Saturday, 27 February 2010

On Liberty

As I was sitting in my favourite armchair in the club library perusing one of the books I had picked off the shelves at random, in walked Squires muttering to himself. I'd not seen the old bird for 6 months and he looked to be in a foul mood now.

"What's up Squires, lost a £10 note and found a penny?"

"Worse, " he said looking up with a rue smile on his face. "I've lost £60 and 3 penalty points."

"Speeding ticket?"

He nodded and sat down in the chair next to me. "And not just me, paper says the police have blitzed 1700 drivers this week."

That was something I could sympathise with. I've had a ticket myself, I think most drivers have. And I never really felt any of this was right. "Why this crackdown on 1700 drivers?" I asked.

"Police have to keep busy I suppose."

"What I object to is, where are all the victims in these 1700 crimes?"

"What victims? There aren't any."

"Exactly my point. Why don't the police concentrate on real crimes where there are victims? You shouldn't have a crime without a victim."

"You are quite right," interjected Hawkwind. He had been a professor of some high level subject at the university, philosophy I think it was, and he was commonly referred to by everyone as The Prof. "Your view corresponds quite accurately with that of John Stuart Mill. He said that liberty means having the freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn't hurt another person. Consequently if there is no victim, you are at liberty to go about your business and do what you want. And these kinds of  'crackdowns' on victimless crimes undermine that very liberty we prize to go about unmolested by government officials."

"Here, Here," said Squires. "Let's stop harassing ordinary people who have not hurt anyone. And let's get rid of all victimless laws."

That was when Manton butted in. "So you think Drink Driving,using a mobile phone while driving and not wearing a belt are victimless crimes do you? Doesn't sound too bright to me."

"Well Manton old chap," I added, "perhaps if you can identify who the victim is in the case you quote, you might then be able to shed some light on the matter. But maybe you don't understand the term victimless crime?"

"Of course I do."

"We have been so brainwashed," added The Prof, "into thinking that any new law that curtails our liberty is a good thing. It is not. This government has created 33 new crimes a month - many thousands of new crimes which have no victims at all. Who is the victim when someone speeds? No one. Who is the victim when I use a mobile phone? No one."

"Yes but you might crash, dear fellow," said Flaxbone who had been listening in. 

"True, any one might crash - but you shouldn't turn people into criminals for what they might do, only for what they have done," I replied. "Going over a recommended speed should no more be a crime here than it is on the Autobahn in Germany. We have confused driving fast with driving unsafely. That is simply an error of logic. You can drive fast and you can drive safely. Let's not penalize the first because we have confused it with the second."

"I'm with you," added The Prof. "Laws should not restrict peoples liberty unless you are harming someone. That was the tenor of John Stuart Mills great idea which has governed our freedoms in the western world for the last 200 years. It is only recently we have moved into the world of the nanny state and the big brother who controls our lives."
"What stupid remarks, I rest my case," said Manton, rather rudely I thought.

"Well I don't think you made much of your case, but I can rest it for you if you like, " added Rook who was a well known barrister around town and who had also been listening in. We were gathering quite a crowd by now.

"Be my guest," said Manton and then went off to find himself a drink.

"The thought that lack of insurance is victimless is plainly ridiculous," continued Rook. "Whenever an accident happens which insurance is paid out on, all people with insurance have contributed to the pot it's paid from and the fact that some people (usually the worst drivers) don't have it, means the rest of us have to pay more. Everyone's a victim."

"Well, I can't see there are any victims when I was caught in the speed trap." said Squires

"What a ridiculous thing to say," shouted Rook. "Of course there are victims! When someone dies because of phones, speed, distraction or any other offence it creates many victims when you look at the impact on families. And by the way, speeding is not a crime, it does not get recorded as a criminal record...get the facts right! People always use the liberty argument when in fact what they mean is they want to do what they want without being challenged!"

I had to interupt. "Rook, you are quite right, there is a victim when someone dies. But there are no victims when someone is caught on a speed camera. And there were no victims when 1700 people were stopped and fined recently. Let's have laws that only penalize you for hurting people. Let's not have laws that penalize people when they haven't hurt anyone."

"Maybe," he said grudingly.
"And there seems to be some confusion," I added, "about the difference between a criminal offence and a criminal record. All motoring offences (except parking violations in areas where enforcement has been handed over to local councils, rather than traffic wardens) come under criminal law. So there can be no doubt that speeding is a criminal offence. The fact that some crimes are not recorded means it is quite possible to commit a criminal offence (speeding) without acquiring a criminal record. 

"Last year 1.92 million speeding tickets were issued. Over the last 10 years around one third of all the drivers in the country have been fined. What I object to is that millions of ordinary good law abiding citizens who have never broken any other laws in their lives have been criminalized by a bad system. Any law which turns a third of its citizens into criminals is plainly wrong and I have no confidence in it." And with that I got up myself, replaced my copy of John Stuart Mill and went to the bar. Orwell was wrong, I thought to myself, but only by 26 years.