Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Inflatable Fun Time

On Comment is Free yesterday, Roy Hattersley wrote about liberty and the "out-of-date" views of John Stuart Mill. Describing Mill's view of liberty, Hattersley wrote:
The first principle asserts that "all errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good". Only cranks believe that now. If it were a generally held view, we would not prohibit the use of recreational drugs or require passengers in the back seats of motor cars to wear safety belts.

I was a member of the cabinet that first discussed the desirability of making back-seat safety belts compulsory. Millite ministers initially objected. They were reconciled to the "infraction of liberty" by the argument that a passenger flying through the windscreen might injure the pedestrian whose life had initially been saved by the emergency stop. And Mill's second precept makes a distinction between "the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others". In short, we are free to damage ourselves but are not at liberty to behave in a way that harms other people.
Roy appears to be getting rather confused in his dotage. He's used Mill's second precept to argue against his first in a bizarre attempt to do something or other. In truth, compulsory seat belts for rear seat passengers protects the safety of those in the front seats, a position entirely consistent with Mill's views on liberty. It is true that the distinction between self-harm and harm to society is more difficult to draw in today's world - who pays the bills for the emergency services when an impoverished libertarian accidentally crashes into a tree at 120mph at 3am on an empty road and has to be cut from the mangled remains of his vehicle and fed through a tube for the rest of his life? - but that does not negate Mill's basic principles.

Nevertheless, the conviction underpinning Roy's position, that in an interdependent society the State must place limits on personal liberty, does have some validity. It is how we act on this that matters. In this country, we have newspapers from opposing ends of the traditional political spectrum (I'm thinking the Daily Mail and the Guardian) constantly telling us of the need to place controls on the great unwashed for their own good and for that of society. Likewise with politicians. What's missing from the debate, it seems to me, is any real consideration as to what this sort of attitude does to our notion of personal responsibility.

Here's a little incident which will hopefully encapsulate what I'm getting at. It doesn't concern the State but does say something about British attitudes towards freedom and responsibility. (Warning: conclusions may contain some generalisations.)

For the last two weeks, we played host to a Dutch family with four children aged eight to fifteen. The whole family loves swimming so we arranged to visit the local swimming pool one morning during one of their "Inflatable Fun Time" sessions. This, it turns out, was something of a misnomer. To set the scene, there were about thirty people swimming and five supervisors/life guards. It's a 25m pool and two thirds had been roped off for the one large inflatable; swimming and mucking about (within reason) was only allowed in the shallow third. Access to the inflatable was controlled by one of the guards - one at a time please - and when one person fell off - swim to the left only please, the left only, quickly please - the next person was allowed on. The Dutch father was whistled at twice within the first three minutes. He then politely asked one of the guards if they might explain exactly what he was allowed to do to save any further confusion.

My Dutch friends were absolutely astonished by all of this and ended up rather enjoying the absurdity of it all. On the way out, the eldest daughter filled in a Comment Form stating that "you weren't allowed to do anything". That was inflatable fun time, British style.

Later that day, to much wonderment, I explained what Aberdeen city centre is like on a Friday or Saturday night. In the Netherlands, they live in a city of pretty much exactly the same size but of an entirely different character. Sure, it has problems, but nothing like the drink fuelled mayhem which descends on British towns and cities at the weekends.

Why that's the case is all about our two societies' very different attitudes to freedom and responsibility. In the Netherlands children are taught about freedom and responsibility from an early age and encouraged to demonstrate their understanding at every opportunity. They are not distrusted and controlled by authority at every turn. As such, they are much better able to handle the transition from child to adult than those nannied to distraction by the British system.

The freedom they learn about is not the freedom of the "cult of the individual"; The distinction Mill drew between "the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others" is fundamental. Parents seek to teach their children that for a society to be truly free, each person must respect the rights of others and understand the impact of their actions on those around them. This philosophy creates not a nation of selfish "me first" individuals but a genuine feeling of society, a society where people believe in people.

To create such a society in this country would obviously require an enormous sea change in attitudes. For a start, Dutch people don't have the same rabidly scaremongering tabloids constantly telling them how dangerous everyone and everything is. (Our Dutch family's reaction to the Sun "newspaper" and to the news that it's the highest selling paper in Britain was something to behold.) In Britain, our faith in the ability of people to safely think for themselves and take decisions for themselves is under constant attack. Given the way we treat each other, it has now become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The question is, can we break the chain and if so, how?

1 comment:

Chris said...

Poor old Roy is getting hammer on this from all over the intertubes. Here's a professional Victorianist's smackdown.

Shame, really. He used to write about stuff he understood.