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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.
I am looking forward to spending time in the company of liberty-minded students this weekend. With a bit of luck it will give me hope for our country's future, while no doubt also making me feel very old. If you are going too, I look forward to seeing you during the Liberty League Freedom Forum at the UCL School of Pharmacy tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.
Why I'm Teaching My Son To Break the Law - Reason.com.
The linked article expresses something important, but I don't agree with the author that a defiant approach is necessarily what makes libertarians tick. I certainly hope I would be brave enough to break a law as vile as the Fugitive Slave Act, but I know that I am generally law-abiding. In fact, I think it is my desire to comply with the law that made me a libertarian.
For example, I took my name off the roll of solicitors partly because I would not risk being obliged - as I could be under current law - to breach a client's trust by denouncing him secretly to the authorities. When I was on the management committee of a big law firm, I was horrified to discover just how many such denunciations its lawyers made each year. Solicitors (just like accountants and bankers) have effectively been conscripted into the secret police. I think the profession's job is to explain the law to clients and help them achieve their goals in compliance with it. I don't think it exists to "shop" clients they suspect may not be complying. I was lucky enough, having practised abroad for 20 years; advising clients who were mostly not British, never to be in a position where I should have called the cops. If I returned to the practice of law in England, however, I could not be sure my luck would hold.
I discussed this with a friend who remains a solicitor and he told me he shared my disgust at these laws, but had decided simply never to comply. This, even though that would make him a criminal and expose him to the risk of severe penalties. I have thought about that conversation a lot and concluded that I may be the more law-abiding, but he is the more moral. In practical terms, his approach also means that good people remain in the profession, rather than being driven out. It means that there is a chance clients may encounter a lawyer who will help them back to compliance, rather than into gaol. I may be a better citizen, from the point of view of the law-enforcers, but he is a braver and better man. He is also not a libertarian, perhaps because he doesn't need to be?
My libertarianism is not that of a maverick with contempt for the law. It is driven by a desire to have a set of laws with which I can honourably comply. I think there would be far more libertarians if more people understood the complexity - and essential immorality - of many of our laws. New Labour created more than 3000 new crimes in Britain. If you don't know what they are, how do you know you are not a criminal? For that matter, if you don't know what they are, how do you know they are moral? Do you really trust politicians that much?
So, gentle readers, what do you think? Are laws there to be obeyed, or to be broken? And where is the line to be drawn?