Risk and liberty

There is no such thing as a self-regarding act. Every action entails a cost or a consequence – on the environment, on our neigh- bours, on people on the other side of the world, on the economy, on the social fabric. Even opening our mouths is fraught with difficulties: who knows who we might offend, what conflicts might arise? All these things can, thanks to new technologies, be policed – and many are falling within the grasp of the state. Once risk becomes the bogey- man of modern society the scope for management and control expands. Risk management seeks no philosophical justification – and brooks no philosophical opposition. It is ideologically neutral. This is the true story of liberty in the modern world. Ideas of freedom derive from ideas of the individual. Nowadays pessimism rules.

From the review in the Financial Times (subscription) by Niall Ferguson:

The police state has a natural ally in the nanny state, born in 1945 to replace warfare with welfare. If the former replaces individual freedoms with patriotic duties, the latter offers entitlements in exchange for responsibilities. Ironically, the postwar government most committed to rolling back the welfare state – that of Margaret Thatcher – ended up significantly increasing the power of the central government. Think only of the Public Order Act of 1986, which limited the freedom of assembly, and the Official Secrets Act of 1989, which removed the public interest defence for leaks of sensitive information.

Yet the diminution of individual liberty has gone much further under New Labour as ideas of pre-emptive or actuarial justice have evolved in tandem with increasingly widespread electronic surveillance and data gathering. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Hate Crimes would once have seemed like Orwellian flights of fancy; today they are a reality. And CCTV cameras and computer databases mean that Big Brother is watching you more than you probably like to think.

The conflict between individualism, liberty, and power has a long history, of course. FreedomFromBlog briefly and brilliantly discusses these same antecedents in the context of this week’s Obama/Cheney ‘debate’ on Guantanamo and torture.

Cheney’s speech today was pure Hobbes: we live in a dangerous world where enemies are out to kill us; for freedom to survive, we need an absolute and unquestioned executive authority to secure our lives. In the war against those enemies, no legal rules or moral boundaries can possibly apply, since they would undermine the ability of the sovereign to mount an effective defense of his people… Obama’s speech, by contrast, was pure Locke: a measured appeal to reason and the rule of law in recognition that, even in a state of war, the laws of nature–great respecters of persons in their personhood–must be upheld. Of course, Obama also inherits the messiness of Locke’s proposed solution.

But it seems to me that the state in its (self-appointed?) role of risk-mediator/mitigator intrudes a new, unwelcome element into this old wrangle. The problem is not that the state necessarily oversteps its Lockean ‘boundaries’ (or even its Hobbesian boundaries) by doing so, but that it proves too easy for interested parties to spook the state—represented by a government with only a marginal hold on the popular vote in most cases—into exaggerated responses.

Here’s a wonderful antidote to spookery: the “Worrier’s Guide to Risk“, that has in fact been commissioned by a UK government agency.

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