AC Grayling: How we forgot the true value of freedom - until we lost it

An urge to proscribe has taken hold, and the consequences for society should alarm us all
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The Independent Online

Governments that remain in power too long follow an inevitable pattern: they begin to run out of ideas, and fill the resulting void with silly ideas. They also find themselves given to tokenism, pretending to be Doing Something by passing laws that are ill-defined, so either unworkable or likely to backfire. This dismal eventuality has been coming to pass with our own Government for some time, and one of the chief features of the process is the accumulating legislation that encroaches on the personal liberty of individuals.

Not everything the Government has done in this respect is bad. Arguably, what many critics think is an egregious example of government meddling in private life, namely the ban on smoking in public spaces, is precisely not such an example. The ban was introduced by a free vote in Parliament and, far from outlawing smoking itself (which would indeed be a violation of personal freedom), it protects the increasing numbers of non-smokers from inhaling second-hand cigarette fumes which, after all, consist of alveolus-damaging particulates, including microbes and viruses, which adhere to the moist contents of other people's lungs.

The areas where legislation encroaches on personal freedom are thought, speech and privacy. The first two are compromised by the Incitement to Religious Hatred provision, the latter is deeply violated by the ID card proposal. Privacy is not just a matter of being left to get on with one's eccentricities behind one's own curtains. It is about each person having a space that he controls around himself - personal information that is no one's business - and around those (doctor, bank manager, psychoanalyst) to whom he chooses to divulge part of it.

The ID card scheme proposes to put everything that can be known about you on to a central computer, to be summoned on to a screen by government and policing agencies as they require. When the phrase "a man's home is his castle" meant something, it included this wider margin of privacy. The ID card scheme tramples down the walls of that castle with big, policeman's boots and no by-your-leave. We tend to forget the value of things until they are lost, and personal freedom is a case in point. As we enter the zone long occupied by people in states governed by much more controlling, interventive and authoritarian regimes, we will come to think with regret of the principle we once thought we lived by, the principle of individual liberty, whose most eloquent advocate was John Stuart Mill.

In his classic, On Liberty, Mill argued that no government has a right to interfere with the personal freedom of individuals except to prevent them from harming others. Governments do not, he said, have a right to interfere with personal freedom even when they think it will be in someone's own interests. If a government passed a law banning smoking (or, as the United States government did in the 1920s, drinking) on the grounds that it wished to protect smokers from harming themselves, it would be trespassing well beyond its limits.

Mill said that his aim in On Liberty was to assess the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. The reason why discussing this matter is so important, he said, is that one of the worst tyrannies that can be exercised over individuals is the tyranny of the majority. A civilised society is one that protects the freedom of individuals and minorities against majorities, just as it protects them against tyrants.

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence, he wrote, 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.

The reason for this, in turn, is that as long as human affairs are imperfect, the need remains for freedom of debate and opinion, so that a society can discuss with itself how to cope with its challenges and achieve progress. Equally, individuals need to be free to experiment with ways of living and seeking happiness, giving full scope to differences of character and choice consistent with the good of others. As Mill points out, where tradition governs how people live, instead of their own characters and interests, one of the chief ingredients of human happiness and advancement is missing.

The idea that free development of individuality is essential to personal wellbeing, a point Mill always vigorously argued for, is the key to why liberty matters. Conformist societies that frown on individuality are not merely repressive and reactionary, but stagnant. In every epoch distinguished by real progress in the arts, sciences and government, the prevailing social ethos has been an open one, hospitable to eccentricity, innovation, experimentation and the abandonment of traditions that have outlived their usefulness and become a barrier to progress.

Mill was writing at the height of Victorian conformism, in an era when middle-class self-satisfaction was at such full flood that the idea of too much individual liberty, and still less experimental modes of life, was regarded with suspicion. This fact made him say that among his contemporaries individual spontaneity was undervalued, and no one felt anxiety about the boundary between social control (whether by means of moral coercion - the coercion of disapproval and ostracism - or law) and individual freedom itself.

By the second half of the 20th century in Europe and America, a century after Mill's time, the idea of individual freedom had trumped the constraints of conformism, a fact that indubitably played its part in the immense social changes in that period.

But the mood has begun to change in the opposite direction again, as shown by government efforts to shepherd social attitudes and behaviour by means of legislation. What can be the justification for this? For politicians anxious to be seen, at least, to be responding appropriately to threats faced by the West from militant religious radicalism, giving up some aspects of individual freedom in return for increased security appears to be the obvious option.

They have forgotten the pungent remark by Benjamin Franklin, that those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either. This powerful and salutary truth should be inscribed on the walls of every government office. Liberty carries risks, and the courage to face the risks is what makes one worthy of having liberty.

Of course, it is sensible to take precautions and to do one's best, while preserving one's central values, to guard against enemies. But there is a vital question here, of balancing liberties and protections, in a mature society erring always and greatly on the side of liberties. And there is an equally vital question of proportionality: if protective measures compromise freedoms, is the loss genuinely proportional to the risk?

In the Second World War, the British government introduced security measures, including ID cards, because an enemy army of several hundred thousand men was massing on the French coast 20 miles away, its navy was assembling to ferry them across the Channel, and its air force was attacking our air defences daily. The measures introduced were temporary. Today our Government wishes to introduce permanent measures of an even more draconian nature, because a few dozen or a few score terrorists are planning atrocities, each one standardly equivalent to, or less than, one Second World War bombing raid.

Where is the proportionality in this? It is such an extreme over-reaction that one wonders about the level of contemporary political intelligence, and wonders even more about where the courage to face risks has gone. If the politicians no longer have the courage to be free, does that mean the whole of our society has lost it too?

One of the signal events of recent weeks has been the Danish cartoon outcry. The artificially inflated hysteria in the Muslim world, months after the cartoons were published, reveals a sharp division not between the West and Islam, but the West and radical Islamism. For the West, free speech is the fundamental civil liberty without which there can be no others. Democracy requires debate and challenge; the rule of law requires the right to be heard in court; genuine education requires questioning and access to information.

Without free speech none of this is possible. The price of free speech is offence, but feelings of being offended can never justify censorship. Far more offensive than satirical cartoons, however poor in taste, are riots and embassy burnings, threats of murder and beheadings, a nauseatingly primitive litany of childishness and disproportion. Even here, though, reason governs. No one pretends actions should be as free as opinions, Mill wrote. Opinions lose their immunity when they are expressed under circumstances that constitute a mischievous act. Think of someone shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. One could argue that, in the present climate, the Danish cartoons constitute just such a case; but equally one can say that the offence was not what was given, but what was, by choice, taken. Anyone can drum themselves into feeling outraged; why should this be allowed to silence others? Surely the sensible response is to remember the jingle, "Sticks and stones may break my bones".

Our Government has not yet quite tried to turn words into sticks and stones because one minority group chooses to treat them as such, but it is coming close. So far, it is the propensity to initiate action that remains the test of whether speech constitutes incitement. But a line has already been crossed: criminalising what people say, even with the best intentions for promoting social cohesion and equal respect, has to be rigorously limited if the most precious and important of all personal freedoms, essential to the health of society as Mill shows, is not to be compromised too far, and if something worth calling personal freedom is to remain.

AC Grayling's latest book, 'Among the Dead Cities', is published by Bloomsbury, price £20

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