If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 31 July 2009

I don't like it, and it should be banned

Interesting letter in The Times a couple of days ago.

This [proposed regulation of jetskis] raises the question that if motorcycles for the road did not exist, would they now be invented and, if so, would they be made legal?

That's an interesting question, for a whole lot of reasons.

I think that a) they would, and b) they would not. That is, I think that someone would have the excellent idea that a motorised vehicle on two wheels rather than four would be more economical than a car, use fewer of the earth's resources, cause less pollution and congestion, and be a whole heap of fun, so they would be invented at some point. In fact, the motorcycle as an invention is older than the car. Daimler and Maybach unveiled their motorised bicycle in 1885, whereas Benz's Motorwagen was not patented until 1886. Just thought I would get that one in.

And no, I can't see them being allowed in the UK, the most risk-averse, nannying, controlling country in the modern world. In a world where the majority opt to travel in an enclosed tin box, replete with climate control, crumple zones, safety belts, soft edges and 'driver aids' like ABS and active suspension, the idea of climbing on top of a naked machine no bigger than you are and travelling at high speed on public roads with nothing but your own skill and the forces of physics to keep you upright and a bit of leather and Kevlar to protect you seems pretty preposterous.

But then, if they invented alcohol today (with all the known health risks and social problems it causes), it would probably never be permitted to be sold. And no-one wants to ban alcohol, do they? Oh, hang on; this is UK 2009. As you were.

One of the reponses to this letter says it all:

If the m/c were invented now it would never be licensed by any rational authority as too dangerous for use on public roads. If they cannot be banned the tax on thir [sic] sales should be prohibitive.

Thank you, John Dean. I don't know where to start with this piece of authoritarian bullshit. For one thing, it assumes that any new invention has to be 'licensed' by a 'rational authority' before people are allowed to use it. Who is that authority going to be? And who is to decide what is rational? I choose to ride a motorbike. I have assessed the risks, I have taken appropriate precautions, and I believe that the risks, balanced against the benefits, are acceptable. That's rational in my book. But not according to John. He wants everything to be assessed by an 'authority' and the common people only allowed to do what his 'authority' deems acceptable. I rather get the feeling that John sees himself as part of this 'authority', or that at least the 'authority' will generally agree with him. I'd love to see his face when some future 'rational authority' bans cycling, or walking, or lentils, or knitting 'for safety reasons'. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it's not going to go back willingly.

For another thing, why do these interfering pecksniffs always think that banning something is a proper response to anything they don't like? This translates rather neatly to the following syllogism:
  1. It is acceptable to prevent other people from doing things of which I do not approve
  2. I do not approve of motorcycles
  3. Therefore, motorcycles should be banned.
Now, 2 is clearly a given, judging from the man's tone, and 3 follows perfectly logically from 1 and 2. The problem is with 1, the Major Premise.

One of the biggest changes I have seen in my years on this planet is the change from relative freedom to a form of totalitarianism. Educated people, nice people, sensible people, now believe that anyone should have the power to prevent other people from doing things that they do not approve of. Look at the fox-hunting argument. A few influential lefties don't like it, and it is banned. Never mind the thousands of law-abiding and well-meaning people who have to make major changes to their lives to stay within the law. We don't like it, so you mustn't do it. (Note: I have never hunted a fox and never wish to, but I prefer to live in a country where those who do are free to get on with it.) Well, let me tell you, there are a lot of things I don't approve of (I won't list them here - you'd be reading this all day). But I am old enough to realise that other people are different, and I don't demand that the world is organised so that it conforms to my personal tastes and appetites. That is just immature.

So who the hell are these people who think they can decide how I (or anyone else) can live my life? Well, they used to be old retired colonels writing to the Torygraph, or spinsters who had nothing better to do than complain about 'young people these days'. Then it became the preserve of Student Union moralists, who liked to decide who was to be allowed the benefit of free speech, and who was to be denied it. And now it is the governing class - politicians, quangocrats, the mainstream media, and especially the BBC. It's a long way back to the freedoms I enjoyed as a child.

Well, as far as I am concerned, you can all sod off. I will live my life according to my rules, take my own risks, and live with the consequences. If I crash and burn (in any sense of the phrase), I will be helped by a health service that I have paid for out of my taxes, and I promise not to complain when you make demands on communal resources resulting from your lifestyle choices (I don't smoke or take drugs, for example, but my NHS helps people who do.)

The other point is, of course, the notion that if something cannot be banned, it should be punitively taxed. Aside from the idea that taxation has become, not a simple method for the government to raise money to do the things it wants to do, but a means of coercing us into behaving in certain ways, there's a big problem with this, and it's a moral one.

If you tax something heavily because you think it is undesirable, then who is most affected by your actions? I'll tell you - it's poor people. Rich people may bitch and complain, but they won't be put off if it's something they want to do. So you get the situation where a socially-coercive measure has different effects on different parts of society. Effectively, the poor are stopped from doing it (or are further impoverished), while the rich are merely inconvenienced. How that can be presented as just or fair is beyond me. Increase tobacco taxes by 500% and you will certainly reduce smoking - by poor people. The rich can carry on. Increase the Road Tax on older cars, and the guy in a minumum-wage MacJob with six kids to support will have to give up his car. The rich guy will just buy a newer model.

Socialists tend to approve of this kind of punitive taxation. No, I don't understand it either.

I had a wonderful insight into how this kind of mindset works shortly after the introduction of the Congestion Charge in London. One one of my very rare visits to the capital, I was taken to a function in the City by my brother-in-law. In the late evening, we were standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi, when I commented on how quiet the streets were, and that the charge seemed to be having the desired effect. "Congestion Charge, I love it!" he said. "Roads for the Rich!"

I can accept (a little reluctantly) that a government has the right to raise money from the governed to pursue its legitimate aims (which I would limit to defending the nation, maintaining a police and justice system, and putting out fires, but that's another argument entirely). But when did the population agree that the government could take money from us by force in order to influence our behaviour in areas which, until quite recently, were considered to be matters of personal choice?

To get back to John Dean and his interfering, authoritarian kind: if they can't ban something outright, they want to use the tax system so that most people can't afford to do it, and everyone feels punished for wanting to do something they have freely chosen. And the rationale behind all this is that They know better than You what is good for you, and are prepared to use force to make you comply. Do what Nanny says, or you get a smack.

Welcome to 21st Century Britain - cradle of democracy, land of the free. The sad thing is, even a change of government won't make the slightest bit of difference.


  1. It has been said, on occasion, that Britain would have made a better Third Reich than Germany ever did. We have no shortage of people who like peaked caps, uniforms and the chance to inflict their petty rules on all and sundry. Equally, we have no shortage of sheep who accept that state of affairs as representing proper authority. And no shortage of legislators who think that authority is best enforced by punitive taxation, charges or fines.

    It is quite fascinating that much of this slide towards authoritarianism has actually been presented - and accepted - as liberalism (which perhaps goes to show the absurdity of all -isms). The loss of freedom of speech and thought, for example, all wrapped up in the guise of equality, yet moving steadily away from what is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not on the headline articles, perhaps, but in the abstract rights to live a respectful, courteous and dignified existence according to your own choices. Thin end of the wedge.

    Government, really, has assumed a statist role far removed from any mandate we might have thought it had. It has become accepted that statutory instruments can now be a vehicle for social engineering experiments. They are blatantly presented as such: all stick, no carrot charges that are created with the explicit aim of modifying behaviour. Fly less, recycle more, don't drive or smoke or drink...unless you can afford to pay the surcharge. There's even an argument that, since you are now a net green contributor, such behaviour should actually be encouraged. Poor people, of course, should stop it right away.

    You could see it coming with smoking and with hunting. Pick the easy targets first: ones that no reasonable person could possibly defend. Evil practices that have to be banned and/or priced out of the market. Get the population used to accepting the principle, without noticing that when the extremes are removed, more moderate practices simply become the new extreme. So when it is deemed unacceptable by those in charge to drink, or not eat enough fruit, or look at pictures of naked breasts, those will all go the way of foxhunting. Except, perhaps, in the Houses of Parliament, where it is still perfectly legal to light up in the subsidised bars.

    Poor old John Dean, like so many sheep, seems to be under the impression that he will be in tune with the ruling elite because they represent the views of those "right-thinking" folk like himself. I bet, given half a chance, he would probably tell us that "if it saves one life it's worth it" and "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". He may even trot out that Labour favourite "it would be right to...". All so self-evidently wrong, so utterly unjustifiable and amongst the most facile statements ever made in defence of infringement of personal liberty. There will be a reckoning for him, too. Not as early as for us, maybe, but to quote Martin Niemoller:

    "When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
    When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
    When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
    When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I was not a Jew.
    When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out."

    That's you, John. Hope you go quietly, content in the knowledge that you have been justly treated by authority.

    Well, fuck 'im. And all his sheep-like brethren who have not yet grasped that, above all, authoritarianism is the enemy of simple human decency. When behaviour is proscribed to the nth degree, there is no space for consideration or responsibility. There is only enforcement and punishment. And that is hardly the basis for a civilised society. Which is why (and I don't suppose John will ever grasp the irony) he should be encouraging my bad habits - smoking, drinking, riding motorcycles... It is people like me who enable people like you to still have the freedom to spout the half-baked opinions you feel entitled to hold.

  2. Good points, well made - and Pastor Niemoller is pretty relevant here, too. I think you are right in how the authoritarianism is being applied - a salami-slice approach, in which no step is big enough to trigger widespread protest, but added up over a decade or two make a significant change to the way we run our society. A penny here, a penny there, what's to object to?

    Your last comment reminds me of the ID cards issue, which is yet another example of creeping totalitarianism, and something which I am prepared to go to prison over. Seriously. All those 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' arguments, who could object? But what the supportes never seem to consider is that allowing all that information to be held centrally is all very well with a benign government - but who is to say who will be in charge in 50 years? It's not stretching the imagination too far to say that there *could* be a government by the BNP in 2020. In 2050 - who knows what anti-democratic horrors will have arisen by then? And yet the ID supporters will have given all of our personal information, our entire identities, to *all* future governments by default, and any future government will be able to do with us as they please. Can you just see the liberal Left under a BNP government - "Hang on, we never envisaged having you lot in power, can you please dismantle the ID system and give us our data back?"

    Thanks for such thoughtful contributions.

  3. It's my pleasure: and thanks for providing somewhere where they can see the light of day! The ability to communicate is a precious one, all too often submerged in a mass of hysterical white noise. Corners of the internet like this, where it is possible to put forward a reasoned opinion or genuinely debate a subject are a breath of fresh air.

    In some respects it doesn't matter whether they influence a few or many people to think about what they are being fed every day by the machinery of propaganda - if there are enough of them across the world, keeping those lines of communication alive, perhaps there is some hope for the future!

    Idealistic, perhaps, but there are times when it is necessary to find your voice and hope that others will hear it. Niemoller was right, but I kind of think more about Dylan Thomas:
    "Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

    The shape of the future may be inflicted on us regardless, but that does not mean we have to embrace it blindly. Or that we should fail to question what is coming. And sometimes, raging at the answer is simply the only rational response!

    I'm not an extreme reactionary, I just like changes to be though through and for the better. I'm not always right, either, and sometimes it is just as important to learn where we are mistaken in our beliefs as it is to have those beliefs confirmed.

    In the case of biometric cards, however, it would have to be a pretty compelling argument to bring me around to accepting them. As for their future, well, personally I thought the film "Gattaca" was a prophetic and chilling vision of what we seem to be rushing madly towards. I predict a time, soon, when such things return us to a medieval state of fear - back then, it was the idea of witches and demons working sympathetic magic from their victim's hair or nail clippings; in future it will be the dread of any part of your DNA turning up somewhere it shouldn't. One stray skin cell - and DNA analysis has already moved from being corroborative to prima facie evidence in just a few short years.

    As for "nothing to hide...", is there anyone, anywhere who has not a single secret they would prefer to be kept private? I somehow doubt it. And if the argument was ever honestly presented to people - your every thought, move and action will be subject to the constant scrutiny and judgement of all of your peers - I wonder how many of them would still be so keen. And what if all the other ramifications were to be explained - that ignorance of the law is no defence, that there may be unforeseeable consequences to the most innocent act, that your very identity is out there in the public domain ready to be exploited by unscrupulous people – that all of those can also be laid at your door whether you intended, or even did, them. How far do you trust the people you are handing that power to, now and later?

    One example: Operation Ore. A crackdown on child porn: something everyone can agree with. Except that a very large number of prosecutions in the UK were brought against people who were legitimate users of an ordinary and legal adult porn gateway. Distasteful, perhaps, not something you would necessarily want your neighbours to know about you, but within the law. It just happened, though, that it could also be used to reach a child porn site. The UK – unlike the US – police never bothered to establish who had actually done so, instead picking up and charging thousands of registered users of the main site, including those unlucky enough to be the real owners of cloned credit cards. Almost-certainly innocent people committed suicide rather than face those charges and be branded paedophiles in the court of public opinion. Others simply cracked and confessed to unproven and unprovable minor offenses (Pete Townsend among them, for example) to avoid full-blown trials. Lives were ruined, forever, on the strength of a credit card number. Does that really sound like nothing to fear?

  4. I can't add anything to this, except to say that I completely agree.


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