Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Fri, 21 Feb 2020, 2:07 PM


Who'll defend freedom?

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In the last few days we've seen rightists attempt to bully Greta Thunberg out of the public sphere rather than engage with her arguments; Tony Blair's demand for ID cards and that immigrants have a duty to integrate; and rightists (backfiring) efforts to shame Diane Abbott for drinking on a train. These all have something in common. They show that the right and centre are enemies of freedom*.

These are not the only examples, nor the worst. New Labour created thousands of new criminal offences, a trend continued by the Tory government such as in its ban on legal highs, its counterproductive porn block and its "hostile environment" policy. Very many Tories and Cuks voted last year against legalizing cannabis. Chuka Umunna, following the centrist Emmanuel Macron, wants to reintroduce forced labour. And of course demands to end freedom of movement and restrict immigration are by definition demands to curb freedom.

The only reference the Cuks made to freedom in their launch statement (pdf) was that: "our free media, the rule of law, and our open, tolerant and respectful democratic society should be cherished and renewed." This looks a little like valuing the freedom of corporations more than that of individuals.

To people of my vintage, this illiberalism looks odd. In my formative years anti-leftists claimed to cherish freedom, and attacked the Soviet Union for denying it to their people.

Which poses the question: why, then, are they so opposed to liberty today?

Partly, it's because they always have been. Many cold warriors were not sincere libertarians, but only appealed to freedom as a stick with which to beat the USSR. Many of them supported Pinochet and apartheid, and the criminalization of homosexuality. The freedom they valued was the freedom to exploit others.

Another reason is that the enemy of freedom is fanaticism. Friedrich Hayek wrote:

Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseeable and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known....And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appear to be its individual merits, we always over-estimate the advantages of central direction. (Law Legislation and Liberty Vol I, p56-57.)

The more confident you are about your own beliefs, the more weight you'll attach to the individual merits of any infraction of freedom and the less weight to unforeseeable actions. So you'll be more inclined to curtail freedom. Although centrists think of themselves of moderates, this is often mere self-love: you can be a fanatical centrist just as much as you can be a fanatical leftist or rightist. Fanaticism and extremism are different things. French-revolution-2011-1-638

There's something else. Centrists and rights have long been naïve about power. Many have been over-optimistic about the extent to which it will be used benignly, no doubt in part because it has traditionally been exercised by jolly good chaps like themselves. It is for this reason that they have long been too relaxed about the coercion that occurs within corporate hierarchies. But the same thinking - or lack thereof - extends to political power. If it is people like you who will exercise power, and minorities or working class people who'll be on the dirty end of it, you'll be relaxed about arrogating power to the state.

Which brings me to a forgotten fact. Before the 20th century, freedom was a leftist ideal: think of Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, the young Marx, Adam Smith's jaundiced view of the "rich and great", or the first word of the motto of the French revolutionaries. There was a simple reason for this: they all knew that restrictions of freedom helped the rich and powerful and hurt the poor and powerless. It is time for the left to reclaim the value of freedom - because, let's face it, nobody else will.

* Of course, rightists are quick to claim to value free speech. But Dawn Foster has a point: the infringements of freedom of which they complain are often no such thing but are instead the hitherto voiceless merely answering back.

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