Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Of Death and Freedom

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
C. S. Lewis
English essayist & juvenile novelist (1898 - 1963)
This year, millions of people across the Arab world have risked life and limb to topple entrenched dictators. A man in Tunisia literally lit the powder keg by setting himself on fire. In Egypt, protestors continue to die in clashes with security forces. In Libya, a poorly armed and badly organised rag-tag rebellion defied a ruthless and well-equipped regime – their heroism leading to NATO intervention, not stemming from it.

From the sixties through the eighties, oppressed blacks marched, fought and died to overthrow racist regimes in the American South and South Africa. They faced down hostile mobs, police crowd-control, and organised mechanisms of state persecution. Many died.

In the forties, a huge collection of nations across the world saw tens of millions of men and women perish resisting a horrifying form of ultra-nationalist totalitarianism rolling across the globe from Japan and Germany. They could – the gay, communist and racially impure aside – have elected to preserve their lives by finding some accommodation in their soul with their would-be masters. They fought, showed exceptional courage and died far from home to preserve a world better than that.

Do you understand the logic of these people? I think most people do. I’ve not come across many people who look at a great struggle for liberty and instinctively ask ‘why?’ Whether the reason is cultural or instinctive, the war of liberation is a concept we understand, and usually admire. In short, dying for freedom is something we get.

It is interesting that our attitude to dying of freedom is totally at odds with that. When we calculate what an acceptable ‘cost’ of freedom is, the context is everything. Millions of men dying on the battlefield for freedom? That makes sense. A few thousand people a year dying of lung cancer caused by smoking? Totally unacceptable.

The list goes on. We wring our hands over adding 10mph to the speed limit in case it causes a few more deaths. We whack huge deterrent taxes on products we deem to be harmful. We grumble about but fundamentally tolerate an ever more restrictive health and safety culture. We see people willing to tolerate swingeing restrictions on personal liberty with the justification “if it saves just one child…”

Does it make sense that we can justify paying millions of lives for freedoms we sell for only one?

There are several reasons this bizarre disconnection might have happened. The first is that when we see soldiers fighting for a cause, they aren’t fighting for the little freedoms with which we’re personally acquainted. They’re fighting for Freedom, the sweeping, capitalised abstract concept that most people agree is fundamentally important. The enemies of freedom often come offering such unappealing prospects as racial purging or, latterly, clerical authoritarianism, which helps us appreciate Freedom all the more.

Freedom feels harder to defend, however, when its opponents attack it piece by piece and with good intentions. Defending the rights of people to kill themselves with cigarettes doesn’t have the same heroic feel to it that dying for democracy does. To launch a big defence of little freedoms can seem disproportionate and petty. People might even think you’re some kind of libertarian.

Another reason might simply be that when we measure up the two transactions in our heads, freedom is not actually our primary concern. The people dying in the big battles for the big issues look and sound heroic, and we admire the heroism. The people fighting for the small freedoms can sound petty.

 Perhaps we instinctively dislike the idea of letting people make bad decisions, but just don’t like this authoritarian instinct shoved in our faces with uniforms and barbed wire.

Or perhaps it is just a product of becoming dependent on the structures originally put in place to protect us. I’ve written about the impact of universal healthcare on liberty before, but I approached it from the government’s perspective. Consider it from the people’s perspective.

Morally speaking, the fundamental principles of the NHS seem argumentatively bulletproof. Everyone, everywhere in Britain, shall have access to the healthcare they need free at the point of delivery. There is no way that someone can fall through so tightly woven a safety net – our consciences will not permit it. You’d surely have to be a monster to oppose such a thing?

If we were prepared to apply this honourable principle in conjunction with personal freedom, that might be fine. But we’re not. While with one hand we push universal medical cover onto everyone in Britain and offer to foot the bill, with the other we try to claw back as much of that money as possible.

‘Cost to the NHS’ has become the justification du jure for the restriction of personal freedom. Smoking; obesity; idleness: all of these cost the NHS money. We’re not prepared to meet that cost, but our ‘social consciences’ refuse to let these people out of the system to choose for themselves. So to spare our wallets we take their freedoms away in the name of doing them good.

This is perhaps the most ingenious vehicle for oppression yet devised, because it is powered by the very people whose freedoms it takes. A people who have come to value the safety net more than their personal liberty are left to languish in the long shadow of their own charity.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I mean, stripping cigarette branding, or minimum alcohol pricing, or banning marijuana. Those are only little freedoms. Who died for them?

What we lose sight of is that ‘Freedom’ is made up of all the spaces in which we are left to choose for ourselves. In trading them piecemeal in exchange for being better protected from ourselves, we’re part of a terrible long term transaction.

It is a certainty that free people will not live as long as those who are the prisoners of good doctors, but nobody aspires to imprisonment. Put the question to someone in those terms and they’ll reject it, the same way they reject authoritarianism when it comes with jackboots and brown shirts.

Today’s authoritarians march in small steps, so we must always be prepared to fight for small freedoms. To paraphrase the popular phrase: look after the little liberties, and Liberty will look after herself.

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