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The day kicked off with a keynote panel featuring philosopher Anders Sandberg, politician Douglas Carswell and university vice-principal Terence Kealey.
Sandberg sounded the darkest note of the day. He spoke of government's weakness for "policy theatre" (like the security theatre at airports, it does you no good but shows that they care). He countered the general optimism about the impact of technology on government, showing a scary graph that suggested that a mere 0.01% of GDP will buy the state "total surveillance" by 2030. He was also interesting on the subject of "social antibodies". These are nerds who pay attention to details of institutional behaviour and draw them angrily to the attention of citizens with lives. They might not be much fun at a picnic, but they help a free society to function. I think this group might include quite a few political bloggers.
Douglas Carswell was very optimistic, despite opening with the confession that - having gone into politics to reduce the size of government - he must consider his career a failure. He believes that Western social democracies have "reached their limits" and that this is the cause of the West's crisis. He reported happily that MPs, even in "safe" seats, now live in fear of internet activism and predicted that technology, by making it easy for the people to organise, will destroy the claim of political elites to speak for the collective. His most optimistic observation was to deny the dispiriting notion that big government is driven by voter demand. His analysis of history suggests that elites, not voters, drive the growth of the state. In consequence, he believes that new technologies that allow "the collective to speak for itself" will lead to more phenomena like Beppo Grillo's "Five Star Movement." This will steadily undermine elites already struggling to perpetuate themselves as the failure of the big state model becomes clear.
Professor Kealey was bullish about the future of freedom too. In an era in which voters can, via Google, be as well informed as their leaders, the sort of "rubbish" routinely spouted by politicians to justify their hijacking of private resources can be challenged. He gave the example of President Obama's "nonsensical" claims in his recent "state of the Union" address of a 14,000% return on public capital invested in the human genome project. Not only is that a vast overstatement of the return on investment, most of the cash was anyway provided by private institutions such as Britain's Wellcome Trust. He said that we had lived in an "extraordinarily benign" economic environment for more than 200 years and that there was no reason to expect that to end. He advocated more direct democracy, such as in Switzerland, pointing out that it typically resulted in government consuming at least 10% less of GDP. He even commented that the Swiss model forced all political parties into permanent coalition against their one true enemy; the people. Without that coalition they would never be able to resist further downward pressure on public spending.
I discovered from this session that my own views are rooted in the morality of "natural law." I would defend them as ethically correct even if they resulted in social costs. His "thought experiment" to shock me out of this (apparently) Rothbardian stance did not work. I simply don't believe it's justified to take others' assets by force, even if failure to do so could be proved, for example, to increase poverty. This stance is easier for me to hold because I simply don't believe such violence ever does a better job of reducing poverty than would charity and philanthropy.
The most disturbing moment of the day was in Bowman's session when he mentioned in passing the "standard" justification for welfarism; one that I had never heard before. If, he said, a baby was drowning in a puddle not only would a passing stranger have a moral duty to rescue it, but he would also have a moral right if, perhaps because of disability, he couldn't do it himself to force someone else to do so at gunpoint. This utilitarian remark passed without comment or challenge, but left me distinctly chilled. I don't dispute a moral duty to save the child and I would shun forever someone else who failed to do so. But the idea that I would be justified in pulling a gun on the shunworthy one - or even killing him - if he failed to do his duty struck me as obscene.
Interestingly, in some Civil Law countries the law requires a citizen to save another in danger. English Law has never done so. When the PCSO's in this notorious case failed to try to save a drowning child because they had not been given the necessary health and safety training, not only were they not liable they were not even disciplined. In our system this moral obligation has never been made law. An armed passerby who tried to make them show some courage would have been prosecuted - not least if he had pulled the trigger. Yet on such an analogy, apparently, is the violence of the state justified.
There are now two private security guards for every policeman in Britain. The Royal Navy's latest warship is leased from a private consortium. He saw no reason why the private sector could not provide other services that "politicians, elite businessmen and moral-minded cretins" believe should be reserved for government. He suggested that the private "Societies for the Prosecution of Felons" that were replaced by state police forces were far more efficient in detection of crime. Indeed, he said they were not replaced because they didn't work, but because the elite of the time was annoyed that they ignored (in good libertarian style) such "victimless" crimes as buggery and prostitution.
I enjoyed listening to the speakers but even more to the earnest young libertarian students who grappled manfully and womanfully with difficult ideas. All in all, it was a fascinating day. I am here to tell you that my occasional gloom is unjustified. The future of liberty in Britain is in good hands.