Sunday, March 15, 2009

On liberty and 'the big historical picture'

Norm links, and comments on uncritically, this offering from Rafael Behr who argues that any complaints about this government's illiberalism are essentially an exercise in nostalgia - that it is a failure to see the 'big historical picture' that stops the modern liberal from understanding that we are living in nothing less than the Golden Age of liberty:
"Go back a couple of centuries and most of us lived in perpetual fear of arbitrary violence. We couldn't read or write. Independent thought was a sin. Women were chattels. Children were labourers. Even 50 years ago, most us were restrained by bonds of class deference, rigid gender roles and sexual prurience. It has all been swept away. We have the maximum political, moral and cultural liscence of any people ever."
Behr's contextualising observations provide a necessary corrective to some of the more hysterical critics of the government. For instance, I would have no hesitation in agreeing with Mr Behr that we do indeed live in a relatively liberal and secular democracy - far from being a police state - and that this is now, never mind when one considers the broad sweep of history, the exception rather than the rule of human experience.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of problems with this line. One is from the internal evidence of his own argument: whether he was aware of it or not, much of the liberty Behr describes, and which I agree exists, has nothing much to do with government but is enjoyed despite government because it is essentially a function of technology:
"Thank God, we are free, I thought. We are free from the blanket of social opprobrium that once suffocated England as it did Ireland. We are free from the stern eye of the local cleric and his loyal army of petty parishioner informants. We are free to blaspheme, to swear. Holy shit! How free are we?"
Pretty goddamn free, I'd say - but this is because hardly any of us live in 'parishes' in the historical sense. Parish informants don't know who we are, parish informants don't really exist anymore - but this is a function of living in urban areas with mobile populations. This has nothing much to do with the government. And anyway, my understanding is that blasphemy is still technically illegal in English law?

Another has to do with the way important details can be lost when one draws the 'big historical picture'. For example, it is true our relatively liberal state is historically highly unusual. But for those of us living in northern European countries, so is our wealth. The family in Britain today on median income enjoys a standard of wealth that is astronomically high compared to that experienced by most people in most places since the foundation of human civilisation. Even someone on welfare benefits has a level of comfort that the comparatively well-off in the nineteenth century would have envied. But does this mean that today the average 'hard-working family' has no grounds for complaint over the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin will spend his retirement on an income that they would be unable to accumulate collectively over four generations? Perhaps it could be argued that they should stop complaining and get some historical context but it's an argument I would be personally disinclined to make. Should Mr Rehr be unfortunate enough to lose his job doing whatever he does and find himself claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, I don't think he'd find himself quite as indifferent to the intrusions of the state as he is now - which brings me to this:
"We are free. Most people can say and do what they like, when they like, where they like."
If this is Mr Rehr's assessment, I'm bound to say both he and his social circle have a somewhat limited life experience as well as a rather narrow range of interests - but this isn't the central point. Rather, I would take issue with this most people. 'Most people' is no good, no good at all. Most people give no cause for concern to the state, regardless of its character. People concerned about liberty and justice should not be concerned about most people but everyone - particularly those living on the margins of our society. What is this 'most people' crap? Most people, for example, will never find themselves in a police cell. Does this mean the erosion of the right to silence is unimportant? Most people will not find themselves at the receiving end of the powers the police have accumulated as the result of anti-terrorism legislation. Does that mean abuses flowing from these are unimportant? I'm all in favour of historical context but its uses are limited. If I ended up in jail I think I'd rather have access to a lawyer and brush up on my history later.

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