The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Liberalism

The Good Book

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At the end of the film The Time Machine (the scene does not appear in H G Wells’ original novella), the Time Traveller leaves the present day to spend the rest of his life in the distant future, helping to rebuild the society he has helped to liberate. Before he goes, he takes with him three books from the library, and we are not told what they are. It is an open question directed at the film’s audience: what three books would you take with you?

I’d be tempted to say The Origin of Species. I’d like to get that one absolutely sorted out on day one.

Evolution is a fact. It really, really is. I can just about imagine someone who can look at the overwhelming evidence in its favour and come to some other conclusion; I wouldn’t mind meeting this person, we might talk about it over coffee and an apple danish, it’d be fun. But the existence of people who think that to acknowledge the truth of evolution is a political stance rather than an empirical one truly astonishes me.

And yet people like this do exist. There are countries when a candidate can lose an election for acknowledging that evolution is real, or that climate change is real. Fine, if the objections raised are grounded in facts – but they are not. They have become matters of personal identity, religious orthodoxy and party-political loyalty. To call attention to facts is seen as a personal attack on one’s values. And other people’s values are to be respected, however baseless they are.

What do I ask for, then, in a well-run society? That the veracity of evolution be constitutionally protected?

No. That kind of mindset would only make things worse in the long run.

And this is why, over and above The Origin of Species, I would choose another book. I would find space in my time machine for Mill’s On Liberty. Although Darwin’s book is invaluable for showing us, better than anything else, our true position in the universe, I would argue that On Liberty transcends even this in importance, because it tells us about how to react to theories like Darwin’s.

This book, written in the 1850s, is a brutal attack on anyone who wants to see an idea ­– any idea at all – as being above criticism. It says, beautifully, that the only way of arriving at the truth, or of preventing us forgetting the truths we’ve already uncovered, is by exposing it to constant criticism. Yes, feel free to have your opinions, but be prepared to fight for them. By calling on everyone to attack opinions they do not like – and to defend against attack the ones they hold dear – it casts suspicion on anyone who holds an opinion for any reason other than because they have evidence for it.

The power to criticise ideas – all ideas, held for whatever reason – and to see which ones stand and which ones fall based solely on what the arguments for and against are them are, is a necessary condition for a decent, well-constructed, compassionate society. It might even be a sufficient one.

REFERENCES

On Liberty can be found here. Don’t be put off by this man’s egregiously long sentences; his stuff is gold.

Written by The S I

October 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Ban This Blog!

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The SI recently had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of banned books at the National Library of Scotland: a fond celebration of history’s greatest tyrannical despots and holier-than-thou moral busybodies.

Everybody in a position to ban books has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and no book is ever banned because it threatens to keep things as they are. Many of the books on show had constituted a direct threat against the authorities of the day. Their suppression was a readily comprehensible stratagem in the great political game where a government’s worst enemy is the ability of its own populace to have ideas.

But what are we to think of books banned for offences that, to a ruling elite, are relatively minor? Violence, sex, swearing, or the curious notion that homosexuals are people too – whom do these things hurt?

It might well be possible to cast this in terms of the erosion of a power base; conservative parties in a democracy depend on the support of well-defined family units that must be protected at all costs. It’s certainly an idea worth investigating, because ruling that out leaves us with the horrifying alternative that people who want to ban books for our own good might actually be sincere.

In a liberal, educated democracy, the only rational response to this ­– indeed, perhaps the only possible response ­– is wild, hysterical laughter. When Australia declared that American Psycho could only be sold in plastic shrink-wrap, presumably to prevent people from being offended accidentally in the bookshop, Bret Easton Ellis said it was “adorable”. And rightly so. It’s silly, and the people who advocate it are silly.

Is there any case at all to be made for banning books for our own good? Possibly. There are some kinds of information which, if scarce, nobody benefits from their becoming widely known. How to manufacture explosives from household materials, for example, or lists of undetectable poisons. But in an interconnected world such as ours, no one book could be banned that would hide such a information completely from the public eye. It would be on the internet somewhere, and the act of censoring the internet would be a much more catastrophic blow to freedom than anything that could result from somebody clicking a hotlink.

What else could justifiably be banned? Books advocating racism, homophobia, crystal healing? No to all the above. As Chomsky said, “If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

What about books that might cause a panic in which people might actually be harmed? Perhaps, but the blame here should never really be put on the books. Maliciously screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is very wicked; but if the harm caused is really that serious, then maybe you need to look into having more fire exits.

And books that might offend us with their swearing? Don’t be fucking ridiculous.

 

REFERENCES

The exhibition was held at the National Library of Scotland, and will be open till the end of October; well worth watching.

The Chomsky quote was from the film Manufacturing Consent.

Written by The S I

October 5, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Equality and Equivalence

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We are all born free. That is one of the central tenets of liberalism: that, in the natural order of things, our default setting is absolute freedom to do whatever we want to do and to be whatever we want to be. It is essential that we make this assumption, even if it is only a theoretical ideal, because it lets us do something extraordinary: it lets us look at one person having power over another person and ask: why should that be the case?

It is the presumption of liberty that makes authority look unnatural. Authority, not freedom, is the phenomenon that needs to explain itself, justify itself. It is the corollary to being innocent until proven guilty: the burden of proof is placed firmly on the shoulders of those who would tell you what you can and cannot do.

Those thinkers who accept this presumption of liberty are called ‘liberals’ in the technical sense, but many of them are far from what I would call liberal. Hobbes, for example, recognises that freedom is natural, but that it is also dangerous; and that the best form of government is a repressive tyranny that will keep us in line. For a liberal, this is not very liberal.

A liberal liberal knows that no authority, however noble its intentions, is wise enough to govern with absolute power; and so one of the tasks of liberal philosophy is to try to find the absolute minimum standards of coercion needed to make a society function.

Take the entire spectrum of human societies that exist now or have ever existed and arrange them in a row ­– a cultural police line-up. There will be a lot of variation: there will be monarchies, democracies, theocracies, there will be oppressed minorities, there will be enslaved masses. It will be a mixed bunch, and much that we see will appal us. But we know that nobody, least of all us, knows the right way to run a country. Recognising our own fallibility, we must respect their right to develop however they choose, as long as our minimum standards are met.

What should these standards be? It is an important and immensely difficult question.

How should we feel about societies in which certain groups are excluded from certain professions ­– say, women are barred from engineering, or men barred from childcare? I personally find this a barbaric arrangement. But I do not think it is necessarily below the minimum standard. There may be some ways of setting up a society in which all participants are better off if there is some regimentation of roles.

The measure of its worth would be in the equivalence of opportunity, not in the equality. If people in dramatically unequal roles can all find an equivalent happiness within those roles, then this society cannot be objected to on liberal grounds. To presume that absolute equality is the only way of ensuring equal happiness is to claim a degree of infallibility that no liberal should feel comfortable with.

Written by The S I

September 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Enforcing Freedom

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One of the central tenets of liberalism, perhaps the central tenet, is tolerance: letting other people go about their business, as long as it doesn’t affect you. But there are limits. If you look across the courtyard and see a scene of domestic violence through the window of a neighbouring flat, should you exercise tolerance? Should you respect the rights of self-determination for the abuser and his victim? Certainly not. To do so would be a moral failure. There are some things that no good liberal should tolerate.

This, then, is the dilemma of liberalism: how far should one’s liberal principles extend to people around you? In particular, should they extend to those who do not share your enlightened values?

Imagine you live in your country alongside a religious sect that oppresses some of its members. Pick any oppression of any group you like, as long as it appals you. Say, for example, that women are treated as objects and ritualistically beaten; they are forbidden from speaking to men until their parents have married them off, and they must spend the rest of their lives veiled, mute and obedient.

Imagine that you can be born into this sect; and imagine that the penalty for apostasy is death.

Should this state of affairs be allowed to continue? As long as that last paragraph holds, I say certainly not. If this is something you can be born into and can never leave, then it is a form of imprisonment. There is can be no more fundamental human right than the freedom to escape unjustified coercion, and it is the duty of a liberal society to facilitate this escape in others.

So a government can, I believe, justifiably enact laws that break down these barriers to freedom.

Imagine now that the death penalty for apostasy has been abolished. Anybody who feels oppressed and wants to leave the sect is now free to do so.

Imagine that there are some who choose not to. The women decide they prefer their traditional roles. They continue to be covered from head to toe. They remain ignorant of men and sex. And they continue to be beaten. They have chosen to remain oppressed.

Here we enter tricky ground. These women are oppressed, but since they are legally entitled to leave, is it wrong to do more? Should we respect their choice to remain enslaved? Or should we, essentially, force them to be free?

Ultimately, their choice must be respected; but it’s important to recognise that there are mental barriers to freedom as well as legal ones, and choice is only really choice when it’s an informed choice. You cannot force people to be free and should not try. But you can enforce awareness of the available options, by breaking down censorship and insularity, and by demanding good standards of education.

If, having been exposed to pros and cons of other ways of living, they go back to their traditional lives, so be it. It should be the duty of liberal societies everywhere to give people that option.

REFERENCES

The SEP’s entry on liberalism is well worth a read, particularly section 4, which poses the question to which this essay is my attempt at an answer.

Written by The S I

September 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

A Common Tragedy

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The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when a number of people using a finite resource realise that they each stand to gain from taking more than their fair share. You know everybody else benefits from taking more, so that’s probably what they are doing; the more likely they are to be taking more, the more sense it makes for you to take more. And since everybody knows that it makes sense for you to take more… and so on, until the resource is depleted.

Fishers often know that their overfishing will lead to extinction of certain species of fish, and farmers often know that overfarming will leave the land infertile; but cessation is simply not feasible for them as individuals competition.

In a way the problem of short-term benefits outweighing long-term disadvantages resembles addiction. An chocoholic knows chocolate will make him fat; but it’s just too tasty to say no to! His willpower isn’t strong enough.

But our chocoholic friend has an option: he can employ a willpower-assisting strategy. He might not feel he needs chocolate just now, but can imagine a future point when the craving really sets in, when his willpower won’t be enough. So he acts now, while he can, and flushes the chocolate down the toilet, removing the temptation in advance. He enacts policy that anticipates future temptations. Sometimes people entrust this to others. “Don’t bring me any chocolate, I’ll only end up eating it.”

This is one solution to the Tragedy of the Commons. The consumers make a pact: they all agree to how much they can safely extract from the resource, and agree to be punished if they take more, even if ­– especially if ­– it later becomes profitable in the short term to do so. This leads to the creation of national parks, protected areas, one-child policies, fishing quotas and so on.

This kind of contract exploits a very human difference in our valuation of rewards depending on how far away in the future they are. Agreeing to protect a resource is easy when the resource is plentiful.

The trouble is that a sufficiently plentiful resource might not even be seen as a resource. What value do you place, for example, on air? Not much, until you start to see it polluted.

There was a time when the Earth was seen by most people as an infinite source and an infinite sink. Why regulate things that will never run out? It is only after we realise that something is in danger that it makes sense to protect it ­– but if the realisation comes late, and we see that the resource is actually scarce, then the short-term benefits of looting it faster than the other fella become very real to us indeed.

There is a time window between thinking something too free to regulate and thinking it too precious to regulate, and the window is often narrow. What have we missed it for? And what do we still have time to protect from our future, greedier selves?

REFERENCES

This was written on a train having just finished The Logic of Life by Tim Harford, and with Dennett’s Freedom Evolves fresh in memory. Both very worth reading.

Written by The S I

August 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Online University

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The funding of universities is a real problem. Here is a potential solution: get rid of them altogether.

Why not put universities online?

Consider a new model. A student applying for a university course receives a username and password that gives her access to videos of lectures. These can be downloaded and watched from home. It’s cheap, because they only have to be recorded once; academics can focus on research having been freed from teaching schedules, apart from marking papers e-mailed in by students and doing occasional tutorial sessions, in groups, via webcam. For hard science degrees that require specialised equipment, students allotted slots in laboratories: they take four weeks a year out of the usual schedule of video lectures, travel to a lab building with dedicated on-site accommodation, and do an intensive course that gives the whole year’s lab work for a year. These can run throughout the year.

The whole thing would be extremely cheap, and paid for directly by students, either by a loan or having a part-time job. You wouldn’t even have to move out of your parents’ place. Importantly, it empowers students by putting them in charge of their own futures.

As an economic plan, it’s tempting.

As a social plan, it would be catastrophic.

The worst thing you could do to a field of study is to isolate it from other fields. What you can imagine depends on what you know (Dennett, again), and if all you know is what you’ve been taught in lectures then there is only so far you can go. A personal example: my specialism is organic chemistry, but I am analysing it with techniques I only know about through my contact with linguists and computer scientists. If I had never met these people, had never mixed with them, drunkenly stolen the occasional traffic cone with them, these ideas would never have occurred to me.

Furthermore, anyone who’s been through university will tell you that the most important things they learned did not come from lectures: they came from each other, from contact with other students. This contact requires geographical concentration of students as much as it requires them moving out of their parents’ protection. If students are to be exposed to one another’s new ways of thinking, they will need dedicated space, time and freedom in which to interact. This is what taught-at-home universities would lack. The result, if they became commonplace, would disastrous both for the students themselves, and for the society that hopes to benefit from them.

But while I think it would be disastrous, I fear it may also be inevitable. Commoditisation is always a risk of liberalism. Students increasingly see themselves as consumers rather than apprentices, and increasingly think of degrees as ends to be reached, rather than things to pass through on the way to further wisdom.

It’s a worrying trend. But how can we reverse it without radically altering our idea of freedom?

Written by The S I

July 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

None Of The Above

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There are two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, the freedom from oppression; and positive freedom, the freedom to achieve one’s potential.*

A caveman wandering alone is, in the negative sense, as free as he could possibly be. But although nobody is around to tell him what to do, this does not mean he is able to do anything. He is not free to fly faster than the speed of sound in an aeroplane. He is not free to listen to an orchestra. He is not free to look at distant galaxies through a telescope. And if he falls and breaks his leg, he is free only to starve to death in agony.

To do these things he will have to cooperate with others, and this means losing the right to act however he likes. He accepts a certain amount of control over his life by others, in order to do things he would not otherwise be able to do. Having a life expectancy greater than twenty-five is probably worth not being able to butcher any other caveman you meet.

This is why humans formed societies: to allow them to achieve things in groups that they could not do alone. Not all these personal positive-freedom dreams are equally attainable; nor are they mutually compatible. It is the role of government to facilitate the achievement of our potential, whether this is our potential to learn to read, our potential to survive a treatable illness regardless of our economic background, or our potential to investigate the inner workings of the universe.

I am not saying that we should prostrate ourselves at the mercy of our superiors and allow them to grant us wishes. The freedom to declare oneself one’s own boss and say hang the consequences is valuable even for its own sake. But acknowledging that we are surrendering some freedoms to achieve others allows us to think of what we should reasonably expect for what we have traded in – and what inequalities in society we should think of as failures of that society.

Of course this social-contract model of society is just a fiction, a convenient way of justifying why there needs to be a government. But in fact none of us was ever asked. We are born into our societies; which one we end up in is largely dependent on where our mother’s uterus happens to be at the time, which is hardly the best way of making any important decision. And while migration does allow us some market freedom, this increasingly owned planet is offering us fewer and fewer chances of ticking the box marked ‘none of the above’.

When governments don’t give us value for money ­– positive freedom for negative freedom, opportunity for rules – we can’t take our custom elsewhere. We have to demand some changes.

 

* See Isaiah Berlin. The words negative and positive do not correspond here with bad and good; they’re just names.

Written by The S I

July 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm