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Getting confused on the meaning of liberty

The Guardian newspaper, which regards David Davis’ resignation as an MP to hold a by-election over detention without trial as a “stunt”, carries this rather sniffy editorial that tells you a great deal about the mindset of those in power and their media lackeys. Excerpt:

He is right on ID cards, but only on the basis of an excessively sweeping mistrust of the state. The liberty he is concerned with is, almost exclusively, liberty from official interference. There is little place in this conception for freedom from destitution, for example, which only the state can provide. There is also a strongly patriotic dimension, baffling to those who see rights as universal. Mr Davis’s defence of the age-old liberties of English common law, such as habeas corpus, is impressive, but his past disdain for the Human Rights Act sits strangely with that. The European convention which that act codifies may not be exclusively English, but it will provide the only legal basis for a challenge if 42 days becomes law. Another convention right is that to life. Liberals who see that as the most basic freedom will be uncomfortable with Mr Davis’s personal support for the death penalty.

As Perry de Havilland of this parish would put it, that is wrong on so many levels. At the most basic level, the Guardian has conflated the idea of liberty and the idea of power. There is “negative liberty”, which says that liberty is the absence of coercion, and “positive liberty”, which blurs the idea of freedom with the ability, or power, to do things, or have things one wants, such as food, shelter, good health, nice weather, and so on. The late, great Isaiah Berlin skewered this reasoning years ago. The problem in claiming, as the Guardian does, that being “destitute” is the same as lacking liberty is that it ignores what has caused such destitution. A destitute person, living in a free country, will not be molested by the agents of a state in the way that anyone, rich, middling or flat broke, can and will be in a society that has the sorts of restrictions that Mr Davis is opposing. Of course, in some extreme cases, a very poor, or handicapped person is vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others, which is why prosperous societies full of people willing to help the weak and vulnerable are far better places to be. But socialism makes the fatal error in conflating liberty with power. In fact that error leads to the idea that somehow, all manner of regulations are okay so long as we have a full belly and somewhere to lay our heads at night. David Kelley, the philosopher, also confronts the nonsensical idea that poverty and coercion are the same thing in his book about welfare. Here is a review of that book that is worth reading.

As for the other points of this paragraph, it may be true that the European Rights Act may sometimes protect us from some of the abuses like the 42-day rule, sometimes not. After all, much of the Act is a mishmash, blending what I would regard as the genuine rights of classical liberalism – keep out of my bloody way – with what I call "claim rights", such as the "right" to a job, etc, and other nonsense.

Finally, the right to life and objection to the death penalty are by no means in conflict, despite what the Guardian says. If I murder someone, I forfeit my right to my life by taking that of another. There are practical reasons for objecting to capital punishment and given how the justice system in Britain has been degraded, it would probably be most unwise to reinstate the death penalty. But saying that a murderer has a right to life is debatable, at the very least.

Anyway, the fact that the Guardian regards what Mr Davis has done as a "stunt" is, I suppose, a nice example of how the idea of a man taking a principled stand on something and endangering his political career is outside the frame of reference of parts of the media class. To hell with them. Stunts can sometimes convey a very powerful message. When all that tea got chucked into Boston harbour back in the 1770s, that was a pretty effective stunt.

29 comments to Getting confused on the meaning of liberty

  • Trying to be a good libertarian

    “Another convention right is that to life. Liberals who see that as the most basic freedom will be uncomfortable with Mr Davis’s personal support for the death penalty.”

    I am not at all convinced that “liberals” (I do not see Guardianistas as liberals in any meaningful sense, but that is another debate) do see the right to life as the most basic freedom, if we are to judge by their ardent support for abortion throughout pregnancy and their vicious and spiteful ad hominem attacks on anyone who dares challenge them.

  • Blognor Regis

    That really is wrong on so many levels. Alas it’s a view that’s all to common.

  • a.sommer

    If he loses the election, please put him on an airplane headed west. We could use more like that.

  • ian

    I suppose it is a remote possibility, but from a Labour perspective, they should not put up a candidate. They can then represent his stand as mere posturing ‘costing the taxpayer money’ to hold a by-election.

    It would be nice to see the 36 Labour MPs who voted against doing the same as , so putting the government majority at risk, but I don’t see that happening either…

    I’m beginning to warm to the idea of a Libertarian Party after all.

  • toolkien

    That excerpted paragraph pretty much watersheds classical liberalism from modern liberalism. It pretty much says it all. Just as many libertarians have pointed out, the former speaks of individual rights and the good or bad which derives from it, and the latter speaks of Human Rights which can only be doled out by the State (with editorial staff of the guardian one of the “dolers” of course) and can only be Good (in a capital G righteous sense). And because only Good can ever be the result of instituting Human Rights, any Machiavellian means to execute it are perfectly o.k. And so begins a whole system, logically circular, that those who opposed your Good works deserve to have whatever Force is necessary applied to them, even when the enmity is a direct result of the initial force used by Good Doers in the first place.

    And there is no arguing with such folk, because their belief system is either drawn from the left wing of traditional religious institutions, or exists as its own quasi-religion (since many of those who hold such beliefs are atheists). There is nothing more quixotic than trying to argue someone out of their religion. It just becomes much more imperitive when a de facto Theocracy is created by such folk.

    One can only hope (someday) that one can convince such folk that there is a finite economic system. A philosophy of individual rights allows for maximum freedom, grasps that there will always be good and bad (at least as perceived by a third party individual) and concludes that the bad effects are limited in scope in a maximally free society. The philosophy of Human Rights curries only the Good, strips its philosophy of blame for any Bad that results, and when it bubbles up eventually, they conveniently ascribe the fault to anyone who opposes them – showing them that the Bad, now unlimited in scope and encompassing innocents that otherwise would not have been harmed, is due to their endeavors. But, again, we are dealing with zealots, so that is no simple task.

    Somewhat tangential, but the author whom my moniker is a namesake, Tolkien, put it very well into his masterwork. Be very careful of Power and how you use it. Many of the characters had to battle the impulse of doing Good through oblique methods. Unfortunately so many people fail to realize what impact their use of oblique Power has. If they do, they don’t care. Such blindness or calculated Machiavellianism truly is the essence of Evil. I don’t find it too coincidental that that basic theme, and the whole anarchic religiosity in general, was lifted from the movies made a few years back. I don’t perceive the prime movers of the movie as being libertarian in any way, much more the Guardianesque type. I still wonder what prompted them to even bother making the movies since all that is left after its underlying main theme is removed is a routine dungeons and dragons exercise. It is a pity since it could have been a wonderful oppurtunity to have an artistic piece carry an individualist message.

  • C Powell

    The Guardian is not liberal in any sense of the word. Apparently the Times of India said that it should really be called the “Madrassa Guardian”.

    The newspapers, political commentators, politicians etc simply do not get it about DD. People do. The disconnect between the two is not surprising and is one reason why the commentariat – with a few honourable exceptions (Henry Porter, take a bow) – have not hammered Labour over this. That it should take a Tory (sniffily dismissed by so many) to talk about the “slow strangulation of our freedoms” has astonished so many just because they simply have not opened their eyes and thought these last few years. I cheered when I heard his speech and I hope to God that what he’s done does lead to the brakes being put on these awful measures. If the Tories do not understand that this ought to be their debate, that they should be conserving British liberties and freedoms, then they don’t deserve to be put in power. I hope they rise to DD’s challenge. I fear not: they’re too scared that a real debate might stop their onward march to power and have forgotten – if they ever understood – that it’s not about getting their turn at the goodies of government but power in order to achieve something for us. What do they want to achieve for us? Who can say?

    We see the same sniffiness about people having their say in the reaction to the Irish referendum on Lisbon. When the politicians show such contempt for us, why are they so surprised when we return it in spades, when given the opportunity to do so?

  • RRS

    Today’s Ian Martin ditty in the Telegraph critiquing Mr. Davis’ action seems to totally disregard the fact that there is more to politics than politicians.

    Whilst not of the same conditions, has no one thought of another chap — Burke, I think his name was — who addressed his constituency in a clearly defined manner; even in the days of “Rotten” boroughs?

    Representative government, however attained by a society (and democratic modalities are not exclusive means), requires that those believing they are in fact “represented” need to reafirm that condition to both themselves and the representatives.

    Perhaps Mr. Davis’ actions will serve that purpose.

  • Dale Amon

    I would not be too harsh on these journalists in a personal sense. They are simply following their training. The whole journalist education comes down to a bedrock of Marxist dialectic. When something appears outside the bounds of their rhetoric, it must be surrounded and explained in a way that fits comfortably into the world view they have had beaten into them.

    Our role is not to despise them but to keep them as uncomfortable as possible… discomfort and cognitive dissonance sometimes lead to real thinking. And once someone starts to think there is just no telling where it will lead…

  • Sam Duncan

    Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, the idea of “freedom from destitution”, it’s a huge jump to say that only the state can provide it. What a bizarre – and, as you say, telling – statement.

  • Paul Marks

    You are right J.P. – it is wrong on so many levels.

    The love for the “Human Rights Act” (and the international declaration on which it is bases – a declaration so worded that it…….) rather than traditional non aggression principle style liberty.

    And, of course, the welfare spending is freedom bit.

    That reminds me of the coins in the Roman Empire after the fall of the Republic.

    The word “libertas” sometimes appeared – by sheaf of wheat.

    There was still freedom you see – as long as (as in the late Republic) you meant “free bread” by freedom.

    And the collectivists think they are so “modern” and “progressive”.

    But it is not just the Guardian and B.B.C. trash.

    For example, in Friday’s “Daily Telegraph” there was a supposedly friendly editorial (right by an article the Telegraph asked David Davis to write).

    An editorial that just happened to say that Mr Davis was “reckless and misguided”.

    A British Conservative is someone who should defend traditional liberty.

    It is a pity that some high level Conservative party people (and those linked to them) are just fair weather friends.

  • Paul Marks

    You are right J.P. – it is wrong on so many levels.

    The love for the “Human Rights Act” (and the international declaration on which it is bases – a declaration so worded that it…….) rather than traditional non aggression principle style liberty.

    And, of course, the welfare spending is freedom bit.

    That reminds me of the coins in the Roman Empire after the fall of the Republic.

    The word “libertas” sometimes appeared – by sheaf of wheat.

    There was still freedom you see – as long as (as in the late Republic) you meant “free bread” by freedom.

    And the collectivists think they are so “modern” and “progressive”.

    But it is not just the Guardian and B.B.C. trash.

    For example, in Friday’s “Daily Telegraph” there was a supposedly friendly editorial (right by an article the Telegraph asked David Davis to write).

    An editorial that just happened to say that Mr Davis was “reckless and misguided”.

    A British Conservative is someone who should defend traditional liberty.

    It is a pity that some high level Conservative party people (and those linked to them) are just fair weather friends.

  • chip

    “freedom from destitution, for example, which only the state can provide. ”

    In much of the third world it is the state that creates destitution and private Western charities that provide freedom from it.

    The first world has reached its current level of prosperity only because it threw off the state’s shackles and pursued economic liberty.

    This isn’t really difficult to understand.

  • Jason

    The death penalty is bad policy. If you are ok with the death penalty than you put yourself in the ultimate paradox, that being that if you are ok with state murder than you become a murderer as you are part of the state and therefore you deserve to die as well for committing murder.

    I find it interesting that libertarians would find it ok for the state to have the power to murder its citizens.

  • RRS

    Jason –

    You probably have not enjoyed the edifying experience of action in war.

    The “STATE” doesn’t do anything – people do.

    If there is “purpose” in life and how it occurs and is used, then there is equivalent “purpose” in death.

  • Paul Marks

    If execution is murder then imprisonment is abduction Jason.

    Grabbing someone and keeping them where they do not want to be is also a criminal thing – unless it is done as due punishment for a crime.

    But as the present governement is prepared to hold British citizens (in the United Kingdom) without CHARGE (let alone trial) then perhaps it will execute them without charge (and, therefore, without trial) as well.

    Oh I forgot – one of these international treaty things forbids execution.

    When were the ordinary people consulted about this matter?

    Never.

    Remember if governments can do things you approve of but do not have majority consent (like take part in a world government anti execution thing) they can also do things you do NOT approve of – and again without majority consent.

    “But there are general elections”.

    Events in which specific issues are lost in a storm of all sorts of stuff.

    The only way to bring specific issues to a vote of the people (if the government will not grant a vote) is by a by-election – and that is what Mr Davis is doing.

  • John

    Justification for the death penalty comes from two very simple premises:
    1. Life has infinite value
    2. Degree of punishment for a crime on society should be proportional to the costs to the society.

    Hence, a murder has take away something from society of infinite value, and must compensate society with something of the same value, and of course the murder only holds one thing of infinite value, so it gets forfeited to society.

    Hence, if you truly value and respect life, agreement with the concept of the death penalty is not only necessary, it obligatory.

  • Pa Annoyed

    According to Berlin, negative liberty isn’t “the absence of coercion”, but a combination of the two principles: that only rights are absolute, not the powers granting them, and that there are frontiers, not artificially drawn, within which people should be inviolable, these
    frontiers being defined in terms of rules so long and widely accepted that their observance has
    entered into the very conception of what it is to be a normal human being. (Two concepts of liberty, 1958.)

    The distinction Berlin makes is primarily between the separate questions of where and how broad the boundaries lie, and by who or what principle those boundaries are drawn up. Answering the first question embodied the concept of negative liberty, while the second embodied that of positive. The problem comes from attempts to answer the second with appeals to some concept of “rationality”, consistency, or the good of society or the individuals themselves. He doubted that any such consistent or rational scheme existed, and a great deal of negative liberty was lost trying.

    He considered both concepts to have value, although his sympathies were clearly more with the former, and said that liberty was not the sole or highest goal, but had to be weighed and traded off against other goals, such as equality, justice, happiness, security, or public order.

    I don’t know if his distinction makes complete sense. I think it makes more sense than distinguishing freedom to do from freedom not to be prevented. Each implies the other, within the inviolable bounds of the freedoms we hold. Freedom from destitution is not within those bounds. Freedom to conduct a business to escape destitution usually is. Freedom to escape destitution by theft or fraud is not. Freedom to take coercive measures to prevent others stealing from you is. Freedom from being put in prison for having stolen is not. What decides is not whether you are subject or object of the verb, but whether you are acting inside or outside the generally accepted boundaries.

    The Guardian’s primary problem is that they cannot understand that the boundaries they draw are not universally accepted. They agree on ID cards and extended detention without charge (calling it habeas corpus is technically incorrect), but cannot then understand the disagreement on the EU human rights act or the death penalty (which isn’t covered by the ‘right to life’ as defined in the act anyway, IIRC).

    But the disagreements with the Guadianistas is of a similar nature. The problem with ‘entitlement’ rights is not that they are positive, but that we simply don’t consider them to be rights. They are not within the protected boundary. The problem with the right not to be killed by the state is messier.

    There are crimes for which it is widely accepted that committing them rescinds your right to certain freedoms, the freedoms lost in proportion to the crime. This is an aspect of the commonly understood boundary. But there is disagreement over what is the correct proportion, and whether there is a core of freedoms that cannot be rescinded for any cause.

    I’ve never found the arguments for or against the right to or sanctity of life to be terribly coherent. Consider euthanasia, negligent homicide, self-defence or defending others from attack, abortion and contraception, war, animal rights, inter-animal relations, non-sentient life, the lives of future generations, experimental medicine, banning smoking on health grounds, or deciding how much to spend on health and safety. (Or for that matter, deciding whether to let a probable terrorist walk, and maybe go out and kill 50 people, because you don’t have the evidence to charge him/her with.) It’s very difficult (Isaiah would probably say impossible) to develop a single coherent and practical principle on “the right to life” encompassing all of those. Disagreements are inevitable.

  • Jay

    Contrast The Guardian’s take on that MP’s “political stunt”, with The Guardian’s own George Monbiot and his silly “war crimes” antic with Josh Bolton.

    Guess it depends on the cause, huh?

  • K

    The right to being fed. The right to free medical care. The right to a place to sleep and some kind of job. These are the rights granted to the inmates of prisons. Which is why they should be called “Prison liberties”.

    Not saying there shouldn’t be social welfare, but calling it a “liberty” is a cheap retorical trick and needs to stamped out to clear the field for the real debate on the totalitarian state’s intrusion into private lives and property.

  • Laird

    As has already been said, this is totally wrong on many levels. To me, the most important is the concept of “freedom from destitution”, which is emblematic of the socialist/liberal mindset. These are people with no coherent personal philosophy, who have never given any serious thought to the logical implications of their politics (or, if they ever attempted serious thought, foundered once they ran into one of their leftist ideas fixe and quickly abandoned the effort).

    People who believe that “the state” should provide for the needs of others are proponents of human slavery. It’s that simple, and we need to continually rub their noses in it. If you can take, by force, the product of my efforts than to you I am nothing but a slave. The mere fact that you have some “need” (real or perceived) gives you no right to my property, and it doesn’t matter whether you take it at gunpoint or by proxy (via the ballot box).

  • Contrast The Guardian’s take on that MP’s “political stunt”, with The Guardian’s own George Monbiot and his silly “war crimes” antic with Josh Bolton.

    Or to Clare Short’s resignation.

  • guy herbert

    John,

    Justification for the death penalty comes from two very simple premises:
    1. Life has infinite value
    2. Degree of punishment for a crime on society should be proportional to the costs to the society.

    You appear to be attempting to justify the death penalty not per se, but for murder in particular. It seems to me that your simple premises, if accepted, also justify it for manslaughter, and indeed for ‘reckless endangerment’. Could it be they are too simple?

  • RRS

    Crimes are committed upon individuals not upon “society” nor upon “humanity.”

    Societies and humanity are impacted adversely by crimes upon individuals, and for those reasons of adverse impacts, retaliations and preventions have become commonally established in various forms.

    If there is such a thing as justifiable homicide, as in “self-defense” or defense of one’s child. There can well be other forms of justifiable homicide established as a commonally held interest of the individuals in a society. Death can have a social function.

  • Laird

    Actually, RRS, while an individual is the victim of a crime (or the “complaining witness”), as a purely technical matter in Anglo-Saxon law the crime is in fact deemed to be committed against the state. That’s why criminal cases are prosecuted by a state functionary acting in the name of the people (as opposed to civil actions, which are prosecuted by the individual concerned). The proper formulation of a criminal charge is that it was committed “against the peace and dignity of the Crown” (or “. . . of the State” in the US).

    I’m not sure about crimes “against humanity”, since to my knowledge there is no established historical precedent for that in the common law.

  • RRS

    Laird –

    Forgive me if I twit a bit.

    Well sir, what about “Trial by Combat?”

    An established feature of Anglo-Saxon precedent, carried forward into Norman times.

    Seriously, I have been well aware of the precedents (and history) of Common Law [and Equity - now submerged someplace] for almost 60 years, and practiced at Common Law for about the same time, and regret its slow demise by codifications.

    My point was not any one society or social order, though ours ( of Anglo-Saxon [and DaneLaw] derivation in large, but not sole, part) seems to be the last in the “West” to deploy death as a social instrument.

    The “East” is another matter.

  • Laird

    Personally, I have no problem with “death as a social instrument” (I believe that somewhere recently someone [Perry?] suggested that it was preferable to incarceration, an interesting idea worth exploring); I was merely correcting a technical error in your post as it related to the legal tradition to which most of the participants on this site appear to be heirs.

    I’m not much of a fan of trial by combat (or its cousin, trial by ordeal), as neither bears much resemblance to the search for objective truth which should be the foundation of any rational system of justice. However, if we’re going to go back to early Danish law
    I am rather fond of the concept of “weregild” (or “man-price”). It did seem to work fairly well in eliminating blood feuds and providing compensation for the death of a relative. And, for that matter, I wish that we could return to the concept of duelling; if one had to be prepared to back up one’s words on the field of honor this would be a far more polite society. Unfortunately, I don’t think that would work any time soon, as we seem to have lost most of the concept of personal honor, so declining the challenge wouldn’t carry the stigma it should. Too bad.

  • Laird,

    However, if we’re going to go back to early Danish law I am rather fond of the concept of “weregild” (or “man-price”). It did seem to work fairly well in eliminating blood feuds and providing compensation for the death of a relative.

    I think you’re right there is some merit to an attempt at compensation. (assuming it’s in conjunction with other penalties)

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that would work any time soon, as we seem to have lost most of the concept of personal honor, so declining the challenge wouldn’t carry the stigma it should.

    I’m afraid it strikes me that most of the people who would be prepared to shoot each other over “matters of honor” or “respect” tend to be members of street gangs. I suspect they are not the most polite of people.

    Admittedly this is just speculation – I have no personal experience with the matter. :)

  • Paul Marks

    An interesting thing about the universe (whether it was created this way by God, or came about by chance) is that disregarding “negative liberty” (or, more simply, the non aggression “hands off” princple – because someone can oppose aggression without believeing in the doctrine of rights) in the hope of increasing “positive liberty” does not work – even in its own terms.

    First “positive liberty” used to mean the old (going back to the ancient Greeks at least) idea of the control of reason over the passions.

    And government intervention hardly helps such self control – in fact it undermines moral development and leaves people adult sized children.

    But also the idea of “postive liberty means lots of nice goods and services for the poor” does not work either.

    In fact as there is more government intervention (more attacks on “negative liberty”) so, over a period of years, there is MORE poverty than would otherwise have been the case.

    The material universe and the human mind are structured in such a way (either by God or by chance or by whatever) that use the of violence (government intervention) is both an attack on liberty (of the nonaggression principle sort) and an attack on long term prosperity and the reduction of poverty.

    In short:

    Statism gets it all wrong.