Protest & Political ‘Freedom’, in Practice.

Free societies are richer, but more unequal. Where people in the mainstream of debate in sensible countries differ is in the definition of “free” and the relative importance of “unequal” and “rich”.

The left tend to regard inequality itself as a mitigation against freedom – the existence of conspicuous consumer goods that the poor could never afford compound the humiliation of a low station in life for example. If there is a culture of meritocracy, the poor are made to feel that they deserve in some way, their fate. Thus economic freedom for some constrains the freedom and happiness in others. This is the rationale behind the left’s persistent support for high marginal tax rates, despite the acceptance by the more intelligent of them that such taxation is costly and inefficient and often reduces growth.

For the economic right, growth is everything. If you get high growth, while a few at the top may get filthy, stinking rich, the rest of society also gets dragged up too, but perhaps slower. It’s growth that generated sufficient surplus to enable the nation to afford a welfare state, which would have crippled Victorian Britain. It’s growth that sees almost anyone who wants one able to afford a car. It’s growth that enables most people to enjoy two weeks in the sun every year. Consumer goods, like silk stockings, once the preserve of the Aristocracy are now available to all. Government did not do this. And this explains the right’s attachment to low taxation and lower public spending: inequality matters less than Growth, because growth provides the surplus that can ultimately be spent on the poor, if necessary.

The left have a point. At some point, inequality is demotivating if you have a hereditary stratum of society who see, but cannot grasp the riches others take for granted. In the UK these people subsist on benefits, which keeps them quiescent. But, crucially, there are plenty of routes out of the welfare trap for those intelligent or resourceful enough to take it. Crucially there are (a few) examples of those who have done just that in the House of Lords and at the very top of public and business life in Britain. So while inequality does affect individuals, it’s not in my view as much of a problem as many in the left make out. Better to focus on removing any remaining barriers to individuals’ success than trying to legislate inequality away.

The economic left and right differ on the inefficiencies of various forms and extents of taxation, but accept there must be some. The other great axis of politics – the authoritarian/libertarian divide differ on what constitutes freedom. Freedom to own guns means in practice that some other people die as a result and so lose the freedom to walk down some streets. Freedom to drink does not mean freedom to drive afterwards. Freedom to take drugs (arguably) imposes costs on others and so on. Weighing up these competing freedoms – the freedom to inject heroin vs the freedom to not be mugged by a junkie, is what reasonable politics in a free society is all about. We all must accept constraints on our freedom in order to rub along in a crowded and high-pressure society and in order that the constraints are reasonable, we must argue about them.

As a libertarian, I make different judgments about where those lines should be to most people, but I do accept there are trade-offs. What I can’t accept is the Hyperbole that comes from people on all sides of debate on almost all issues about slippery slopes, about to render us “unfree”, that Leveson or the more hysterical of the pro-welfare left make about their chosen bugbear.

Ultimately, a working definition of ‘unfree’ is where a Government can decide arbitrarily to persecute someone or some group of people, and they have the power to thwart that individual or Group’s life chances.  The Government of the UK simply does not have that power. Venezuela, for all it’s fig-leaf of elections which may or may not be rigged is not free, because the Government does not obey the rule of law, and can persecute a blogger for ‘terrorism’.

Of course, having got Mr. Medina Ravell sacked, and rendered him unemployable, he becomes an implacable opponent of the Venezuelan Government. In the UK someone who wrote elegantly pejorative articles about the Government of the day will find themselves with a job offer from the Guardian, not a 3am knock from the Police. Until this changes, Britain remains free. It pays even the critics of our society to work harder. Protest is futile, when you can increase your power more effectively by getting richer. Argument on blogs/twitter/newspaper is more effective than ranting slogans on the street.

This is why the ranty left and idiot right is so marginalised  No-one listens when they shout. A few-hundred placard wavers have less leverage over political discourse than a single well read and shared blog-post.Their tactics of marches and protests only work in societies where people are unfree to make their point in other ways. The march and protest is a ritual pastiche of protests past (few of which had the effect ascribed to them). Protests are a social event for like-minded people, a Lek for the politically obsessive. Whatever the inequality of power relationships between workers and employers, rich and poor, we all remain free. And the fact is Britons of all stations in life can see this, and so rightfully ignore the political extremes finding it more profitable to spend their energies elsewhere. The louder they shout, the more completely the political extremes are ignored.

Ultimately those on the political extremes have to contend with the fact that while the UK isn’t perfect, it is one of a handful of stable countries whose people are richer than any who have ever lived. Whatever the UK’s problems are, they’re ones many people will hang onto the axles of lorries to endure. The vast majority of people see this, and don’t want (much) to change. This is also why the mainstream is so small there’s just not that much wrong with the UK in the grand scheme of things.

Think about Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs. Many societies struggle to provide the physiological basics of food and clean water, shelter from the elements and so forth. Physical safety requires a reasonably strong and competent government. Friendship and family are simply not in the Government’s gift, though too much Government power can get in the way. In all these areas, free-market capitalist democracy is superior to all other systems yet developed. Democracies don’t have famines, the socialists did. What we’re left arguing about in the west now the big problems are solved, are the top-of-the-pyramid issues of esteem, and self-actualisation. To these problems, we have yet to find public policy answers, if indeed there are any.

This is why I think freedom of speech is the only freedom that really matters. Most other freedoms are not absolute. Because it’s the free market in ideas which has fueled the free market’s success in delivering goods and services to the people, and free speech is the canary in the mine which will warn us long before the Government starts killing people. So long as people aren’t going to gaol for criticising the Government, rational debate works better than placard-waving, by people who are usually fighting battles long lost and won. There’s always hope you can persuade people you’re right. Only the idiots are left shouting on street-corners.

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Erm, do you ever get the feeling that you are the idiot shouting on the street corner while the rest of the world goes about it's business?


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