Tuesday, 8 February 2011

On regulation

I’ve always liked the philosophy of shared space, which "removes the traditional segregation of motor vehicles, pedestrians and other road users. Conventional road priority management systems and devices such as kerbs, lines, signs and signals are replaced with an integrated, people-oriented understanding of public space, such that walking, cycling, shopping and driving cars become integrated activities."

This is the part in which I’m particularly interested:

Accident figures at one junction where traffic lights were removed have dropped from thirty-six in the four years prior to the introduction of the scheme to two in the two years following it.

And I can understand why, from the rare occasions when our local traffic lights stop working: everyone’s a lot slower and more careful because they’ve got to think about their own safety.

In the UK our lives are officially regulated in many ways now. We’ve even got traffic light warnings on some of our food! As well as the bewildering array of street signs and traffic management schemes, we’re constantly bombarded with state sponsored regulation in the fields of health and safety, childcare, fuel usage and the nature of our many interactions with bureaucracy.

Which brings me to this article by Swiss multi-millionaire and philosophical writer Alain de Botton:

In Defence of the Nanny State

- which conversely complains that: "Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology," and cites the root cause of this, for example, in the famous John Stuart Mill quote:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any 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."

De Botton compares our modern secular society, cluttered as it is by advertisements "nudging" us to buy, with the more traditional and religious societies - pitied by the West for being compelled to live by stricter codes of conduct. He suggests:

A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would accept that our freedom is best guaranteed by an entirely neutral public space.

- although he fails to observe that the banning of advertisements itself would be a severely anti-libertarian stance, before going on to propose similar ‘remedies’, all of which would involve the imposition of more central decrees!

Like the proponents of ever more traffic regulation, he seems to work on the basis that people are inherently stupid, uncritical beings ("If we tend to think so often about eating crisps and buying cars, but relatively little about being nice or just, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of Saatchi and Saatchi.") which, although I can appreciate the elegance of the argument, completely fails to take into account the phenomena of such a dramatic drop in the rate of accidents in ‘shared space’ towns.

The more we’re told what to do, the less we think for ourselves.

The author then goes on to make the case for increased paternalistic authority in our lives, on the apparent grounds that it’s good for us, and that we prefer it really.

In the modern world, there is so much that we would like to do but never end up doing, there are so many ways of behaving that we subscribe to in our hearts but ignore in our day-to-day lives. And perhaps most significantly, there are so few people around us who dare to exhort us to act well.

To which I would venture to say: "Speak for yourself," on both counts – with true appreciation of our collective remaining freedom to do so. And while I might share his concern that day-to-day modern life is perhaps too bustling, cut-throat and commercialised to engender the calm and measured state of mind that invariably leads to considerate behaviour between people, I’d prefer to look more deeply for its cause than "our original childhood need for constraint endur[ing] within us."

Mr de Botton’s father, from whom – according to his Wikipedia page – he inherited his millions, was a former president of Rothschilds in New York. His stepmother’s family founded Great Universal Stores, the corporation which now owns Argos and the Experian credit management company. None of which is his fault, of course, but I personally would cite some of those names as possible causes of any modern behavioural malaise – certainly for contributing to the proliferation of advertising! – before the "laziness" of ordinary people "about being nice".

I think the article’s last paragraph in particular warrants a full examination:

It is perhaps in the end a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously to sometimes being treated like a child.

I’ve read this through several times and it still doesn’t make any sense. If we complain about being treated like children, we’re being childish? Given the author’s background and position I can only wonder at his motives for suggesting this. Put it this way: I doubt that anyone will ever dare to treat him like a child, unless they’ve been specifically instructed by him to do so.

Why does the idea of a nanny state always have to be so terrifying?

Because some of us have been brought up according to limiting and constraining rules about obedience that were at one time necessary for the survival of the lower and middle classes, but thankfully – in most cases – no longer are? Having seen what paternalistic authority did to the lives of our parents and grandparents, having spied a chink of light in the cage door, our generation made a break for intellectual freedom. And – speaking for myself – we’re not giving it back!

The libertarian obsession with freedom ignores how much of our original childhood need for constraint endures within us,

There is absolutely no ‘original childhood need for constraint’ enduring in me! What kind of constraint are we talking about here? The physical, swaddling clothes, reins and playpens that are now completely absent from the lives of our own children, thank goodness? Or the more verbal “DO AS YOU ARE TOLD, FIRST TIME OF ASKING! DO NOT ASK ‘WHY’!” style of constraint that was deafeningly thundered at me on a regular basis and of which I am unspeakably glad to be rid now, having had no need of it at any time. I like to think that parents in those days knew no better than to unthinkingly pass on the parenting style that had been inflicted on themselves. In these enlightened days there can be no such excuses.

and therefore how much we stand to learn from certain paternalistic strategies.

That the freedom of the people can, perhaps, be terrifying for the ruling classes in some circumstances?

It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

We reap what we sow. We take responsibility for our own decisions. We grow up. Being left alone to do entirely as one pleases is breathtakingly fun, phenomenally freeing and invariably beneficial to communities.


Blogger Gill said...

Lisa's post about this written at almost the same time, by the looks of things!

8 February 2011 at 15:13  
Blogger sunnymama said...

Both yours and Lisa's posts are great! You may have seen them already but thought you might like the videos about traffic lights here: http://theuklibertarian.com/2010/10/13/abolish-traffic-lights/

8 February 2011 at 20:49  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks, Sunnymama :)

9 February 2011 at 04:57  
Blogger Alex said...

Very interesting critique Gill. Although his opinions seem rather extreme, I can see where some of it comes from. You've made me think again about how we are trying to get J to listen to what we are saying to her before "this is the last time".

17 February 2011 at 22:38  
Blogger Gill said...

That's funny Alex, because the way you two lovingly and gently discipline your children has done more to moderate my opinions on this subject than anything else in the past few years! You'd have to crank up the volume about 10x and add a few sadistic snarls backed up with physical abuse to come close to my childhood experiences. Worlds apart!

18 February 2011 at 02:03  

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