03 November 2008

Totalitarian Democrats

The Libertarian Party recently ran a campaign to get people to send a copy of 1984 to their MP, with the covering note telling them that the book is not an instruction manual. One Labour MP, Tom Harris, received his book and proceeded to voice his disdain at the idea that the country is proceeding along Orwellian lines. Some of his comments were extremely informative, for example:

We live in a democracy, and just because those - including my anonymous benefactor - who get excited about such things are unhappy that Labour is in power, that does not make us anything other than a democracy. And democratically-elected governments govern with the consent of the people. Yes, even this one!

Personally, my concern isn’t that Labour are in power (I don’t have any party political affiliation), I’m concerned that the position they are in allows them to exert so much control over the public and I’d feel that way irrespective of who formed the government.

Harris’s comment illustrates perfectly the problem with a lot of politicians; they can’t see the difference between democracy and totalitarianism. To people like Tom Harris, the fact that a government has been elected should give it carte blanche to do whatever it likes and enable it to rebut any questioning of the legitimacy of its actions by parroting the fact it was elected. Hitler was elected into power; it didn’t justify his actions.

With democracy, you’ve got two basic choices, you either have a liberal democracy, where the government is limited to making decisions in a way that they do not infringe on the basic freedoms of the individual, or you have totalitarian democracy (the tyranny of the majority) where the government is free to do whatever it likes and the individual has no freedom beyond what the government chooses to give him or her. I don’t think people like Tom Harris have actively chosen to be totalitarian democrats, I just think they are unaware that there are other interpretations of what democracy means.

Claiming that governments govern with the consent of the people is a meaningless platitude unless people are free to withdraw their consent, which doesn’t mean just replacing the government with another group wearing different coloured rosettes. That isn’t on the table in the UK, so politicians should acknowledge that they aren’t governing by consent, they are governing by force. As the saying goes, no matter who you vote for, the government always wins.

In attempting to justify the rafts of supposedly anti-terrorist legislation, Tom Harris says:

I genuinely believe - rightly or wrongly - that Islamism (as opposed to Islam) represents the greatest and deadliest threat to our society.

Whatever threat is posed by Islamism, it must pale in to insignificance when compared to the threat presented by governments. Even the briefest examination of a history book shows that the most evil acts throughout history have been carried out by governments. Governments have the advantage of size, but even more than that, they are able to fall back on the idea that they represent “the people” and therefore, whatever they do is morally right. Wars of aggression, genocide and numerous other acts which, if carried out by individuals or independent groups would be considered monstrous, are treated as something justifiable when carried out by governments, as they are representing “the people” and if “the people” are doing it, it must be right. In the eyes of the totalitarian democrat, to say otherwise is undemocratic.

If any group of people needs to have its activities restricted to reduce its threat to society, it is the government.

Perhaps Tom Harris’s most cringe worthy comment through the thread is:

As a Member of Parliament, I feel I should place the safety and security of my constituents and fellow citizens above every other consideration.

Their safety and security should obviously be one of his considerations, but to suggest that in all circumstances it should override everything else is idiotic.

Pursue that line of thought and you’d ban all cars, motorbikes and pedal cycles for a start, because the safety issues would override the benefits of being able to travel. You’d also ban all means of communication to eradicate the risk of the medium being used to plan a hazardous act.

Eventually, that train of thought would lead you to conclude that we should all be blind-folded, gagged, hand-cuffed and locked in padded rooms, to be released to work on chain gangs controlled by MPs, in order to keep the risks we face to the bare minimum.

No rational MP should view safety and security as their overriding concerns. Freedom, independence and the ability to seek out enjoyment have to be considered too, even if they sometimes conflict with the course of action which would maximise safety and security. I think the words of Benjamin Franklin are as relevant here as they were over two hundred years ago:

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

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