Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Freedom as Humanity

The ability to exercise our will freely is one of the things that makes us human. We consider animals to be enslaved by their instincts and passions, we recognise that the oppressed victims of tyrants and dictators are treated by them as less than human, we similarly recognise that actual slaves have been deprived of their humanity by being traded and forced to live at the whim of a master. We ourselves want to do what we want to do, and resist external attempts to restrain us.
Since it is not an easy matter to set out explicitly, at least not in a way that will be accepted by those who dislike and distrust other people’s, and possibly their own freedom, why it is important to those who do value it, and why they defend it so assiduously, another approach is to take the fight to them. Have them defend their supposed right or entitlement to deprive others of freedom.
In other words: Who are you to tell me what to do? This is a perfectly reasonable question, after all.  If someone is to presume to dictate what I can and cannot do, I want to know why. That someone else might harm society by doing what I am doing is not necessarily sufficient. It needs to be shown that I will harm society by doing what I am doing, or might want to do.

A society is perfectly entitled to defend itself from threats and harm (and it is on precisely that principle that I believe in capital punishment, in the right circumstances), but a component of that society has the perfect right, which perhaps someone from outside it does not, to challenge the process chosen, whoever makes it and with whatever authority.

Societies of all kinds tend to choose repression as the easiest way to contain internal threats. All behaviours which might cause problems, whatever constitutes a problem in the minds of those who exercise power, even just mentally, is first met with prohibition. It really is the easiest way, and it is natural to us to forbid, or to call for others to forbid, any kind of behaviour or practice which we do not understand or which we find threatening. There will be those who will be sure to present it to us as threatening, for reasons of their own. Money, vindictiveness, ignorance, fear are often motives for adding a voice to the call to forbid and control. It doesn’t make them right.

Something which is genuinely harmful to a society can, then, be legitimately suppressed by it. And so once again the question, the specific question we started with, is, does the freedom to take intoxicating or noxious substances cause sensible harm to other members of society, or to society as a whole? The answer here is almost certainly yes, it does, in some cases and to some degree. Does this permit the repression of the freedom of society as a whole in a large area of actions? No, it doesn’t. It requires society, or those who act in its name, to identify whose freedom it needs to curtail, and in precisely what areas.

What, then, is the cost of suppressing it? Very high indeed, in some cases. The cost to the individual may be high purely in personal terms, in that he places great value on his freedom to perform that particular act, or in economic terms, in that his livelihood depends on his being able to do things in a certain way, or being free to choose how to do them. These consequences are very rarely taken serious by governments, who only think in very broad terms.

The more I think about this, the less I understand the argument that the government, which means no more than those who have gained power, can arbitrarily restrict the freedom of the governed. Society, when it is genuinely acting as a whole and for its own good, is very limited in what it can legitimately do in this regard. A government, however apparently benign and however chosen, is above and outside the society formed by the rest of us, and acts only to benefit itself. It should not be permitted to control us on general principles, unexamined by the broad base of those affected by its decrees.


Vincent said...

I think the comment I wrote on your last applies equally to this one, if not more so.

For example, the person taking drugs quietly at home (who may or may not be harming his own health thereby) is likely to be the customer of a supply chain which is illegal in almost every way. However to decriminalise the supply sets up other problems. I don't know what the problems are, but there must be some, as the status quo is certainly not satisfactory for anyone.

I think the present British government is probably collectively as concerned for freedom as you are. As I said, it's a complex set of interlinked decisions that have to be reached pragmatically.

CIngram said...

The problems caused by the criminalising of drugs are very apparent. The problems it solves are rather less so. Hence the tendency to reject change. It is not at all clear that demand would increase, nor is at all clear that serious health problems would increase (most of us keep our bodies reasonably free of noxious substances because we like it that way, not because it's against the law). It is clear, on the other hand, that a number of social problems would be reduced by it.

In reality, pragmatism is the only way to resolve the question, because the situation must exist in reality, but imagination and understanding can contribute to finding a better solution than the obvious or the one that already exists.

What makes you think this government is especially concerned about freedom? Freedom in what sense?

Vincent said...

My remark about the government was hasty and mangled. The British Government is not united about anything, so one cannot talk about its collective concerns except on one topic - to reduce government debt, which is a huge responsibility and something which concentrates the mind.

Individually, Tories probably have a greater concern for individual freedom than other parties, and their opinions may vary on this them like yours and mine.

But there are so many conflicting interests and priorities. Some topics simply can't be dealt with in times of crisis because change would have such huge and unforeseen effects, and there's a lack of will, time or energy to cope with the irreversible effects.

I think it is right that there should be lobbyists arguing the case for decriminalising, and I don't really know why this case doesn't get anywhere.

All I know is that all kinds of bad ideas, once launched, can never be revoked, and it's partly due to the ratcheting effect of democracy: it's easy to give the people something, then impossible to take it back because you wouldn't be elected. Which is partly why the government is in such debt.

CIngram said...

Thanks for the clarification. I’m glad to hear that they are too busy trying to solve the economic problems of the country to be distracted by lesser things. I hope you’re right that are taking that responsibility so seriously that they have time for nothing else.

The ratcheting effect works both ways, or rather, ‘government giving’ means, to one set of people, entitlements of one kind or another; to other people it means listening to their demand to ban or control something. It’s as hard and expensive (politically) to decriminalise something the Daily Mail doesn’t like as it is to reduce civil servants’ pay or make it easier to sack workers.