06 February 2011

Alain de Botton On Liberty

Over at the BBC, Alain de Botton has a point of view piece entitled "In defence of the nanny state"

Alarm bells started ringing at the start of the article when he offered the strange opinion that:
Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology.
At the outset, he gives the impression that he's working with an unconventional definition of what a libertarian ideology is.  Throughout the article, there are other indications that it is the case.  Take, for instance, this section:
All this concern with freedom can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who in his famous book, On Liberty of 1859, explained: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any ridiculous member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."
In this scheme, the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members. The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism...
The conclusion is flawed because the argument conflates the use of power to effect change and the use of comment and criticism to effect change.  Liberty requires that the use of the former be constrained, but not the latter.

As a simple example, if I say that the argument Alain de Botton put forward in those two paragraphs is logically flawed, I am not infringing his liberty by offering that comment or criticism.  On the other hand, if I say that, because I believe the argument is flawed, somebody should exercise power to forcibly prevent Alain de Botton from expressing it, I am suggesting something which would infringe his liberty.

There are also some sections which attribute, to libertarianism, opinions which are held far more widely, such as this section, contrasting religious codes with what is claimed to be a libertarian approach:
In secular society, by the libertarian's reckoning, a firm line should divide conduct that is subject to law from conduct that is subject to personal morality. Thus, the stealing of an ox is a matter to be investigated by a police officer, whereas not having enough sex with your wife if you're a camel driver is not.
I would agree that a libertarian generally wouldn't generally believe that you should be able to get the police involved because your other half isn't putting out.  However, I don't think that's a belief which is particularly restricted to libertarians.  I think you'd struggle to find many people who think that is a purpose the police should serve.

It is, however, the false equivocation of the use of persuasion and the use of force which seems to cause most of the confusion:
A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would accept that our freedom is best guaranteed by an entirely neutral public space. It would judge that it was no assault on liberty to deprive us of all advertisements in fields, city streets, taxis, websites, phone booths, tube stations, dentists waiting rooms, airport concourses or Hollywood films.
By most broadly accepted definitions, freedom of expression is compatible with liberty, while the use of force to restrict freedom of expression isn't, yet this assumes the complete opposite to be true.

There is one section where the generally accepted meaning of liberty is acknowledged:
In a society that took seriously our laziness about being nice, an occasional paternalistic reminder would not necessarily constitute an infringement of our "liberty" as that term should be properly understood.
Yes, that's the way it should be understood and generally, it is.  It's certainly compatible with the position taken by John Stuart Mill, which was quoted at the start.

The article wraps-up with a piece of "heads I win, tails you lose" reasoning.
It is perhaps in the end a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously to sometimes being treated like a child
So, if you believe that you need to be treated like a child by a paternalist state, then you should be.  On the other hand, if you object to being treated like a child, then you are obviously immature and need to be told what to do by a paternalist state.  Either way, the conclusion is the same.

As well as a general disdain for the idea that one group of people should have the right to force people to behave in a certain way, because they believe that they are somehow superior and know better, I dislike the the way the approach is compared to parenting.  It is an approach which has nothing in common with real parenting, where the only reasonable objective is to take somebody from being a completely dependent new-born to being a competent, capable, independent adult.

If a libertarian were to be put in the position of being the parent to society, I imagine they'd do what a real parent worthy of the name would do - encourage people to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own actions, not foster an ongoing sense of dependence.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Alarm bells started ringing me with me when I read Alain de Botton (WTF do we use French titles like "de"? I refuse to use things like "Dr" "Lord" or "O'" in an Irish context wherever possible) and 'In defence of the nanny state' means that the rest of the article would merely serve to wind me up rotten.

Rational Anarchist said...

The sad thing is that if we learn to stand on our own two feet and get by without the nannying, or realise that we don't need the state to coddle and "look after" us, what point is there in most of government?

Politicians have a vested interest in keeping the role of government as big as possible so that they have as much power as possible - for this reason, I find it depressingly unlikely that we'll have a proper libertarian government any time soon :S

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