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

- George Washington

Friday, 26 February 2010

Does the State own us?

It's a pretty big question.

In Britain, we have tended to believe that we are all free individuals: born free, and free to do as we please throughout our lives provided that we do not harm other people. Other nations have operated on the assumption that the State owns everything and controls its people. The usual way of illustrating this is to say that in Britain, you are free to do anything that is not expressly forbidden, whereas under the Napoleonic Code (which is the basis of most of EU law), you may not do anything that is not expressly permitted. That is a massive philosophical difference, which goes to the root of who we are and how we relate to each other at a fundamental level.

We are not free, of course. We are not free to murder, or to cheat, or to steal. We are not free to drive a vehicle on public roads if it is three years and one day old, without a certificate issued by a government-approved facility. If you exchange your labour and time for money, the Government will force you, under penalty of imprisonment, to pay them a certain percentage of your earnings. If you watch television, even if you only watch commercial channels paid for by the adverts you see, you must still pay a levy to the state broadcaster - again, on penalty of imprisonment if you choose not to. If you choose to make your own provision for your health, for example, or the education of your children, than the state will not recompense you for the value you are not taking from the system by withdrawing from it and paying for your own. Some of these seem entirely reasonable and moral, and are things to which we would all willingly subscribe: natural law, if you like. Others are less justifiable in terms of natural justice, but nevertheless most people don't object too strongly. There is an argument that all of this comprises a kind of contract, and by participating in any of society's activities we have implicitly accepted the terms of the deal. That's a contentious argument, although it is not without merit.

But, at the bottom of it all, we believe that we belong to no-one but ourselves. The State does not own us; it simply has our co-operation as part of a bargain. Of course, this belief has become more difficult to sustain over the last few years. At one time, most people would have said that if you wished to smoke and kill yourself, that was no-one's concern but your own. Now, the habit is being gradually driven out, regardless of the wishes of smokers, because "it is for the good of society". We have been conditioned to accept 24-hour CCTV surveillance of our lives; the creation of massive databases which link our identities with our shopping habits, health status, web browsing and communications; the retention of the DNA of innocent people; the removal of the ancient right of habeas corpus; all "in the interests of wider society".

It has long been so unexceptionable as to be commonplace to say that it is a parent's right to bring up their children how they please. Lax or strict; religious or not; smart or scruffy; left or right, "Edward" or "Starchild"; whether we approved or not, we always recognised that it was the right of parents to choose the upbringing of their young. The rise and continuance of faith schools on state funds has no other explanation than this. The only time the State would step in was if the upbringing caused problems for the rest of us (as we see on so many sink estates and town centres today), when society's intervention can be easily justified on self-defence grounds alone. One of the things that was always held as a basic right was the right to educate our children as we please. And that includes educating them ourselves if we wish to do so, on our own premises and in our own time. Even thought the vast majority of children went to state-run or state-approved schools, attendance was not compulsory, provided that the parents could demonstrate that the children were receiving a certain minimum standard of education.

Now, that right is under threat. There have been murmurings about 'home schooling' for a while now. This is, or course, a direct result of any socialist government's basic principle that the state should be the provider, organiser and arbitrator of all things. If children are educated outside the state system (and I include the so-called 'public' schools in this, as they are state-certified), then they cannot be controlled and brought up with approved attitudes and behaviours. Home-schooling is radical, and a threat to any state that thinks it is the ultimate authority, as by its very existence it thumbs its nose at the whole idea of centralised curricula and standards. It says "I will do what I think is right for my kids, and it's none of your business how I go about it". Historically, this has always been tolerated. Government agencies may have had the power to enter the home and assure themselves that education is indeed taking place, and within certain reasonable parameters, but beyond that there has been little interference.

But now the state is trying to regulate and (I suspect) ultimately close down this basic freedom. And what better way to do it than to raise the one-size-fits-all spectre of child abuse? There were a number of stories in the media last year which suggested that there was 'concern' about children in home education being subjected to abuse. No evidence - just the concern of 'experts'. And now, on the back of the dreadful case of poor little Khyra Ishaq, they are bringing out the statistics. Apparently, home-schooled children are at double the risk of abuse, compared to 'normal' children. A quick read of the article and comments will reveal that the statistics tell no such tale (the fact that there is no central register of home-schooled children, and therefore no numbers, and therefore no meaningful percentages should assure you that the claims are unsupported by any evidence other than guesses and estimates). But the case is being made that we should end the 'anomaly' of allowing parents to take their children out of state school, on the entirely spurious grounds of child protection.

The argument is superficially attractive, until you realise that Khyra was taken out of school, not so that her parents could educate her better at home, but because the mother was frightened that she would be found out. The child was well-known to social services, and there were many opportunities to address the suffering in the months and years before she died. Saying this was the result of allowing home-schooling is a complete red herring.

I don't wish to be flippant, but if the home educators I have come across are anything to go by, the children are at far more danger of tofu poisoning, climate-change-induced panic attacks and being injured by a badly-constructed windmill. To use this tragic case as an argument that home educators are more likely to abuse their children is a travesty, and a nasty one at that.

If the state gets its way, you won't own your children any more. Not in that hippy "children belong to the future; we only look after them on their way" sense. In the "your child will be taken from you at five (or four, or three) years old and told by us what to think, and if you don't like it you can reflect on your unwisdom from a prison cell" kind of way.

In Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the state controlled everything by ensuring that it controlled children.

This is just another click of the ratchet.

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