UK Liberty

Why bother with labels?

(Professor) Conor Gearty in the Guardian:

Tony Benn’s strong defence of liberty a reminder to us of the important role of government in defending the weak and the vulnerable. Benn realises that you cannot leave the unfortunate and disadvantaged in our society to stake their futures on a set of random acts of kindness from the rich. We enjoy the civilised society we have today largely because of the courageous actions of past generations of democratic activists, people determined enough to wrest political power from the few and deploy it for the benefit of the many.

All on ‘the Left’, I suppose?

Such early democrats knew the value of government and well appreciated how the most resistant to regulation were those whose wealth and privilege were likely to be reined in by proper democratic government. To camouflage their self-interest in morality, these forces of conservatism described themselves as libertarian, in other words as committed to freedom and on that account opposed to governmental intrusion into their lives. These are the “right wing libertarians” whom Benn rightly excoriates at the end of his essay: the only interest they have is in their own freedom to continue to act selfishly at the expense of others.

Is there a risk that in pursuing its strong liberty agenda, the left is now also drifting into a dangerously similar brand of libertarianism? Of course there is much to be concerned about in recent state actions on a whole range of topics: extended police powers with regard to anti-terrorism; the growth of a “surveillance society” [or database state] as some would describe it, with CCTV cameras on the streets and databases attached to our phones and computers.

Recording the minutiae of our lives, the records to be shared as the government sees fit.

There are two recent developments in particular that for many symbolise the drift towards unacceptable state power that they say needs now, in the name of liberty, to be resisted. These are the development of a compulsory British identity card and the building up of an increasingly comprehensive DNA database.

It is clear that there are many practical objections to each of these, related to the integrity of the technology, the sufficiency of the safeguards against abuse, and so on. But should our objections to each also be rooted in principle? The emerging left/liberal libertarian position seems to be that the answer to this question should be a resounding yes, that a proper commitment to liberty demands that – without further discussion – we should have neither identity cards nor a wideranging DNA database. But why is this automatically the right point of view to take? Why are passports and modern car licenses OK if an identity card is not?

This begs the question that passports and car licences (and the databases behind them) are OK. Surely each case should be examined on its merits (and otherwise) and how it fits into the totality?

The other issue with any national ID card is that it does change the nature of the relationship between the state and the individual – it is in effect a licence to exist, an identity assigned to you by the state. That is regardless of any database, what is recorded and when – any practical objection.

It is perhaps worth noting that some of Professor Gearty’s colleagues at the LSE suggested, in a report that criticised the Government’s ID scheme, an alternative that would have rather fewer objections.  Of course the authors were smeared by the Government and the report was rubbished.  

Thou shalt not criticise the Government or offer more reasonable alternatives.

What exactly is the nature of our privacy interest in our individual DNA?

It can be used to find out all sorts of things, not only about us but also our relatives… some of which may be inaccurate.  But the question for me is, why does the state need to know in the first place?!

Conor Gearty seems to approach this from the general view that the state should be allowed to record and do what it wants unless there is a justifiable objection.  I approach this from the general view that the state shouldn’t be allowed to do anything unless it can justify it.

Where do the rights of those who are entitled to protection from crime (ie the community as a whole) fit in all this, especially vulnerable sections of it (victims of sexual violence, for example)?

How are victims of sexual violence protected by the innocent being on a national DNA database?  

How are the innocent enrolled on the database protected if the data is not used as exculpatory evidence? (in other words, if it isn’t used to clear them of suspicion).

Why does liberty require us as a matter of principle to deny the police a tool to catch their attackers?

Who said it does? It doesn’t! 

It all depends how the tool will be used, and how it can be used, and what can go wrong.

There are two strands to the concept of liberty which are in opposition here. One is the libertarianism we have just been discussing, the “Englishman’s home is his castle” school of thought. The other is the position of the civil libertarian who sees the freedom of protest as essential to the proper running of our democratic state because he or she ultimately believes in the power of the state to do good. The first wants to hide from society, the second wants to make it better. There is all the difference in the world between the individualism of the libertarian and the idealism of the political activist. The left naturally belongs with the second of these not the first. Of course there are issues of privacy, of surveillance and of the state’s unnecessary encroachment into our personal lives that need to be addressed. But they do not exhaust what we mean by liberty. If we fetishise individual freedom at the expense of our wider struggle for transformative change, we play into the hands of the right who use libertarianism as a shield with which to resist change. Do we really want to go on the barricades with Jeremy Clarkson to fight for the freedom to drive at excess speeds without fear of punishment? This is not my kind of freedom.

Sorry, but this all seems to be a muddled and thinly veiled attack on libertarianism and the Right.  I couldn’t care less about Right or Left.  What I want to know of any proposal in this context is why the state is interfering with me and whether the interference is justified.  Doesn’t that seem reasonable?

I’ve always liked Bruce Schneier’s five steps:

  1. What problem is the measure claimed to solve?
  2. How well would it solve the problem?
  3. What are the risks associated with its deployment?
  4. What are the economic and social costs?
  5. Given the above, is the measure worth it?

I think it’s rather more reasonable to consider proposals in such a way rather than worrying whether I am Left or Right or libertarian or Jeremy Clarkson.  Would you agree?

Let’s dispense with the labels and get on with opposing objectionable proposals.


Henry Porter on Gearty.