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On fear and risk

I haven’t had a rant/sermon in a while.

My parents’ generation went through the second world war, fighting tyrants and ideologies that sought to control our everyday lives; for which reason they are sometimes called “the best generation”. Their parents’ generation fought world war one and went through the Depression. The generation I am the tail end of, the Baby Boomers, fought in Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. Despite all this threat and challenge, liberty increased – by the early 1970s, there was an assumption that one had the right to behave in any way that didn’t harm another person, and that the law would eventually catch up. The right to free speech in countries that didn’t have it was increasingly taken, not asked for, and in countries that did, it was applied in ways that broke the comfortable conventions of the past.

What happened? In the past 30 years we have watched rights disappear under fear – fear of communism, fear of “moral decay”, fear of drugs, and now fear of terrorism. Our ersatz wars against these fearsome things has slowly eroded our rights – we are surveilled everywhere we go, we are prohibited from certain kinds of speech, and we are now inhibited in our movement across borders. In effect, as the old Soviet republics have become more open, the open world has become more Soviet. “Think of the children” justifies any restriction that makes the effects of these fears look trivial by comparison.

It’s about time we manned up. If our forebears can cope with risk and danger, and still be free, why can’t we? One in a hundred million are harmed by terrorist attacks, and we do exactly what the terrorists would like, and retreat from the modernism of free society and religious and political and economic choice across the board. Now we have democratic societies with warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention without charge or legal redress, and my own country is about to implement censorship of the internet, without any oversight by judicial or public scrutiny! And both major parties accept this!

It seems to me that we are in a similar situation to the Roman Republic. Under threat emergency laws were passed that made the tribune Julius Caesar dictator (the term meant one who rules by dictate, and accrued its later sense in virtue of what dictators did with those powers). Julius, of course, said that he would lay these powers aside when the emergency was over. Five hundred years later the Roman Empire, still with these powers intact, slowly collapsed from external causes. The emergency never was over, and in the meantime, citizens suffered through what amounted to a very long fascist state.

Is it that we can no longer evaluate risk? People worry more about air travel because of crashes when just getting into a car to go to the shops is more dangerous than a year’s air travel. But with the experience of a minuscule amount of terror events, relative to our air travel, we have given up on rapid and efficient transport. We can’t take fluids on an aircraft in case someone figures out how to cause an explosion with fluids that so far we have not seen any evidence of terrorists having. We now take three hours to get on a plane, and if somebody shouts at an air attendant – which is to say, if someone is a dick, and there are a proportion of dicks in any large sample of humans – planes will be diverted at great cost and confusion.

In short, we are cowards, and as cowards often do, we are giving up our best assets and rights. The terrorists don’t need to win; we can lose all by ourselves.

Look, there has always been something like terror in the world; anarchists, liberationists of various stripes, revolutionaries, and of course just plain criminals, like the ones that explode bombs among the general population because they have some grievance with the world. And yet, we had liberties for a while, which we gained while terror was around. How did we deal with it? We used the law, and good old police work. You cannot stop terror from occurring all the time, but you can reduce it to the level of danger one gets playing football.

Instead, we have adopted useless ineffective and costly measures that only look good, so we can deal with out fears. We can feel comfortable knowing that the national intelligence services are listening to those terrorists, while pretending not to know that they are going instead to listen in on you if you have any kind of view the authorities do not like. Warrantless wiretaps by the FBI and other agencies after 9/11 went rogue immediately, and that’s only what we do know. In Australia, moves to make the internet self-censor under law according to an undisclosed, unsupervised, list drawn up by public servants at the behest of the government of the day stands to make Australian access to information something that happens at the whim of the politicians. Now where has that worked well in the past, I wonder?

The thing about cowards is that by being scared to risk anything, they risk everything at the hands of those who are less scrupulous and apprehensive. As the old rhyme had it:

The rain it falls on the just and unjust feller
But chiefly on the just because
The unjust stole the just’s umbrella

Substitute “cowardly” for “just” and “ruthless” for unjust, and you see how things will go.

What to do? Well there is only one way to prevent this – stand up for freedoms against the unrelenting desire of the bureaucracy and politicians to take control. Allow rights to those you do not like so that you may have rights too. And when something, like child pornography or terror, threatens the civil order, use legal and effective policing methods to halt it and reverse it. And realise that you cannot have a risk-free world.


  1. dave souza dave souza

    Ah, but we have new freedoms. Since 2000 the gradual implementation of the Freedom of Information Act has given people in the UK the freedom to get information on demand from authorities. And we have an Information Commissioner to ensure that this new freedom isn’t thwarted.

    As shown recently, when hacked emails exposed University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit scientists sending private messages to each other about demands that they release private emails to a retired engineer. The Information Commissioner’s Office, having previously stated that deleting information is a criminal act under the FOI law, has announced, without consulting the university, that the emails show that the university has broken the law, but there will not be a prosecution as the law has a 6 month limitation period. No trial, no chance to clear their name, the reputation of scientists has been blackened by the supreme Commissioner. How unlike those nasty totalitarian regimes of the past.

  2. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

    In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power with private conduct; not so much from any just regard for the independence of the individual, as from the still subsisting habit of looking on the government as representing an opposite interest to the public. The majority have not yet learnt to feel the power of the government their power, or its opinions their opinions. When they do so, individual liberty will probably be as much exposed to invasion from the government, as it already is from public opinion.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Oops, left out attribution, not that I probably need to cite it: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

  4. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    …just another wee example – our wonderful PM here in Canada has just appointed 5 new senators (don’t ask!) who are not only party stalwarts but more importantly (apparently, according to our MSM) known to be “Tough On Crime”. It’s not just terror we’re afraid of, it’s our own shadows.

  5. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    Is what we’re experiencing all that different than what happened in the late Roman Republic, when the Plebs basically began surrendering their liberties to charismatic leaders like Julius Caesar, ultimately leading to Octavian’s seizure of power and the formation of the Empire?

    Maybe we’re seeing it all over again.

  6. Interpreting the Roman Revolution as a revolt of the plebs is pretty far fetched though it has a long history, especially among German conservatives: Max Weber used to accuse Bismark of being a later-day Caesar because of his social legislation and expansion of the franchise. I favor a different narrative framework: selfish and short-sighted magnates were tearing the empire apart in their endless quest for personal power and wealth. The class of people who eventually gave up some of their liberties–really of their prerogatives–to Caesar and then his nephew weren’t plebs; they were Senatorial aristocrats who decided it was better to have a master than to lose their social status. Roman politicians all cultivated the mob for tactical advantage from time to time just as our oligarchs play the populist card when it suits ’em, but nobody then and practically nobody now gives a damn about the People when they don’t need to gin up a riot.

  7. bob koepp bob koepp

    I agree with John that our society is cowardly, and ceding important liberties without much resistance. But I wouldn’t lump anarchists, liberationists of various stripes and revolutionaries with plain criminals, or even the “special sort” of criminals sitting in congress.

    I like the analogy to classical Rome. The criminal classes there used bread and circuses to sate the plebs so they would be less inclined to assert their rights. We’ve become much more sophisticated. Now we have regularly scheduled “electoral contests” to reinforce the plebian fantasy of of rule of, by and for the people.

  8. The cowards that we’ve become? I blame the conservatives who, if I read the psych blogs correctly, is part of being conservative — fear. Fear of change. Fear of lack of control. Fear of having to compete. Fear of equality. Fear of, well, pretty much everything…

    Looking at the conservatives in my family, vis the fear-factor, I can’t rebut those psych blogs either…

  9. Well said, John. I totally agree with the recommendation of “speak up” and allow the same rights to your opponents. In particular, I want freedom of speech for people whom I don’t agree with or like.

  10. Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

    What you have to watch out for is the hidden intended consequences.

    Tracking your travel.
    Tracking how you spend your money
    Making lots of new laws, all for our own good, that’ll turn most people into criminals (roughly 3,000/year in the UK)
    Making it an offence to photograph police, secret service people, in certain unspecified areas (well specified by the local chief constable)
    No right to sue for wrongful arrest in many cases
    Passing legislation that is enabling, enables the minister to make up new laws or extend existing by fiat.

    It goes on and on.

    We aren’t sleep walking into a police state, we’ve arrived.

  11. jeb jeb

    I came across this interesting piece on how googles recent hacking problem my have in effected been aided by automated law enforcement tracking systems in place at most major ISPs and web companies.

    The software google has in place to monitor users may have aided the hackers with there attack vector. Even if this is not the case the software in place would still seem to pose problems.

    Basicaly if you hack into the tracking system you don’t have to do anything else as you have a back door pass to large amounts of information.

    At the very least systems designed to aid law enforcement for which the argument is made that they are in place to ensure our wellbeing
    may pose a very grave security risk in-themselves.

  12. jeb jeb

    “Not everyone is as well-fortified against human-made ill fortune as I am. Still, I implore you to do whatever you can”

    I liked the honesty of that. I think my bank balance testifies to the dangers of speaking up when you percieve something to be wrong.

    So what.

    I draft my first formal question to a minister soon. Take a more active involvement
    in trying to change problems of exclusion in the education system than I ever have.

    I want people to have a voice who have not had the privalge before and a see this as a means of achieving that aim.

    It brings it’s own rewards.

  13. jeb jeb

    under heavy manners

  14. There are few things that make me more angry than Americans who smugly call themselves “libertarian” because they hate taxes argue that public library computers should be forced to install filtering software to keep teh porn (and using the keyword filtering systems usually sold any sort of information about sex) away from the kids.

    They scream and cry over the dangers of “the nanny state” because of motorcycle and helmet laws, and food labeling laws, and such; but when the public librarians went to court to sue to prevent the installation of such filtering software which did impede on free access to information, the so-called “libertarians” referred to the librarians as pornographers who actively wanted to display and promote filth.

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