16 February 2006

What is civil liberty?

The concept of civil liberty is generally misused. It is largely used by selfish people to justify doing whatever they like, regardless of the harm they cause. It is worth remembering that one person's liberty is almost always to the detriment of someone else's liberty. Therefore a balance always has to be found. It is where you draw the line.

For example, civil liberty is wrongly used to defend smoking. Those who argue this don't care about the 'civil liberties' of people who want to be able to enjoy going where they like, without having to breath smoke and damage their health. When it becomes a health and safety issue, the health of the non-smoker should be more important than the rights of the addicted.

When somebody uses civil liberties in support of their argument, ask critically for evidence to back up what they say. As AC Grayling puts it;

"A familiar but profound fact explains the vexed character of moral, social and political debates, namely, that there are almost always at least two diametrically different ways of seeing the same human problem. People appeal to their principles, their traditions, their rights and the threat to all three, in justifying what to outsiders seems to be their obduracy, pig-headedness and prejudice. Moral skill is the ability to distinguish which is which."

n.b. I agree with most of Grayling's linked article but I disagree that ID cards are an attack on civil liberties, as demonstrated by the numerous liberal countries that have them.

17 comments:

  1. "I disagree that ID cards are an attack on civil liberties, as demonstrated by the numerous liberal countries that have them."

    Why do you persist in repeating this kind of falsehood?

    Other liberal countries do not have anything like the kind of scheme that the Government is proposing; indeed, most of them specifically prohibit centralisation of data or include strong safeguards for privacy. The only other country that considered a scheme like ours was China...

    The card itself is not an infringement of our civil liberties -- I agree -- but the audit trail most certainly does infringe our right to privacy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Why do you persist in repeating this kind of falsehood?"

    Aspects of the government's scheme, such as the amount of information stored and security of the NIR could be problematic, but ID cards in general are neutral as you acknowledge.

    This scheme is not going to be compulsory anyway, another Act of Parliament after the next election would be needed for that.

    I think what we think of the govt's scheme is going to be academic.

    I have accepted the arguments that the technology looks unworkable, so the scheme just isn't likely to get off the ground.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Neil, you've had it spelled out often enough, but I'll give it one more go. Civil liberties are anything that is not prohibited by law; that's it. Simple really. Wanting to preserve them is not "selfish" nor do civil liberties necessarily hurt others - that's where personal responsibility kicks in.

    One of our greatest civil liberties is that of free speech. By your own yardstick, your indulgences when ranting about religious groups or publishing Mohammed cartoons is "selfish" and arguably hurts others.

    Time to move out of the glasshouse, I think...

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Blue Foxxx18/2/06 1:03 pm

    You should rename your blog (again) to 'Groundhog Day'.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Longrider, using your definition; "Civil liberties are anything that is not prohibited by law; that's it. Simple really."

    This definition means that defending civil liberties means opposing any law that prohibits anything.

    I'm sure you accept that 'most' laws that prohibit something are actually there for very good reasons.

    While I would agree with you that free speech shouldn't be prohibited and also that prohibiting drugs has proved a disaster, some things most definitely need prohibiting. The trap 'civil libertarians' like you seem to fall into, is believing that 'any prohibition' is a restriction on freedom. This is not the case, as is amply demonstrated by the smoking ban, which has INCREASED the freedom of people who do not wish to breathe in cigarette smoke.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "This definition means that defending civil liberties means opposing any law that prohibits anything."

    No, it means nothing of the sort - absolutely not and I fail to see how anyone could interpret it in that way. We are both conversing in English, aren't we?

    There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Therein lies anarchy.

    That's why we have laws. Some things do need to be prohibited (murder, theft etc.). Those things that are not specifically prohibited by law are, therefore, allowed.

    The suggestion that libertarians want anarchy is a nonsense. No one is suggesting no laws - just that the current authoritarian trend is going too far. Unless you think that the attempts by Muslims to impose the tenets of their religion on us prohibiting criticism and ridicule of their faith would be a good law to have? I doubt it, somehow as it would be bad law. So, too is the regulatory and reform bill; a totalitarian's charter.

    If you are going to curtail a liberty, you need a powerful reason for doing so - and the current spin about "terrorism" and "security" isn't good enough - it is, after all, just spin.

    PS - please note new URL

    ReplyDelete
  7. Longrider;

    So you are just arguing for the status quo?

    How do you determine that the present laws are at the right level?

    Do you agree that the smoking ban has increased the liberties of those who wish to avoid cigarette smoke?

    All I am arguing is that prohibiting something is not necessarily damaging civil liberties and that a lot of 'civil libertarians' seem to argue against new prohibitions regardless of the evidence that justifies these prohibitions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. PS I agree that the leg and reg bill is bad.

    And I have noted your new URL. Will change the link.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Neil, I am partially arguing for a status quo. New legislation that will impact on liberty needs to be carefully thought through and checks and balances in place. Unfortunately what we are seeing is runaway authoritarianism going on. This results in bad legislation. As a non-smoker, I am still opposed in principle to the smoking ban. I do not feel that smokers impinge on my civil liberties - I can choose not to go to establishments where there will be smoke - or, I can, if I wish choose to go and put up with the smoke. I know what I'm getting into and make my choices accordingly. This smoking ban has all the hallmarks of a ban that people will work around as they do with the hunting ban. Bad legislation leads to systematic civil disobedience.

    Perhaps my biggest worry is the trend for mass surveillance - where I go and when is my business. Being spied upon with ANPR, CCTV and if they get their way satellite technology is, very definitely an infringement on my privacy and privacy is a civil liberty.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Do you really think ANPR wouldn't have happened under a Tory government? Remember CCTV started under the Tories.

    A lot of these things are as a result of new technology not a Labour government gone mad (as you suggest). Round here community groups actually campaign for new CCTV.

    Just as you don't find smokers an infringement of your civil liberties, I don't mind CCTV, ANPR etc. In fact I positively want it. I think it IMPROVES my civil liberties by acting as a deterrent to muggers etc.

    You say that non-smokers can avoid smoke if they want. Where? That would mean I could never go to the pub or to a gig again. Hardly fair is it?

    I like going to gigs, if I want to see the latest indie band, or Daniel Johnston or whoever, I don't get a choice of non-smoking or smoking venues. I know that I will inevitably come home stinking of cigarettes and be coughing my guts up the next morning. This is particularly unfair on those with acute asthma or other respiratory problems. I suppose mine and their rights just don't count in your opinion. None of these are one sided civil liberties issues as you claim they are. In fact in the case of smoking they don't even have the support of the majority of smokers.

    The smoking ban is a simple case of health of safety. Or maybe the rights of the million or so workers in pubs and clubs don't count either?

    ReplyDelete
  11. You're quite right - Margaret Thatcher was an authoritarian PM. Blair has carried on her fine example. Most professional politicians fall in the authoritarian rather than libertarian axis. Political party is largely irrelevant.

    That this government has an extreme authoritarian bent is not a matter of opinion, but fact. Just look at the bills that have passed through parliament. The civil contingencies act, the anti-terror bill, ID cards bill, Religious hatred bill... I could go on, but it depresses me.

    Yes, technology has made available what the Thatcher government could only have dreamed of - using it to spy on innocent people is not an appropriate use, though. ANPR is benign until you put multiple cameras across the road network and keep records for two years on peoples' movements - that's misuse of the technology. As I said, where I go is my business, not government's.

    CCTV cameras don't make people safer, they simply move the crime elsewhere. We need fewer cameras and more police walking the streets - just as we need more police traffic patrols and less reliance on speed cameras. People should be policed by people, not technology.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "People should be policed by people, not technology."

    Why? This demonstrates a luddite attitude that you wouldn't hold in any other area. It's like saying;

    'Cars should be made by people not technology'

    If technology is cheaper and more effective, as CCTV has proven, why not have it? I for one am quite glad there is CCTV at the bottom of my road, and I'm sure the residents round here, who campaigned for it, are as well. Of course the Labour government has also put more police on the streets than ever before and added a further 20,000 CSOs who concentrate on walking the beat, something most police officers consider beneath them, as they would prefer not understandably to be in a nice warm police station doing paperwork than grappling with a drunk on a Friday night. Of course it is up to the government to stop this self imposed bureaucracy.

    "ANPR is benign until you put multiple cameras across the road network and keep records for two years on peoples' movements - that's misuse of the technology."

    In what way does this affect your life?

    ReplyDelete
  13. The Blue Foxxx20/2/06 10:57 pm

    "who concentrate on walking the beat, something most police officers consider beneath them, as they would prefer not understandably to be in a nice warm police station doing paperwork than grappling with a drunk on a Friday night. Of course it is up to the government to stop this self imposed bureaucracy."

    Any evidence for this slander Neil? Self-imposed bureaucracy - just like the teachers, councils et al. You are going crazy defending this shower.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I suppose the Govt set the rosters do they?

    I was talking with a CSO the other week who explained that they were there to relieve officers of the boring stuff they didn't want to do, and she told me, they reduce staff on Friday and Saturday nights despite this being their busiest times. She did inform me there was an 0845 answer phone (though she didn't know the full number), and that they would send someone round during the day to take notes of what had happened.

    Now why I wonder, would they not want to work Friday and Saturday nights?

    This is what the Government has to fight against.

    People forget that the police are just as inefficient as other council workers.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Why? This demonstrates a luddite attitude that you wouldn't hold in any other area. It's like saying;

    Because policing is a human activity requiring human qualities, such as judgement. Machines cannot judge. A traffic cop on seeing someone speeding will make a judgement about whether the best course of action is prosecution or a warning along with some sound advice, for example. A police officer on the beat will be able to pick up nuances that technology misses, little clues in peoples' behaviour. Divorce them from this and you lose their most valuable quality.

    It is not Luddite to recognise that technology has limitations and that we should work within them - just sensible.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Do you accept that machines can sometimes be better than humans? They are not prejudiced and entirely impartial in their judgements, for example; women drivers now receive more speeding tickets because machines do not let them off like police officers do. I'm sure the same effect can be noticed in other areas, like race.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The Blue Foxxx22/2/06 12:37 pm

    "People forget that the police are just as inefficient as other council workers. "

    More slander. How are you measuring this efficiency?

    "...and she told me..."

    Rock solid evidence.

    ReplyDelete