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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Couldn’t have put it better myself…

I don’t do not know if the sainted editors will tolerate the colloquial English – the Samizdata style-guide proscribes contractions – but I couldn’t could not. So I won’t will not.*

A.C. Grayling pithly outlines the absolutism behind Tony Blair’s total information awareness scheme on The Guardian Unlimited. Do read it. I know a few of our readers refuse ever to move out of the safety of right-thinking reading, but they are missing comfort as well as understanding when they seek to avoid mental pollution from the liberal left.

* [editor's note: does that answer your question, Guy?] evil editor

17 comments to Couldn’t have put it better myself…

  • TDH

    Guy,

    Thanks for the link. Grayling nails it. We don’t see this kind of commentary often on this side of the pond.

    Trav.

  • dearieme

    Hang on, “liberal left”? What he said was certainly “liberal”, in the old sense, but I’m damned if I see anything “left” about it. All my life the Left has been authoritarian when it wasn’t totalitarian.

  • guy herbert

    I wasn’t suggesting Grayling’s point was left. But the paper whose site he is writing on definitely is. I was suggesting that if you never look as leftist media (as some don’t) you’ll miss some good things (as well as avoiding having to think your own position through, as some would rather not).

    Some of the comments are good, too.

  • nic

    It really isn’t a simple left/right divide. When I get into an argument with various leftwing people, it usually boils down to the emotive recounting of some utterly disgusting things done by big business to down-trodden people, an awful lot of which is as abhorrent to a libertarian mindset as a socialist one. The difference is that they associate big business with capitalism and the market, whereas we associate it with the government granting of excessive rights to corporations.

    After that difference is resolved, the more innate ideological difference appears. They feel that the free market is a myth because whoever is in a strong position will inevitably become corrupt and influence government, distorting the market to favour themselves. So government is the answer. Whereas we think the possibility of well-run government is a myth and the market is the answer with less government to influence.

    The only other difference is that they feel that civil and economic liberties can be much more easily split than they actually can. So they don’t see civil liberty being flushed away even as petrol prices are raised and the tax and excise man gets to choose where you are allowed to live and buy your food from.

  • Sunfish

    its little unit-clones of citizens lined up in queues, modestly glowing with solid bourgeois virtue, their height, weight, bank details, medical records, daily calorie intake, bowel movements, salary, TV viewing habits, voting record, sexual proclivities, parents’ names, holiday destinations and shoe sizes all stored on a big, gleaming, throbbing computer in the basement of 10 Downing Street,

    Imagine the possibilities for mischief.

    Back in the 1980′s on this side of the pond, there was a push for drug testing of anyone who would hold still for long enough. This brought out the obvious protests, songs like “I ain’t gonna **** in no jar,” urine samples being delivered to high school principals in balloons…

    Any UK citizen want to trade identities? You tell Number Ten that you’re a cranky redneck who lives in the mountains, drinks a lot of beer, owns four televisions (all of which are permanently tuned to ESPN 8 “The Ocho” except for the one that you went all Elvis Presley on), and that you’re a charter member of the Fraternal Order of Hate Groups and Publisher of the Saint Famine Society for the War Against Evil Newsletter in your spare time, and that you’re a widower now that Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone…

    I think such a database could be a good thing, though: as long as Bliar and Family are in it as well, and publicly so. I would want to know where the $100,000 in small unmarked bills in Blair’s freezer came from and what marital aids are stored in the nightstands at Number Ten. Fair’s fair.

    WHAT is your religion?
    WHAT is your profession?
    WHO did you vote for in the election?
    WHEN did you last work?
    HAVE you any skills?
    ARE you on medication or taking any pills?

  • TDH

    Any UK citizen want to trade identities? You tell Number Ten that you’re a cranky redneck who lives in the mountains, drinks a lot of beer, owns four televisions (all of which are permanently tuned to ESPN 8 “The Ocho” except for the one that you went all Elvis Presley on), and that you’re a charter member of the Fraternal Order of Hate Groups and Publisher of the Saint Famine Society for the War Against Evil Newsletter in your spare time, and that you’re a widower now that Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone…

    Dammit, boy . . .

    Another such ‘hate group’ (to which I enthusiastically belong) being the thoroughly vile and detestable Sons of Confederate Veterans among whose myriad transgressions the placing of miniature Confederate battle flags on Confederate graves on May 10th (Confederate Memorial Day) is perhaps the most disgustingly eggregious. We get together for barbeque from time to time, as well . . .

    I only put down my banjo long enough to clean my guns . . .

    Deo Vindice.

    Trav.

  • Brad

    nic,

    Thomas Jefferson was pretty much on the right trail when he said revolution was necessary and inevitable (again not necessarily violent and bloody, but perhaps so). The fact remains that power will be corrupted by those who wield it (in due proportion, it doesn’t have to be absolute/absolute, it is proportional).

    That’s why governments should be low enough, and accessible enough, to knock them off their perch. So as long as force can be used, a type that is not for defense of life and property, a force that is tied to a fanciful set of notions, liberal or conservative or religious or secular or whatever, it will be corrupted and the original fancy will be lost leaving power for its own sake. The lessons to learn are to not hitch the wagon of force to nonsensical programs of Good, but if and when that unfortunate circumstance rears it’s ugly head, be extra diligent as the expansion fof State due to it will inevitably lead to a structure that is self perpetuating and anti-individual. As long as the seed of State exists (which it will regardless of theoretical anarchism) it will grow and become corrupt regardless of original intent, springing from a capitalist model, or a communist model, or whatever.

    Perhaps being left or right is simply a moment in time. The Old Right in the U.S. had some in common with some elements of the Left of today, resulting from the New Right that sprung up in the 50′s that are the fathers of the current Statist Conservatism we have under the likes of Bush. Much of what Marx had to say makes some sense to me, it is the conclusions he drew of how to establish Stateless society that were 180* in the wrong direction. He devined a method of perfect individualism, but divorced it from property rights, which made it worthless. Classical Liberals would be regarded as the “Left” of its day, fighting the privilege systems that existed around them. The underlying issue is individualism, free from force and not being coerced to follow someone else’s model of common good.

  • Paul

    I liked Nic’s post: it really whittled the left/right (or left/liberal) argument down to its opposing axioms.

    “When I get into an argument with various leftwing people, it usually boils down to the emotive recounting of some utterly disgusting things done by big business to down-trodden people, an awful lot of which is as abhorrent to a libertarian mindset as a socialist one.”

    I’ve had the same experience — though often these anecdotes appear to be attempts to shame one into silence, and end debate. And like you, I’ve yet to meet any liberal or conservative who’s not similarly disturbed by these horror-stories.

    “The difference is that they associate big business with capitalism and the market, whereas we associate it with the government granting of excessive rights to corporations.”

    Precisely.

    “After that difference is resolved, the more innate ideological difference appears. They feel that the free market is a myth because whoever is in a strong position will inevitably become corrupt and influence government, distorting the market to favour themselves. So government is the answer. Whereas we think the possibility of well-run government is a myth and the market is the answer with less government to influence.”

    Perhaps some sort of liberal economic outreach program could be set up for those who still subscribe to the former view… ;)

    “The only other difference is that they feel that civil and economic liberties can be much more easily split than they actually can. So they don’t see civil liberty being flushed away even as petrol prices are raised and the tax and excise man gets to choose where you are allowed to live and buy your food from.”

    That last sentence was a cracker: I’ve always borne in mind that what taxation is forcibly taking from people is in effect the hours, days, weeks, months, years of their lives. Put in these terms, it’s not “just money”: there has to be serious justification for all taxation.

  • Sam Duncan

    Good piece generally, but I found something to disagree with right in the first paragraph:

    Given the deeply dismaying and unappealing authoritarian streak that has emerged in Mr Blair since the British public ceased to love him…

    No, AC, matey; it’s always been there. You just ignored it when you liked him.

    And this seems like the usual Guardian wooliness:

    The [totalitarian] is a state governed by an ideology, an orthodoxy, which the controlling powers wish to see observed strictly to the letter.

    It’s simply the total state, surely? Totalitarianism being the belief that nothing is not the business of the state. Not unlike, in fact, the “monolithism” of which he accuses the government.

    So, as I say, a good article as far as it goes, but what worries me about it is that we can’t recognise totalitarianism when it’s staring us in the face. They don’t have black shirts or jackboots so it must be something else. It could never happen here.

    Contrary to some of the comments there, some of this country’s major parties (mentioning no names) do exhibit totalitarian tendencies. That does not – yet – make our country a totalitarian dictatorship (or even – which is, just, conceivable – a totalitarian democracy), just as the communists in Labour throughout the 20th Century never succeeded in turning Britain into a People’s Republic (although we did get the NHS). But it is dangerous if we don’t expose their beliefs for what they really are – whether they realise it themselves, or (as I suspect) not.

  • guy herbert

    It really isn’t a simple left/right divide

    Which is what I was trying to point out.

    Sam Duncan,

    Yes; I agree. Grayling’s distinction is a little odd. The traditional political science distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is better posed.

    It wasn’t that Franco, or Pinochet, or Hastings Banda lacked ideology, it’s just their ideological imagination was limited. They were content with a superficial compliance once they’d got rid of opposition.

    Totalitarian regimes on the other hand have more ambition. They are revolutionary, demanding involvement of the people, rather than just exclusionary of “enemies of the state”. They have an accelerating quality.

    Just because you can’t see the ideology doesn’t mean it is not there. The Blairites have been – as a deliberate marketing decision – selling themselves as aimless pragmatists. The public doesn’t like principle, so they don’t talk about it. But if you look for it, it is there. Built on the values of the New Left, in which tradition all currently significant university-educated Labourites grew up, collectivist, particpatory, but with a distinctive role for the state (which the New Left deprecated). It even has a name: “civic republicanism”, which means something a little different from what it does in the States.

    Civic republicanism is about belonging. It emphasises interests and concerns beyond the individual or family. Its defining features are ‘the importance given to the public interest or the common good … and [the] key role given to citizen participation’ (Stokes 2002: 31). Identification with the political community (paradigmatically the nation state) is also central. Political participation by citizens is valued for its own sake. Indeed, engagement in political debates and other activities is considered a civic duty. Leadership in civic republicanism involves encouraging political participation and dialogue, and seeking to identify that which serves the public interest of the political community.

    - P. Woods: Democratic Leadership in Education, 2005

    But of course such forced encouraged participation must be guided by experts and asked the right questions so that participants understand correctly the collective interest and bring the insights of the people to it. That is its claim to advantage over representative democracy, where representatives might not frame the debate properly in terms of quotidian concerns and aren’t ordinary people.

  • Paul Marks

    I wonder how Dr Grayling squares his praise worthy support for civil liberties with his support for the American philosophical school of “Pragmatism” (I heard him strongly support this 19th – 20th century school of philosophy in a B.B.C. Radio 4. programme) – this is not to be confused with how the layman uses the word “pragmatism” or “being pragmatic” (i.e. being flexible about the methods one uses to achieve an objective, and/or being flexible about how much of an objective one will settle for).

    “Pragmatism” as a philosophical school holds that there is no such thing as objective truth and also (like utilitarianism) that there are no basic limits (whether one thinks of them in terms of natural rights or natural law) to the power of the state.

    All is a matter of expediency to the Pragmatists – there is no such thing as basic principles of right and wrong, or fundemental liberties.

    So if Mr Blair can argue that knowing everything about everyone is expedient a Pragmatist has no grounds to attack him – other than to claim it is inexpedient. And (as there is no objective truth according to the Pragmatist school) why should not the opinion of the Prime Minister not carry more weight than the opinion of Dr Grayling?

    I note that the the new scheme for control orders (only they are not to be called “control” orders they are going to be called something else which I can not remember) have been fromally proposed. I heard about the scheme a few days ago, but there was more coverage today.

    The broadcasting media (at least the B.B.C. and Classic F.M.) have said the scheme is a wonderful idea of controlling evil “Mr Bigs” of crime.

    The fact that people are to be denied the right to leave the country (not just to go to a particular Association Football match, which is bad enough, but to go anywhere) or to use a mobile telephone (and so on and so on) WITHOUT BEING CONVICTED OF ANY OFFENCE OR EVEN BEING CHARGED WITH ANY OFFENCE does not seem to bother the broadcast media.

    Hopefully the Guardian will attack the new scheme (if it has not already done so) and thus (at least in civil liberties) remain true to the old liberal tradition of the Manchester Guardian.

  • nic

    Paul – are you saying that their might be circumstances where individual liberties are not the most expedient solution (at least when all the facts and consequences are in)? I think it is perfectly possible to be a utilitiarian, pragmatist and a libertarian all the at the same time. Utility is what we want, we will be pragmatic in our theory, and libertarianism is the ultimate solution.

    If more state actually produced better utility (i.e. more resources and more happiness for people) then I would take that as a reasonable argument for it. But it never does.

  • Paul Marks

    One can be a pragmatic libertarian nic – but one can not be a Pragmatic one.

    As I tried to explain, there is a big difference between the ordinary word “pragmatic” and the philosophical school of Pragmatism.

    As for a utilitarian libertarian. Well utilitarians do believe that there is an objective truth – that the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the “good”.

    If one holds that this is best produced by libertarianism (i.e. the non aggression principle) then it is logical for a utilititarian to be a libertarian. Indeed David Friedman used only utilitarian arguments for his book “The Machinery of Freedom” (although David Friedman is NOT himself a utilitarian).

    I must confess that my own reasons for rejecting utilitarianism are not political. For example, that it confuses “good” as in pleasure with “good” as in moral. The very act of (for example) trying to work out whether a rape is good or bad by calculating the pleasure of the rapist (or rapists) and the pain of the victim is a mistake (based on the confusion of good as in pleasure and good as in moral).

    Of course there is the difference between “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism” but both are (in the end) based on the confusion of pleasure and morality (some have suggested sticking to the word “right” to avoid the confusion that covers the word “good” – there is a lot of writing on the exact meaning of “good”, as in moral, and “right” in any case as they may not mean the same thing).

    Of course people talked of “utility” long before the utilitarians came along (although I will not go into the hsitory of the terms here).

    To return to politics.

    To the utilitarian there are no basic limits to the power of the state. Certainly if it can be shown that not taking someone’s property from them is for the greatest happiness of the greatest number then the property (to the utilitarian) should not be taken – however if the judgement is left up to the state it is not unreasonable to assume that they will tend to steal and regulate (a disguised form of stealing) rather a lot (remember KELSO – all that judgement does is give governments the right to take property away from some people in order to give it to other people who will use it better and provide more revenue, why should we be upset about such a utilitarian judgement?).

    Of course a “rule utilitarian” will protest that only “act utilitarians” will steal and order people about (claiming that to do so will increase the happiness of the majority) – but once one has accepted that there is only a pleasure-pain calculation (and that the pleausre and pain of different people can be compared – a rather dubious assumption in its self), that there are no basic principles of natural right or natural law, “rule utilitarianism” tends to get turned into de facto act utilitarianism very quickly.

  • guy herbert

    Extremely satisfying is the savaging a New Labour borg drone by Guardian Unlimited readers here.

  • nic

    Paul – I am not quite sure whether Pragmatism with a capital “P” is even quite that exclusive. We would have to talk to Grayling himself to ask what sort he agreed with. But Pragmatism as a philosophy seems to be more about the nature of truth which doesn’t seem to exclude any particular political philosophy. It will just be saying in order for a political philosophy to hold true, it will have to satisfy the Pragmatic account of truthfulness. This account seems to be bound up in the idea that truth is synthetic, developed by humans. In other words, truths aren’t out there in the world, they have to be invented by humans and remain as mental entities.

    If you were to apply it to mathematical truths, you would say that 2 + 2 = 4 wasn’t true until someone developed the mechanics of mathematics to say it was true. It obviously veers dangerously close to relativism, but it doesn’t necessarily entail relativism either.

    For our question: where do natural rights come from? What do we mean by natural? It is not as if see humans or any other animals behaving as if they existed, and certainly not very often!

    A Pragmatist view of them would be that holding them as true is particularly useful for human organisms (as they happen to be how societies for humans are best constituted) and, therefore, they are true.

  • Nick M

    I dunno about Pragmatism in the wider sense but I always rather liked the works of William James. Class act, and his brother Henry wasn’t bad either.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “”Pragmatism” as a philosophical school holds that there is no such thing as objective truth”

    I think I had this conversation here before. Pragmatism holds that if there is such a thing as objective truth, that human beliefs have no direct access to it, and that what we do have access to, believe, and call “truth” is a model of the world that is in practice judged on its usefulness. It is a common metaphysical belief that our beliefs are an approximate representation of objective reality, distorted by the ‘lens of perception’, and there’s nothing wrong in continuing to believe that as doing so is very useful, but there’s no real evidence to prove it.

    Pragmatism is more significant in science than politics; it is an answer to all those annoying laymen who complain about scientific theories hailed as Truth one minute getting overthrown the next. Is Newton’s theory of gravity True? Pretty much. Certainly there are an awful lot of other theories that are definitely False, like the idea that bricks fall upwards on Tuesdays, but it is fundamentally being judged on how well it predicts the motions of planets and satellites, in other words, on how useful it is, not on whether it is how Nature in its secret heart actually works. In point of fact, it isn’t; but scientists nevertheless still use it, and when they’re in the middle of a calculation they do think of it as being actually True. This ability to smoothly switch mental paradigms is very useful, even if it does come close to double-think.

    It gets a bad reputation because of its misapplication. Idiots claim that because Newton’s gravity is used even though we know it not to be true, that Newton’s gravity is no different and should have equal status to my Tuesday-reversal gravity, or Karmic-healing of Gaia’s gravity field by homeopathically arranged lead weights, or Marxist economics.

    There is no conflict between being a libertarian and a Pragmatist. Belief in liberty is useful. The libertarian model of the world is usefully predictive – not perfect, but certainly more so than totalitarian collectivism. It makes it difficult to argue when people have been sold certainty and Absolute Truth by everyone else, but in the long run, when they all in their turn get discredited, you can adjust your position and survive.

    Incidentally, if you go to the professional mathematicians you’ll find the truth of 2+2=4 to be exactly the same. It’s true in certain axiomatic systems, including the ones most mathematicians use (because they are useful), but others can be constructed in which it is false, and without any contradiction. (Arithmetic modulo 4 in which 2+2=0 is a model for such a system. This has practical uses, like the “two’s complement” representation of negative numbers in binary computer arithmetic.)

    And it’s no use looking to the physical world to arbitrate, either. In quantum field theory, the number of particles is a quantum operator that gives a superposition of answers. There may be many, or one, or none in the box, and different observers will see different numbers in the same box. It is not physically possible to start with a pure two particle state, add another two particle state, and get a four particle state; you always have a tiny little bit of three particles and five particles and others mixed in.

    At the level of apples and oranges, the error involved is so incredibly far below imperceptible as for the values to be incomprehensible to any sort of common sense, and it would be utterly ludicrous to apply quantum field theory when buying groceries at the market, or to use it as a justification for putting those four apples in the bag and charging for five. But this is an argument founded on usefulness and practicality; it isn’t objectively absolutely indubitably True.