February 2, 2009


Not my kind of freedom: Is there a risk that in pursuing its liberty agenda, the left is drifting into a dangerous brand of libertarianism? (Conor Gearty, 2/02/09, guardian.co.uk)

Is there a risk that in pursuing its strong liberty agenda, the left is now also drifting into a dangerously similar brand of libertarianism? Of course there is much to be concerned about in recent state actions on a whole range of topics: extended police powers with regard to anti-terrorism; the growth of a "surveillance society" as some would describe it, with CCTV cameras on the streets and databases attached to our phones and computers. There are two recent developments in particular that for many symbolise the drift towards unacceptable state power that they say needs now, in the name of liberty, to be resisted. These are the development of a compulsory British identity card and the building up of an increasingly comprehensive DNA database.

It is clear that there are many practical objections to each of these, related to the integrity of the technology, the sufficiency of the safeguards against abuse, and so on. But should our objections to each also be rooted in principle? The emerging left/liberal libertarian position seems to be that the answer to this question should be a resounding yes, that a proper commitment to liberty demands that – without further discussion – we should have neither identity cards nor a wideranging DNA database. But why is this automatically the right point of view to take? Why are passports and modern car licenses OK if an identity card is not? What exactly is the nature of our privacy interest in our individual DNA? Where do the rights of those who are entitled to protection from crime (ie the community as a whole) fit in all this, especially vulnerable sections of it (victims of sexual violence, for example)? Why does liberty require us as a matter of principle to deny the police a tool to catch their attackers?

There are two strands to the concept of liberty which are in opposition here. One is the libertarianism we have just been discussing, the "Englishman's home is his castle" school of thought. The other is the position of the civil libertarian who sees the freedom of protest as essential to the proper running of our democratic state because he or she ultimately believes in the power of the state to do good.

To the contrary, they defend the latter because they are alienated from everything but themselves, which is why those who theoretically believe in dissent also insist on political correctness. It's their aberrence they're guarding.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 2, 2009 2:02 PM
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