Monday, August 06, 2007

Liberty - not what it was

So says Roy Hattersley. Well, it certainly isn't in his hands:
"The right to do something that circumstances prevent us from doing is not a right worth having. Liberty, we have learned since Mill's day, is the practical ability to enjoy the choices of a free society, not the theoretical chance to take advantage of opportunities which we cannot afford."
"We have learned"? Speak for yourself. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing new about the conflation of ideas here. The routine should be familiar by now: writer doesn't really believe in individual liberty but rather than actually admitting this, stretches the concept to suit his purposes instead.

Fairly annoying. Liberals do not deny that formal liberties aren't much use without the ability to enjoy them - we just insist that a freedom and an ability are two different things. Which they are.

Fairly annoying too is that Hattersely, like so many critics of JS Mill, doesn't seem to have done him the courtesy of a careful reading. The harm principle: amazing the number of people who just don't get this. Hattersely certainly doesn't, a fact that can be demonstrated by the examples he uses. Mill didn't know the carcinogenic effects of tobacco smoke, Hattersley says, as if this formed part of some slam-dunk argument. So what? If he had, no doubt he would not have considered smoking in public places a self-regarding action. It is also difficult to see how failing to strap your children into the back-seat of your car could possibly be classed as a self-regarding action by Mill's definition. Enough to give straw men arguments a bad name.

The final annoyance is Hattersley appears to make the same assumption that authoritarians usually do: people need restraint, and the people in need of restraint are other people:
"The first principle asserts that "all errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good". Only cranks believe that now. If it were a generally held view, we would not prohibit the use of recreational drugs or require passengers in the back seats of motor cars to wear safety belts."
Guess I'm a crank then. This is partly a difference of opinion about what motivates people. I tend to take the view that the reason most people don't drive about with their children unrestrained in the back of their car whilst smoking crack is they think it's a stupid and dangerous thing to do; Roy Hattersley clearly thinks it's fear of the law that is the deciding factor here.

Thing is, I doubt he thinks it decisive in his own case. I assume if we asked him why he hasn't cultivated an intravenous heroin habit, he'd give some reason other than because heroin is illegal. But others are different, and that's why they need restraint. Funny how those who compromise the concept of liberty in the interests of what they understand to be equality so often turn out not to be coming from an egalitarian position in the first place.

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