…Where the banshees live, and they do live well,
Stonehenge, where a man’s a man
And the children dance to the pipes of pan.
A short but interesting discussion about policing of Stonehenge at Samizdata led me to reflect a little on alternatives. That is, how choices are made depending on what alternatives are on offer. As I said in the Samizdata thread, I have a little emotional investment in the Henge issue, as I’m a bit of an old hippy so, rather more than some other folks, I felt very aware of a kind of police state evolving long before New Labour arrived. In fact, many of those now decrying New Labour were, I suspect, rather pleased with the Thatcher government’s harsh treatment of hippies and, moreso, the miners back then, and would have ridiculed talk of a police state and described these actions as necessary.
I also remember watching one of those po-faced BBC shows with Michael Buerk, The Moral Maze or Pillock Talk or something, in which a few worthies including pudding-faced Michael debated some moral issue, and it was around the time the Tories decided to follow up cracking down on hippies by cracking down on raves, and for pretty much the same reasons- and that was something the esteemed Guido Fawkes was involved in back then, and indeed he wrote a Libertarian Alliance pamphlet thingy warning about the new Health And Safety Police. So there was one of the procession of Criminal Justice Acts that made “rhythmic electronic music” illegal, or some such piffle, and this young lady from the Ravey Davey Gravy scene was on Buerk Talk, and she said it was like a police state. And after she’d done her five minutes and been dragged off by a floor assistant, Buerk snorted down his nose about how he’d been to real police states, and she was talking a load of poo.
But nowadays, there’s a lot more people talking about Britain being some kind of police state, and maybe she wasn’t talking so much poo after all. It’s not unreasonable to chart the progress from the early 80s to today, as the requirement for the entire state to get involved in ever more trivial matters has progressed. You need a licence for this, approval for that, an inspection of the other, you can protest if you don’t say Bollix to Blair and don’t offend anybody and it’s on an agreed day somewhere approved by the Police where nobody can hear you. We have smoking inspectors and bin inspectors and policemen checking that nobody is standing up in a pub (“vertical drinking”) and fingerprinting everywhere and Glastonbury so I hear is rather like Stalingrad but a bit more polychromatic, and so on. We get stopped and searched and searched and stopped and randomly checked for this and that, and PCSOs leap into the breach to tell us to pour our beer away and so on, and are you carrying a knife sir? Can we just search you to check?
So, er, back to the point. The inestimable commenter Sam Duncan made a valid point during that discussion- that it’s all very well talking about heavy handed police tactics, but on the other hand being kept awake all night by Ravey Davey and his hundred gigawatt sound system is no fun at all. I can certainly appreciate that too. I suffered the most appallingly noisy neighbour once, at a time when I was working long hours and needed my beauty sleep particularly, and indeed it is no joy. Something has to be done.
But this is where we must ask about the alternatives on offer. If the question is, would you like to be kept awake all night, or get a good night’s sleep, obviously virtually anyone would answer, “I’ll take the good night’s sleep. Make it so, state!”
But if the question is, “Would you rather occasionally (e.g. one night per year) experience the disturbance of a pop festival several fields away, or would you rather live in the state I described above- the one with the endless police powers and inspectors and all that crap- then I at least would answer, “I’ll put up with the pop festival, thanks”. So we need very much when choosing what we want to be presented with the actual alternatives on offer.
This applies for instance to drugs- current policy pretends to offer a choice of a society with heroin addicts or one without heroin addicts- that is prohibition is presented as if it can attain that second state. But it can’t. So the actual alternatives on offer are, “would you like a state with legal heroin addicts, or one with illegal heroin addicts, an immense illegal drugs industry and devastated inner city communities?” We don’t have a choice of “no heroin addicts”. It isn’t on the table.
“Would you like everyone to be healthier?” you are asked. “Why, yes!” you may reply. But the actual choices on offer are, “some people become ill due to drinking too much” and “the state snatching your beer out of your hand”.
“Would you like to be safer?”. Most people think that sounds good. Until they find it means not being able to bake a cake for the church social because their kitchen hasn’t been inspected and their labrador likes to sleep under the big table, health and safety, can’t be too careful.
And so on.
So we should be careful of what choices we are making. If we want our old freedoms, we may have to put up with some things we don’t like, or take a risk of Mrs Poggit’s raisins giving us food poisoning (though they never have before). We may decide we’d prefer that the state bans raves. Or farmhouse cakes in church. But we should at least stand back and check that we know what the actual alternatives being offered are.