Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Existence of Leaders

The reality is that there will always be leaders, and their attitude to those over whom they have power is not guided by the conclusions of moral philosophers. Those who can gain power will want it, and those who have power will exercise it. There is no point whatsoever in speaking of right and wrong, in trying to determine what they mean in any given situation, in analysing what the laws should permit or forbid, except as an academic exercise or, in the case before us, as a rhetorical or dialectical tool in the constant battle to stop those who have power from using it. They might be swayed by it, they might not.

Because there will always be leaders, who will act in their own interests, those who are not able to exercise power to the same degree have to protect themselves as best they can. One of the weapons they have is their own freedom. Not just using it well, but defending it at every turn, exercising it and being seen to exercise it by the leaders, making it an object of reverence, taking the rhetorical battle to those who would diminish its importance, and having them explain themselves.

This is only possible where the government is prepared to recognise the importance of personal freedom at all, and will be, or must allow itself to be, drawn into the rhetoric of freedom. Many governments, historically and currently, would be bemused by the very idea that their subjects could have such a thing as freedom, could act independently of what they have been instructed or permitted to do. One of the great things about democracy, for all its defects, is that it requires governments to recognise the rhetoric of freedom as part of the political process. Totalitarian governments do not have to do this. It’s one of the ways we recognise them.

It is, therefore, important to oppose on principle any restriction of freedom, to demand that it be explained and justified, and to extract a high political price, in support or acceptance of legitimacy, for any imposition upon our freedom. This is true of even the most justifiable impositions. Few people would argue that others should be free to commit murder, just in case they themselves wish to commit it at some point. Nevertheless, the right to defend ourselves from murderers has been arrogated to the state by itself. An individual cannot himself punish a murder committed on his property, nor, any longer (I’m thinking of Britain, Spain and the US- this last based more on watching Westerns than anything else), can a town, collectively, act against those who commit murder within it*. Although we are happy enough to give up the freedom to murder, the freedom to act against murderers has been taken away by the government and put in the hands of its appointed agents. We may agree that this is a good thing, a better guarantee that most murderers will be caught and only real murderers will be punished, and that therefore the restriction on our freedom is justified, but in exchange for that restriction we should demand that the actions of the government in acting against murderers be perfect, and they should know that we are checking and will hold any failure against them.

*The village I am writing this in, like many in Castille, still has its ‘picota’, also known as a ‘rollo’, basically a stone column that served as a gallows. It was permanent and usually stood in a high, visible spot (ours, for some reason in beside the river, but most of the ones I have seen, and quite a few still stand, are up high). It was a symbol of the right of a town, a right recognised by the crown, to defend itself on its own terms. Judgement was by the whole town (well, the committee of burgesses, basically the adult males). There may have been errors, demagogues, petty vengeances and other problems, but society as a whole took the decisions, not some outside agent appointed by the state. However expert and well-intentioned those agents are, they are not society, they are not the town and they do not genuinely represent its interests or its wishes.


Sackerson said...

Vincent said...

Yes there will always be leaders and their number is not finite. You can be one, I can be one, leading by our writings or teaching and it doesn't have to imply power, it doesn’t have to imply that we are not guided by the moral philosopher within us (the only guide who really matters!)

So I think you are not referring to a leader, but someone who seizes the opportunity for power, for its own sake. I won’t call him a tyrant or dictator because he might for example be a “captain of industry” whose power over individual lives is indirect.

I agree there is no point in speaking of right and wrong, as if these are things not known which require to be thrashed out in debate. In day-to-day matters there is generally consensus, and you could appoint a child as judge, and not do too badly.

I really don’t think “the rhetoric of freedom” has much to do with day-to-day reality. I think that in this you may have been taken over by your own rhetoric, or perhaps someone else’s.

In the matter of murderers, we might as well extend the example to cover all the dangers we live under, of actual or possible harm from others. In the US you would have the constitutional right to bear arms, and therefore to kill, if it’s established that you’ve done so in self-defence. That freedom is jealously guarded by a majority of Americans, against all reason, I would say. In Britain it is very different.

Suppose your house is robbed, and the robbers escape, and your brother-in-law chases them and beats one senseless with a cricket bat, causing grievous injury or death, the matter will certainly go to court. I’m describing an actual case which happened a couple of years ago in my town. The brother-in-law or other relative was acquitted.

In this country the law and its administration are regulated by the sense of fairness and balance, not freedom. We are not free to bear arms. We will be punished if we carry knives for self-defence, even if we don’t use them, even if we honestly and rationally believe we need them for self-defence. And if I’m a seventeen-year-old, say, and I’m searched by the police and found to be carrying a knife, and I claim it’s for whittling sticks, or for my work as a trainee chef, I may expect to be detained for questioning. It’s an infringement of my liberty of course if my story is found to be true. It’s all very well saying “we should demand that the actions of the government in acting against murderers be perfect”, but we know they cannot be perfect, and the police cannot be perfect. What we do have in Britain is an Independent Police Complaints Commission.

If I lived in a village with its own gallows, I don’t think I would trust it to have an IPCC.

[I find this "please prove you're not a robot" dialogue to be an attack on my freedom. Do you need it? I have never had this, have never found the necessity.]

CIngram said...

When I followed your link I half-expected the quote to be from JS Mill. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Jefferson. I've often thought that the only legitimate purpose of government is to stop someone even worse from ruling.

I've been perusing Mill's 'On Liberty' again, as you do when thinking about these matters. I was surprised to discover two things: firstly that I scarcely remember anything from the last time, and secondly that he appears to read this blog and to take his ideas from it. To his credit, I will say that he expresses them far better than I have done.

Sackerson said...

I suppose there's no perfect answer. In a democracy you get the demagogue. Jefferson (late in life) wrote to the effect that the people would make mistakes, but no worse than any other kind of government and probably better.

But both he and Mill may have been assuming a demos made up of largely rational and well-informed people.

CIngram said...

When I talk about leaders I mean, as you say, those who have acquired power. And although we, that is you and I individually, and we, as a society, may have clear ideas about right and wrong, but those who exercise power are not always guided by them, but other considerations entirely, which are of little benefit to the governed.

I disagree with your remarks about the right to bear arms, not because I defend that right in itself as a universal principle, but because all the government and its agents can do to defend you promise to punish those who harm you, and sort out the mess afterwards. They aren’t usually there when you need them, and I’d rather be able to defend myself first and answer questions later. There is a big difference between being prepared to defend yourself and going out looking for trouble and that’s the sort of thing that the courts are best suited to clearing up afterwards, as in the case you describe.

Of course the actions of the government and the courts are never going to be perfect, and when I speak of murder it’s true that the same applies to other crimes, it was just an example, but when governments arrogate to themselves a power which should in principle belong to the individual or group directly concerned, even when the argument is that they can do it better and more justly, and even when this turns out to be true in practice, there is no reason for not demanding that they satisfy the most exacting standards and explain every action they take in detail.

Having said which, I’m very glad our gallows is now just a symbol of a past status, because, while as accuser, I am heated in defence of the theory of individual freedom, if I were the accused, especially the wrongly accused, which any of us could be at any time, I would rather take my chances with the government-run law courts that with a random selection of burgesses pulled from the village square during the midday beer break. Practicality wins this one. I think in this debate it always will in the end.

Oh, and my apologies for attacking your freedom with the spambot. I didn’t put it there, it just turned up, and I don’t know how to change the settings. I’ll fiddle around but it may have to wait till I return to civilization in a couple of weeks, as I’m doing all this on the phone and it’s very tricky.

CIngram said...

I think you probably have to make certain assumptions about the society you're describing. Mill says as much, as you've pointed out before, and Jefferson was a politician concerned with a new and unusual type of state. And I am aware from my own readings that members of 'primitive', that is, economically and culturally undeveloped, societies have little use for personal freedom, as it adds nothing to their daily struggle for survival. In such circumstances, a strong sense of individual liberty might cause it to destroy itself before it could adjust.

CIngram said...

I think I've managed to get rid of the 'not a robot' box, thus removing an annoyance and an obstacle to the flow of comment. Let it not be said that I don't take other people's freedom as seriously as my own ;-)

Vincent said...

Nice! Thanks.