Liberty in the Modern World
[I'm afraid the footnotes appear at the end of the text only.]
[Print copies are available free. Simply send me an email.]
This essay is not a complaint. It will try to point out the difficulties
liberty faces in the modern age. But I do not forget that how lucky
modern people are in their liberties. Liberty is a complicated notion
at any time, and it is not necessarily pessimistic to point out
its present difficulties. Indeed, in large measure liberty's present
difficulties are to do with a problem of manners and morals amongst
very free people. In the past, liberty often faced greater difficulties,
and from the threat posed to it by vicious states.
Westerners are richer and better educated than we have ever been.
We are governed by people we elect. Our governing institutions are
responsive to our demands. We do not in general fear violence from
our fellow citizens or the state. We expect to receive impartial
judgements from the justice system. And yet we are demanding and
difficult citizens. We expect to be heard, and to have our demands
taken seriously, and are perhaps rather indifferent to the competing
demands of our neighbours. We expect to have a lot of freedom, and
are perhaps not very keen on our responsibilities. Oddly, many of
us do not feel free: we feel, rather, "stressed", even
oppressed. We are surprisingly naïve, and perhaps rather "soft".
There is perhaps something almost childish about the adults living
in the Western world. We are demanding, rather petulant, and prone
to a sort of victimhood.
Westerners, like many others in the world, are threatened by terrorism,
especially by alienated "Islamists", and our states respond
by reducing the civil liberties available to those suspected of
such activity, and to the mainstream of society. What is more, we
are using sophisticated surveillance devices to deal with terrorism,
organised crime, low-level street violence, traffic violations,
welfare fraud and computer crime: we are aware of the potential
for a realisation at last of an Orwellian "1984" all-seeing
state. Are we, as some on the left suggest, sleep-walking toward
This paper looks at how these tendencies arise out of and affect
the way we think and talk about liberty - and suggests how we might
do a little better.
I make no great claims for my philosophical abilities. Every thoughtful
person wonders about liberty, and we all do much the same reading.
What I write here aims to move arguments on a little from the work
of my own heroes, Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin, but it does so
only because it uses their insights to look at very modern circumstances.
Back to basics: The nature of liberty
Most educated people are pretty familiar with the concept of liberty,
and they understand that it is an idea which comes hedged about
with contradictions. At the very least, it is not a permissive state
of affairs. From Locke we hear that the State of Nature (supposed
to be ideal, for reasons we would be likely to dispute now), is
a "state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence".1
Indeed, the moment we think about it we realise that generalised
licence would be nasty.
We vaguely understand that liberty is an idea developed from notions
of good government which were identified very clearly by the Greeks
(who were actually not what we think of as liberal as they discussed
citizenship).2 We know of Plato and Aristotle's discussion of justice
in the polis, and that it developed slowly and haltingly throughout
the European world over the intervening centuries. We would probably
agree that with the European Enlightenment the idea achieved a degree
of definition which has not needed much improvement since. We read
our Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke and Hume (or at least snippets
of their own writing and glosses on them3). These German and "English"
thinkers, especially, argued through the moral underpinnings of
the idea, and at least imagined the kinds of states and constitutions
which could best enshrine it. In France and America, the idea was
enshrined in written constitutions. In Britain it was so accepted
as an ideal that it was widely felt that a written constitution
could not enshrine it better than long habits developed from medieval
understandings.4 (It is rather forgotten how much these "unspoken"
English understandings devolved from laws such as the Bill of Rights,
1689.5) In Germany, a monarchical system lasted for rather longer,
and liberty was less advertised as a social goal, but the rule of
law - perhaps the single great essential of liberty - was highly-prized
and social development kept pace with or led north European norms.6
Liberty as a social condition
It is useful to see liberty as a social condition in which freedoms
are not so much maximised as optimised. Indeed, society and individuals
enjoy liberty because people agree to curtail their own freedoms.
We do so on a very large scale, as Jeremy Bentham would have agreed:
he thought the conventional liberal idea of freedom was "nonsense
upon stilts"7. We are not free to be idle (society insists
we try to be solvent), and we are not free to be ignorant (society
has made education compulsory). Arguably, the society imposes one
enormous unseen tyranny: Post Modernism notes that we are enculturated
- our very imaginations are indoctrinated.
Isaiah Berlin was perhaps the most interesting writer on the evolution
of liberty and its practical workings. He draws hugely on other
thinkers, but speaks beautifully to "modern" European
history, and to our inherited dilemmas. The great puzzle he sought
to resolve was the descent of high-minded 18th, 19th and 20th Century
revolutions into exactly the tyranny the Greeks would have expected
of "mass" rule. Berlin pinned down the danger of idealism.
He argued that the cruellest societies on earth had originally set
out to limit the freedom of the powerful and nasty and increase
that of the weak (who were presumed to be amiable). To help with
this set of thoughts, Berlin identified "negative" freedoms
(the freedom from control, for good or ill) and "positive"
freedom (the freedom to achieve one's goals). He explained: "I
wish to be a somebody, not nobody....".8 States involve themselves
in promoting positive freedoms by seeking to engineer society so
that citizens are preserved from hunger, tyranny, ignorance and
so on. And yet the enterprise has often floundered, and Berlin believed
that one could explain these practical failings from tendencies
in the thinking of many social idealists. He targeted six, Helve[accent]tius,
Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and Maistre : "Although
they all discussed the problem of human liberty, and all, except
perhaps Maistre, clamed that they were in favour of it,.... it is
a peculiar fact that in the end their doctrines are inimical to
what is normally meant, at any rate, by individual liberty, political
liberty."9 He pointed out that societies which contained negative
and positive freedoms could be equally awful. For all that he lauded
it, his greatest contribution was to argue that freedom is not by
itself necessarily a good thing: "Moreover, to speak of freedom
as an end is much too general"10. A society which prized freedom
might stress that it had no rationale for limiting the freedom of
the nastiest and strongest of its members.
Liberty and government
What was the core idea which Westerners at every level in society
seemed to understand and which they wanted to inform the way they
were governed? If Berlin gives us the most nuanced account of freedom
and its conflicted nature, the clearest sight of the problem came
from J S Mill, when he proposed that people should be free to do
what they liked so long as it did not harm anyone else: "The
only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to
society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely
concerns himself, his independence is as of right, absolute."11
People needed this freedom, he thought, because modern society risked
imposing the will of an oppressive majority - as opposed to the
ancient problem of imposition by an oppressive minority. Of course,
this is a purist definition and its very purity shows one how useless
it is to be simplistic about an idea so human as this. We immediately
see the big problem: how should anyone guage the value to himself
or society of some action, and set it against its potential or actually
harm to others? Surely, a very great gain to me (or society) by
an action of mine ought to be worth some inconvenience or worse
to someone else.
And we see here the core problem with freedom. It is definitely
not something which can be maximised, at least not by the persons
who have it. It is a profound good, but it is not a good which any
individual can seek to endlessly increase for himself. In other
words, though only persons can have liberty, it is an intensely
social good. Montesquieu wrote: "Liberty is a right of doing
whatever the laws permit: and if a citizen could do what they forbid,
he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow
citizens would have the same power".12 A society could plausibly
aim to maximise the amount of liberty the totality of its citizens
enjoyed, but it could only seek to optimise the amount of liberty
any one individual enjoyed.
But liberty is not a zero-sum game. We need not be mercantilist
about it. It is not as though there is a fixed pot of liberty within
societies and we are trying to share it out equitably. My having
more liberty does not depend on your having less. At least, things
are not precisely like that. And yet it is true that I only have
liberty because others are not exercising their freedom. The people
around me only have liberty because I do not press home my own freedoms.
"Liberty" simultaneously expresses freedom and constraints.
And here we see one of the enormously interesting problems with
liberty. It is a slippery and tricky idea which nonetheless must
be defined. People make very passionate claims for their right to
exert this or that very detailed liberty, and others as vociferously
and passionately dispute it. In short, where people cannot agree
to differ over some rather vaguely defined right to some subtle
liberty or other, adjudications have to be made. Liberty is at once
a very vague and a very precise area of operations. Indeed, we need
to see that liberty is a word used for very competing purposes.
On the one hand we use it to equate with something like "my
freedom", or "my rights"; and on the other we use
it for a very different, contradictory purpose: to express the social
arrangement whereby the competition between my freedoms and rights
and those of the rest of society - of society - are resolved.
Liberty and rights
Liberties and rights are not the same thing. For working purposes,
my rights enshrine my liberties. Because I have rights, I know what
my liberties are and that I am free to exert them. The distinction
seems to be this: rights are prior to liberties. Because I have
the right to leave my country (and the state does not have the right
to stop me), I am at liberty to roam the world. Because I have the
right to protest, I am at liberty to go to such and such a place
and wave a placard.
It is a very old and difficult question to know what rights are
and where they come from. The big problem is to know the degree
to which they are pre-existing. Are they hard-wired into our being?
Would they be there in the absence of their being recognised and
taken seriously? I incline to the view that we maintain a necessary
fiction about rights. They are, if we are brutal about it, invented
by societies, accorded by the powerful, and indeed thoroughly man-made.
But we have a great need to make them as absolute as we can make
anything which is human (though of course reserving the right to
enhance, improve and over-ride them). And of course, much discussion
of rights is about protecting them from abuse by the powerful. And
this fiction is necessary to the understanding we have that people
have rights even in states which do not accord them. That's to say:
the modern Westerner finds it hard to conceive, say, that any woman
anywhere does not have a right to choose her own husband, even if
her state and family do not accord her that right.
Christianity made rights absolute. For centuries, rights were supposed
to flow, if at all, from the individual's partaking in the divine.
"By Natural Right, Locke means an entitlement under Natural
Law, which is God's Law."13 Made in God's image, each man had
value, and we could best recognise that - give it meaning - by according
that person rights. In our more mechanistic age, we need a different
way of enshrining the idea. It must, in the modern age, do something
very difficult. It must express the idea of something inalienable,
and yet manufactured. Rights are something humans conceive of and
confer, and yet the idea describes something which is not negotiable
or removable. The most powerful state on earth cannot remove from
me my rights. At least that is the idea. In fact, it is a deeply
flawed idea. Rights turn out to be relative, habitual: they shift
with time and place. One expects of course that rights are fragile
and motile in arbitrary societies, where the rulers make things
up as they go along. The surprise is how fluid rights turn out to
be in societies which place most emphasis on their being carved
In the real world, and - oddly one might think - especially in
free societies, the state is very powerful. Indeed, from Plato on,
political discussion is about how to preserve liberty from the incursions
on it by over-mighty aristocrats and oligarchs. Early discussion,
it is not perhaps widely-enough realised, was concerned with the
problem of the tyranny of the populace which crude democracy might
introduce. This is where Edmund Burke is so important, with his
sustained discussion on the value of political settlements - especially
Britain's "compound constitution" - which understands
the value of balancing the various sources of power and authority
in society. (Of course he also stresses that liberty is a "social
freedom. It is a state of things in which liberty is secured by
the equality of restraint....".14)
Even a balanced state can produce a total sovereignty of the state
which is very nearly God-like. Of course, no state could make black
into white, just as God cannot. But modern representative democracies
- and it is hard to imagine a wiser system of government - are extraordinarily
intrusive. They confer rights and remove them on a vast scale every
day. One day you can slap your child, the next you can't; one day
people can smoke in a restaurant, the next you can't; one day your
foetus has a right to life, the next it doesn't; one day you will
prosecuted for helping an elderly relative die, the next you won't;
one moment a divorced mother is likely to control the destiny of
her child, the next the absent father is likely to share control.
Rights turn out to be bewilderingly fluid. The idea which is most
intended to enshrine immutability turns out to be very human and
flexible. Of course, once some new development is enshrined in law
and custom, we hope it will bed down as real right - part of our
legal and social landscape - but we suspect that some development
will upset everything all over again.
It turns out that rights are not as rooted as we suppose: they
are not as dependent on their origins, as we think. They are pulled
along, as it were, by our ideas of progress. We think, perhaps,
that men are now developing into more rounded characters: they should
be expected and allowed to play a role in childrearing. We suppose
that we now know too much about smoking to allow it. We sense that
people are not now prepared to put themselves in the hands of a
technocratic medical profession: many of them seek to determine
their own time of death.
No wonder there is plenty of work for courts of Human Rights in
the modern world. It is easy enough to lay out a menu of attractive
and obvious rights (liberty, life, the pursuit of happiness, for
instance). What is much harder is to take this or that individual's
claim to one of them and to measure it against his or her fellow's
competing claim. It is obvious that rights aren't absolute, if only
because they are at war with one another.
It is often said that one only has rights (and the liberties which
flow from them) because one accepts obligations. In this view, it
is the balanced reciprocation of rights and obligations which makes
society work. I would be crushed if I did not have my own social
space, and yet only my understanding of the rights of others to
their social space both limits me and allows others their means
of operating. Normally, good manners and ordinary sociability means
that we understand these things - we live together - pretty convivially.
But there is, in good societies, a legal framework and a means of
imposing it. If we don't play nicely together, the police and the
courts know how to deal with us.
That is all well and good, but there are many circumstances in
which the idea that we only have rights because we accept obligations
clearly doesn't work. It is not the real underpinning of the process.
Consider this. We take very seriously the rights of the weak, the
young and the disabled, and we do so precisely because they cannot
reciprocate. Because the disadvantaged cannot assert their "rights",
and cannot repay them, we worry that society must exert itself to
make sure they have them. So rights are very far from depending
on reciprocity, and indeed come into play most when reciprocity
is at its weakest.
To take another familiar case. We are inclined to think that rights
and obligations are, amongst ordinarily civilised and able people,
pretty well balanced. But this is less true than we think. We are
very inclined to suppose that we have to create rather a lot of
room for people who are not, we think, very reasonable. We make
a lot of room in society for people who simply assert that they
need a lot of room. The drunk, the dissident, the unhappy, the creative
artist: these are all people who often cause at the very least a
good deal of inconvenience, and yet they are accorded more liberty
than they perhaps "deserve" (more, say, than those they
inconvenience). Similarly, society treats criminals rather better
than criminals treat society. Doubtless, there are sometimes reasons
of expediency why this is so. We figure that making criminals resentful
may make them more dangerous still. We reckon that an obscene artist
may in some obscure way be doing us good. We understand that being
a drunk is not an entirely voluntary affair. We understand that
protest has a long an honourable tradition. Nonetheless, in their
various ways, these are all people who either do not take their
obligations to the rest of society very seriously, or do require
a good deal of patience from the rest of us as they assert their
"right" to take an idiosyncratic view of what their obligations
to society are.
This story of progress and democracy is one of increased liberty
for persons, and yet it produces a very odd paradox. Societies,
as they become more free, have defined more closely more rights
than ever. And as we have done so, we have written greater rights
for the state and put greater constraints on persons than ever before.
Put simply, to enshrine the rights of the child, we have asserted
the right of the state to involve itself in family life, and to
police it, much more than would have seemed reasonable before. As
we expand the rights of the child, we have to define more narrow
limits to the rights of parents. As we increase the rights of citizens
to get information, we have increased the power of regulatory authorities
- the state - and reduced the freedom of the persons in corporations
to act privily. I cite these two cases because both seem "progressive",
but both - like increasing the rights of non-smokers, or any other
development of a "right" - involve the curtailment of
some other person's right. Arguably, the more rights we identify,
insist on, and are given, the more we are diminishing liberty.
Liberty is not about maximising freedom and rights.
We see an essential dilemma. Rights and liberties are often at loggerheads.
Whilst we see that rights and obligations are not absolutely linked
- they are not a logical or moral equation - they must be twinned
socially and as a matter of custom.
Liberty and the modern person
Modern people have ready access to many rights, and sense that society
will support them as they press these demands. They sense in a quite
new way that society will put right any disadvantage that nature
may have heaped on them, whether it be stupidity, disability or
even a feckless nature. Health, education and welfare systems exist
to provide what people cannot or will not provide for themselves.
To that extent, people feel they have a right not to have to achieve
well-being for themselves. They are at liberty to fail, and yet
to be looked after. "It's a free country" means both that
one is free not to exert oneself, and that the rest of society is
obligated to help. That's to say, of course, that I am free to fail,
but you are not free to ignore my suffering.
That much is a commonplace anxiety of the right-leaning sort of
mind: that society has created liberties for individuals and by
not emphasising their obligations has deprived the wider society
of liberties and heaped obligations on it.
This is a very reasonable old debate and well worth repeating for
each generation as it comes along.
But I want to try to look at some more distinctly modern issues.
Here they are:
1. We are not all liberals
2. Compulsory Liberty
3. Moral squalor
4. Having Voice
5. Modern Infantalism
6. Compulsory Consumption
9. The Rights Industry
10. Bohemian Freedoms
1 We are not all liberals
Some societies favour order, and others favour freedom. This seems
obvious enough, but bears some inspection. What is more, order comes
in contradictory forms. It can equate with a lack of street violence
(which may be compatible with a state which is very violent with
transgressors). It can equate with very civilised social norms (with
severe, not necessarily violent, penalties on the non-conformist).
Singapore, it will generally be accepted, is a pleasant and modern
sort of a place. It is markedly free of violence. But there is a
good deal of formal censorship and much more self-censorship by
citizens.15 It is an orderly place. Arguably, one is far more free
in Colombia, where life is much relaxed. But there is a level of
violence in Colombia which is socially crippling. To take another
sort of example: in France, argument and dissent are tolerated and
even prized, but the norms of social behaviour are very well-established
and widely observed. French people pride themselves on a sort of
obstinacy and on a sense of self-worth. Yet to outsiders, they can
seem rather convention-bound, and not least with their acceptance
of state power. In the US, there is at least as much dissent as
in France, but there is much more freedom and variety in social
norms. But in France, there is very little "political correctness"
(one is free to be rude about minorities of every sort), whilst
in the US it is wise to be very careful how one expresses oneself.
Of course, not everyone in all these societies signs up to all
these conventions and habits, and they haven't all been legislated
for. But we have elected to discuss (albeit briefly) societies which
enviably deploy the rule of law. We are identifying some of the
different balances peoples seek as they balance order and freedom.
To the surprise of many in the intelligentsia - the media and academia,
say - modern western societies throw up a surprising desire for
order over liberty. From CCTV in public places, through the treatment
of terrorist suspects or criminals, to the introduction of personal
identity cards, it is order which the public favours. They probably
mostly feel that scrutiny, and even the treatment of minorities
they perceive to be troublesome, is not likely to be detrimental
to their own interests. They also probably feel that modern society
makes a fetish of the rights of minorities at the expense of the
rights of the "silent majority", "ordinary, law-abiding"
2. Compulsory Belonging
To a remarkable degree, compared with moderns, people in previous
generations were very much freer but also much more bound by conventions
and laws which reached into the very heart of their being. Whilst
no-one much cared if they took enormous risks, and they were indeed
obliged to (let's say whenever they travelled), it is also the case
that they were bound by class, community, faith, attitude, place
and work. One might be, say, a working-class member of a village
which was universally Protestant and bigoted and have scant chance
of escaping to, say, a nearby city in order to become a weaver instead
of a farm labourer. Now, all that has changed. To an extraordinary
degree, modern people are free to make themselves up. But it is
also to a surprising degree compulsory that one do so. This is both
a liberating and a challenging prospect. We need to see the degree
to which living the Enlightenment dream - the promise of autonomous
individuality within a supportive society - is not easy. It requires
that we be more fully human than any previous generation. We are
free of one sort of exigency - of pain and squalor for instance
- but have instead another: identity politics.
3. Moral Squalor
Modern societies are inclined to allow a good deal of latitude in
the name of freedom of speech. Thus, utterance (magazines, plays,
speeches, and so on) which is offensive to some minority or another
is both stoutly defended. Pornographic magazines, violent TV shows
and computer games, strippers, prostitutes, lap-top dancers, atheistic
propaganda all thrive, and in ways which are unavoidable even to
people who find them appalling. There is also, to a remarkable degree,
a reluctance to make moral assertions, at least if they have the
quality of also being "judgemental". Roughly speaking,
society is determined that it is important to support people whatever
happens to them and whatever they do, and a profound reluctance
to shame them into different behaviour. Arguably, this is part of
the reason why some young Muslims are rejecting Western liberalism:
they equate it with moral squalor. To some extent, they may be right.
But it may also be the case that they have not realised that Western
societies show profound strength in their reluctance to impose a
"general will" on individuals. In the case of, say, Muslim
minorities, it may be useful to remind them that their right to
reject Western mores is a profound part of the very freedoms they
may find objectionable when used differently by others. There is
urgency in this work of mutual comprehension: two prominent Dutchmen
have been murdered for their criticisms of Muslem mores, and these
were only the worst cases of conflict and violence the issue causes.
4. Having Voice
Modern people do not merely expect to live in societies governed
by the rule of law, with laws established by representative democracy.
They increasingly expect that individually or in small groups, their
passionately-held views will be heard by those who govern them and
that their views will have an impact. This is to say that people
do not merely expect to be free and safe; they expect to be influential.
Expressed in terms of liberty: they expect to be able to exert their
will and to curtail other people's liberties as they do so. Currently
in the UK, for instance, there are many campaigns run by or on behalf
of victims. Those whose children have been abused, shot, stabbed
or run over by drunks; those whose family members have been wounded
or killed in train crashes; those whose family members suffer from
any of a number of diseases, all claim a right to have their concerns
prioritised, usually by curtailing someone else's freedoms or by
state expenditure (which amounts to the same thing).
It matters here to say that these new pressures all look highly
democratic, but they are often little more than populist. It might
seem melodramatic to assert that they threaten democracy, and it
is certainly true that democratic governments have always had to
face pressure from vested interests of one form or another. Populist
campaigns are just another such pressure. The difficulty is that
populist pressure often seems irresistible: there is an element
of special pleading in the cases they make. Their arguments are
hard to refute, not because they are necessarily amazingly strong,
but because rebutting them or refuting them is a very hard - a politically
unattractive option - for governments.
These groups generally assume that they are arguing for the unrecognised
rights and liberties of their members. It is often noted that they
are mutually exclusive or at least competitive. What is less often
noted is that rights-seeking may not be as psychologically healing
or valuable as is often supposed, and in any case the upshot of
the Rights Industry is a society with more and more restrictive
rules and state intrusion.
5. Modern infantilism
Modern people are demanding and petulant in a particular way. The
most peculiar feature of this is modern bad manners. People demand
the rights that we are more used to seeing demanded by badly-behaved
children. The sort of behaviour we see, and which seems to be well-explained
by a quite new infantilism, is familiar to everyone. It is seen
in road rage and in tail-gaiting by motorists. But we see it also
in a new impatience in many other milieux, from supermarkets to
offices. It is prevalent on trains and in cinemas, as we find modern
adults who behave as badly as children. They seem less able than
previous generations to curb their impulses or their trivial selfishness.
They expect rapid gratification for their whims.
Like children, we seek to blame others for circumstances which
may be our own fault, or no-one's. Adults have historically developed
a certain patience, forbearance and tolerance, and it could look
like passivity and quiescence. Historically, there was an understanding
that acts of God, or of Nature, or accident, lay behind many of
our misfortunes. In the modern world, we are more likely to look
for a person or a profession to sue, prosecute or campaign against.
Our default position is not that we are at the whim or mercy of
circumstance, but that we are central to the universe and are its
main point. We become surprised and aggrieved when someone or some
group of people don't take us as seriously as we take ourselves.
This picture is very like a picture of childhood and childishness.
Carried into adulthood, it produces the effect that we assert our
own rights very forcefully and to that extent put at a discount
the liberties of others. Each of us is claiming more social space
and does so at the expense of others.
6. Compulsory Consumption
It has been a familiar cry for centuries that people are too involved
in the world of material as opposed to spiritual matters. At its
simplest, this was framed as a preoccupation with the World instead
as a realisation that Heaven mattered more. In the materialist centuries
(perhaps the 17th C onwards, in Europe) the argument shifted a little,
and was expressed in terms of materialist as opposed to ascetic
or aesthetic matters. The 19th C produced a new sort of argument
which suggested that industrial society could blind one to the value
of the non-material world. It produced what would come to be called
a "false consciousness". In effect, the left believed,
the "cash nexus" held out the false promise of turning
one's working time into all the goods and services one could desire.
But actually, capitalism robbed one of nearly everything and in
exchange implanted a limitless demand for its products. It had robbed
one of aspiration as well as one's working life. This analysis went
beyond saying that capitalism owned one as a producer (that was
readily assumed on the left): it owned one as a consumer too. What's
more, by reducing life to production and consumption, and co-opting
both of those, capitalism had taken over the whole of life.
This is nonsense, but it is seductive nonsense. Many people believe
it. Those young and not-so-young people who go to see the documentary,
The Corporation (2003), and read Naomi Klein's No Logo16 and many
other books, or enjoy the movies of the Texan film-maker Richard
Linklater, do believe, with the French thinkers Albert Camus, Sartre
and Michel Foucault, that modern people are imprisoned in lives
of slavery to production and consumption. A friend of Linklater's
characterises the modern condition as "being trapped in someone
Now here is a paradox. Each side of this argument is rather inclined
to think the other is in denial. It is as though each side believes
the other to have fallen into the hands of a cult. The right is
inclined to think that the left has been possessed by Weber and
Marx and their heirs. The left is inclined to think that the right
is trapped in a sort of Cargo Cult17.
To a degree unimaginable in previous generations, everything we
do and say is watched and is capable of being stored and noted.
Our movements in public are often recorded. A note of our DNA is
already often stored, and this could easily be systematised. Our
financial, education, health, employment and leisure details are
already all tracked to some degree, and this could easily be systematised.
We readily assume that anything we write, or publish, and often
any image we handle, will be computerised and thus capable of being
tracked and stored.
It's interesting the degree to which these facts are already in
place: we know the degree to which these things have already happened.
And most of us seem hardly to mind at all. Presumably, if the systems
are enhanced and made more intrusive, permanent and obligatory,
there will be a debate. There may come a point at which there is
a sudden revolt. But what seems more remarkable is the degree to
which the majority of people - for good or ill - seem not merely
unconcerned about, but positively to welcome, the degree to which
the authorities can know about their lives.
Their reasoning seems to be that they are completely innocent and
the more surveillance there is the more their innocence will be
obvious. And they seem to believe a corollary: that surveillance
will make it more likely that one can separate the criminal and
the terrorist from the innocent. Several problems may arise of course.
One is that the state or someone else may put the data to mischievous
use. Or the state or someone else may identify the deviant and the
dissident as criminal. Or the state or someone else may come to
regard the criminal or the terrorist as being unworthy of the sort
of civil respect accorded to the innocent.
These problems make it clear how important it will be that the
state is highly accountable, and that - since we seem to be increasing
its power - we are doubly alert to its potential to do harm. Oddly,
society does have a weapon against the accumulation of information
in the state's hands. This is to assert its indifference to much
of the information. That's to say: being poor, or a bankrupt, or
homosexual, or a vociferous dissident, or disabled, or many of the
other things which have been a matter of shame or risk in previous
generations have already become, and can increasingly be, seen as
This is a little like the matter of blackmail. One way of getting
rid of blackmail is to catch and punish blackmailers. The other
is to make the information they possess worthless by making it clear
that they know nothing which can harm their intended victim's reputation.
It may seem odd that I say rather little about this large threat
to our liberties. Or would you prefer that I apologise for saying
rather little about the threat to our liberties posed by the state's
response to terrorism?
It is clear that states rather enjoy emergencies: these are periods
when the authorities come into their own. They use the full range
of their powers, and can extend them. The so-called "war"
against global terrorism has indeed produced legislation around
the world, and most of it increases authority and reduces the civil
rights of minorities and even majorities in many countries. Obviously,
we need to be vigilant that these new powers are proportionate to
the present risk, and that they are dismantled when the risk diminishes.
But all that is obvious and is well-discussed and contested. Still,
it may be worth repeating that modern society does face the problem
of extreme and violent "Islamism" (for want of a better
word). Societies have to judge the degree to which reducing the
civil rights of suspected terrorists is valuable in combating them,
and balance that against the increase in terrorism that any abuse
may also engender. I put it that way because it may be that consideration
of the expediency of anti-terrorist measures is a better lever against
excess than moral considerations alone would be. And in the meantime,
it is also worth stressing that democratic governments could face
a very severe - and even a morally justified - backlash if their
scruples over civil rights did indeed lead to terrorist outrages.
In short, the terrorists have a great power to trample on the liberties
of their target societies, and it may be worth sacrificing some
of our liberty - and some of the suspected or actual terrorists'
- liberties to reduce the risk.
9. The Rights Industry
Much more than has ever been the case, there is now a professional
"rights industry". The rights of criminals, prisoners,
pensioners, drug addicts, victims of accidents, children, the old,
patients, divorced fathers, rape victims, victims of crime are all
vociferously and vigorously pursued by quite well-funded professional
campaigners (who are often seeking "voice" having been
victims themselves). Some of these campaigns cast as "villains"
the very people other campaigns cast as victims. (Women's groups
argue that absentee fathers do not deserve the rights that fathers'
The professionalism of many of these groups panders to a modern,
false sense that political activity is a poor way to balance the
competing claims of people seeking rights. The merit of politics
is that it is conducted by people who represent large constituencies
and wide interests. Within each representative are the sorts of
conflicts which make decent balances of rights more likely to be
understood; within the democratic process they are all but guaranteed.
Indeed, the modern problem is that the shrillness or glamorousness
of this or that professional campaign will dominate and overwhelm
the making of laws within democracies.
10. Bohemian Freedoms
Bohemianism has been a recognisable feature of Western societies
for hundreds of years (and is a feature in various forms of other
societies, perhaps most obviously in Japan.18) It is a way of life
which at its heart asserts the rights of some people to live with
greater freedom than their neighbours.19 It is a way of life which
explicitly rejects the norms of conventional life. Bohemians claim
the right not to be providential about money: they do not seek to
accumulate it, even though the rest of society recognises that being
able to look after oneself financially is a core social obligation.
Bohemians claim the right to sexual and child-rearing habits which
conventional society regards as immoral and irresponsible. Bohemians
claim that artistic endeavour is the highest form of activity. Bohemians
generally claim that conventional authority, militarism and justice
systems are all deeply flawed. The general Bohemian assumption is
that conventional society is materialist, and that its mores are
skewed to satisfy the orderly production of soulless, industrialised
and institutionalised goods and services. One might say that Bohemianism
is essentially libertarian.
What is interesting is that Bohemianism is becoming a quaint matter
for historical study. But at the same time, it is arguably becoming
the default value of Western society. True, most of us do continue
to pay our taxes and worry about saving money. And it is often said
that modern Westerners are too materialist. But it also seems fair
to argue that in many of our habits - our attitude to authority,
to sexual and familial norms, to creativity, even to medicine -
more and more people claim the freedoms common in that other-worldy
The trend is identifiable perhaps from the 1960s, when for the
first time a mass movement of young people identified itself as,
well, Bohemian. What is interesting to note is that Bohemia was
deeply dysfunctional. It produced chaotic families, alcoholism,
indifferent art and bankruptcy. To fetishise Bohemia is to understate
the value of representative democracy, deference, order and solvency.
The Big Idea of this paper is to remind ourselves that liberty -
right and freedoms - flows from good government and order; oddly,
it flows from disciplined citizens. It flows from responsible, thoughtful
adults who understand that life is not best modelled on a child's
playroom or a hippy commune. Modern people have more freedom than
any in history, but perhaps understand it rather less. They may
even not value liberty as they should: as something shared and created
by people and institutions. One does not create more liberty in
society always by claiming more freedom for oneself. We have perhaps
come to the end of a particular period in the ceaseless flux of
fashion in human affairs. We have trivially celebrated selfishness
and bad manners as though there were an expression of freedom. It
may be time now to take a more traditional view of liberty: one
which values very highly the freedom of others.
1 Locke, quoted in McClelland, J. S., A History of Western Political
Thought, Routledge, 1996
2 Finley, M. A. , The Ancient Greeks, Pelican, 1963
3 Cahn, Steven M., Classics of Western Philosophy, Hackett, 1990
4 Davies, Norman, Europe: A history, Oxford University Press, 1996
(An exceptionally valuable account of the evolution of constitutional
understandings in Europe.)
5 Greene, Jack, P, in Empire and Identity, in The Oxford History
of the British Empire: The 18th Century, Ed Marshall, P. J., Oxford
University Press, 1998
6 Sagarra, Eda, An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Germany, Longman,
7 Jeremy Bentham quoted and commented on in Stirk, P. M. R., and
Weigall, D, An Introduction to Political Ideas, Pinter, 1995
8 Berlin, Isaiah, Two Concepts of Liberty, in his The Proper Study
of Mankind: An anthology of essays, eds Hardy, H and Hausheer, Pimlico,
9 Berlin, Isaiah, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six enemies of human
liberty, Chatto & Windus, 2002
10 Berlin, Isaiah, in the introduction to Four Essays On Liberty,
included in Liberty, ed Hardy, H, Oxford University Press, 2002
11 J. S. Mill's On Liberty quoted and commented on in Stirk, P.
M. R., and Weigall, D, An Introduction to Political Ideas, Pinter,
12 Montesquieu's The Spirit of the laws, quoted and commented on
in Stirk, P. M. R., and Weigall, D, An Introduction to Political
Ideas, Pinter, 1995
13 McClelland, J. S., A History of Western Political Thought, Routledge,
14 Burke quoted in McCue, Edmund Burke and Our Present Discontents,
The Claridge Press, 1997
15 Gan, S, Gomez, J, Johannen, U, Eds, Asian Cyberactivism: Freedom
of expression and media censorship, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung,
16 Klein, Naomi, No Logo, Flamingo, 2000
18 Carey,Peter, Wrong About Japan, Faber and Faber, 2005
19 Wilson, Elizabeth, Bohemians: The glamorous outcasts, Taurisparke,