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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