weren't important why would our politicians have restricted our freedom to exercise it?

Paulie said...

Stephen,

My understanding is that the government are about to do repeal a lot of the restrictions on protesting around parliament. If I were them, I would - Brian Haw is hardly an asset to political opposition in this country.

http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2008/03/socpa_over_and.asp

stephen said...

My understanding is that the government are about to do repeal a lot of the restrictions on protesting around parliament. If I were them, I would - Brian Haw is hardly an asset to political opposition in this country

'Political opposition', huh? You think there's just one political opposition to Labour and that Haw is the examplar of it? To be fair, it was possible to spot such silly paranoia from Tory supporters of John Major's administration as it continued its inexorable decline to electoral annhilation. But it's rather telling that Labour supporters have lost so much sense of perspective that they now see things like that as well.

Paulie said...

Yes - I have a very vivid recollection of saying "...there's just one political opposition to Labour and that Haw is the examplar of it."

I love it when I get commenters here that post stuff like

"... silly paranoia ....continued its inexorable decline to electoral annhilation.... rather telling ...lost so much sense of perspective...."

There's a little Nick Robinson just waiting to burst out of you Stephen! You'll go far...

Shuggy said...

Yes - I am using 'welfare' and 'liberty' fairly interchangeably, but I think that - for the purposes of this discussion - our increased welfare gives us concrete choices that we didn't have. I can't see the problem with this?

Well, you should. Increased welfare allows us to exercise choice but it is choice that we presuppose is secured politically and socially. Welfare and freedom compliment one another but they are two separate things and this is a distinction of no small importance. If you don't make it, if you conflate the two, you end up making the sort of arguments that the CPC make. Or you end up writing articles for CiF talking about what a wonderful place Cuba is because of their health care system and their education system. And you wouldn't want that, would you? Almost anything's better than that.

Paulie said...

Yes, but I said "for the purposes of *this* argument."

The Cuba reference here is a bit of a red herring - one of those 'reductio ad hitlerium' arguments*. It's a bit like that question I raised a while ago - do you not vote for Ken the communalist patsy, or do you vote for Ken the very good city mayor.

I understand that one's political soul isn't an inconsequential detail. But I don't think that the current government have any totalitarian bent, or even an ambivalence about totalitarianism.

Yes - they are less-than-obsessed about providing an exemplary standard of civil-liberties. Yes - they put short-term 'tactical' electoral priorities ahead of the longer term 'strategic' policies that a proper centre-left government shold be following. And they are much to willing to bend to the priorities of bureaucrats and to accept their excuses.

But in that context, welfare and liberty are less distinct than they would be in a less specific discussion of good government.

Just to repeat - I'm not saying that we are living through a time in which our liberties are burgeoning. I'm just saying that they aren't being curtailed as severely as many people think, and it's not the end of the world either.


*Again, for the avoidance of doubt, the 'hitlerium' reference is not intended to imply that either Cuba or Livingstone's London are comparable to Nazi Germany.

stephen said...

Well then perhaps you could enlighten me as to what you meant by Brian Haw is hardly an asset to political opposition in this country. But I am glad to see that the relevant section of scopa is like to be repealed. Perhaps the silly ID Cards Act can be next and how about just not passing the 'extreme pornography' clauses in the CJA into law at all?