Monday, 12 October 2009

What we are doing wrong

An ambititious headline, I agree. But here goes nothing.

Any parent will tell you that children need to be given freedom if they are to flourish. Constrain their every move, and they either rebel or submit. Neither is a good idea over the long term (although one is more pleasant in the short). Give them the freedom to choose, and whilst they may not do what you expected (or hoped) they will explore and learn.

Unsurprisingly, adults are essentially the same.

We can therefore take one of two approaches to the construction and regulation of a proper society. One approach is to set out in detail the path that everyone is to follow - to lay down how they live their lives, decide things for them, and generally act as Nanny. The other is to set down what is expected of people in terms of a minimum standard of behaviour, and to ensure that, generally, the individual meets with the outcomes of their actions. We are, of course, currently testing the former system to destruction.

These are not just differences of degree, or nuance. They are fundamentally different approaches that result in different policies. For example, take the BMA fuss about alcohol advertising. We could, as is being proposed, assume the mantle of responsibility for the health of the individual and protect them from persuasive advertising, raise the price of alcohol to something that is beyond their means, and generally keep them away from stuff that is bad for them. Or, we could take the latter approach, leave the price of alcohol to the market, and regulate only for those who cannot make their own decisions (such as minors). If people get drunk, they will suffer a sore head. If they get even more drunk, they will suffer a sore head, neck and shoulders; police cell floors are not comfortable places to sleep. If they get hopelessly drunk every night, they will lose their job. If they then lounge about, complaining that benefits aren’t enough to live on what with the price of Special Brew, our collective response can be “Tough”.

The “problem” with both approaches is that they have knock-on effects. The Nanny approach, for example, can deal with alcohol in this way, but will then face calls to deal with other harmful products, such as (of course) tobacco. Once both are dealt with to Nanny’s satisfaction, its gaze will be drawn to meths (or whatever substitute the alcoholics turn to). Then, of course, we face a logical difficulty in allowing the continued sale of other products that can be abused, such as solvent-based adhesives, kitchen knives, rope, petrol, nails, knitting needles, pins, frying pans, and so on. Eventually, all that we would be allowed to purchase without an official certificate of our goodness and general trustworthiness is cotton wool*.

The other problem is that whole swathes of the population are criminalised for minor infringement of Nanny’s regulations. Market traders who offered apples for sale by the pound are an obvious example, but I'm going to opt for a more contentious example. What is actually wrong with selling a vegetable knife to a responsible 17-year old** who then uses it solely for culinary purposes? Should that retailer be a criminal? And if the 17-year old does stab someone, surely that is the youth’s fault, not the retailer? Would the retailer’s actions have been morally different if he had waited a month (or two), until the youth was 18?

And what of the youth who managed to evade the knife sale regulations, and the alcohol sale regulations, and killed someone in a fit of drunken aggression? Nanny then sees him as a victim, of course. It does not say so outright - that might cause offence (another no-no that must be avoided), but in its response to the incident Nanny implicitly assumes that the regulations were at fault; the cause of the killing was that he was able to obtain a knife and a drink, not that the youth was wrong. The remedy, therefore, is for Nanny to impose more regulations (maybe the limit should be 21?) or to come down harder on the retailers who infringed. The youth, as befits a victim, needs help; Nanny will educate him, train him, help him to understand that killing someone is bad. Nanny will not realise that if he can't work that out for himself, he probably won't understand the lesson.

Think about it; when was the last time that the official response to a tragedy was purely along the lines "Someone evil did something awful and will be punished for it", instead of "The prescribed checks failed in this instance. Procedures have been reviewed in order to identify shortcomings, and the administrative staff have been reprimanded/retrained/added to". Blue Eyes found a post by 200 Weeks describing exactly this.

The knock-on effects of the latter system, on the other hand, is that people might go to jail for quite significant periods. One has to ask, though, whether that is a bad thing. If these people were found committing serious crimes, such a knifing someone in an unprovoked attack on a Saturday night out, then surely they should be?

Equally, others might do very well indeed. A retailer who consistently obtains products that are desired by the people living near him, and sells them at a fair and reasonable price at which he can make a profit, may well become exceedingly rich. Again, is that such a bad thing? You might say that it is, if he is supplying vicious knives to teenagers, but (if you noticed) our example was a vegetable knife. If we supply these more widely, then maybe people will choose to cook. Maybe they will then eat some fruit & veg (maybe even 5 pieces a day...!). Also, if we lock up anyone who misuses a knife, then perhaps the demand for knives for less innocent purposes might decline...

So there you have it. A recipe for a fairer, healthier and more prosperous society; sell knives to teenagers, but punish them if they misuse them.

*actually, I bet you could smother someone with cotton wool, if you had enough. Better legislate a maximum pack size.

**In England, NI & Wales. In Scotland, it is apparently safe to sell knives to 16-year-olds. Either colder darker winters make teens more trustworthy, or we have chanced upon proof that the whole thing is totally arbitrary.


  1. I wonder if instead of complaining about this or that policy (which we inevitably do) we should examine our desires for society in general. I suspect that we will find our desires are mutually contradictory. Most of us would want a society to preserve these two things at some level:

    (i) Individual freedom
    (ii) Shared responsibility, the common good etc.

    What happens I think is that in order to maintain (ii) governments become coercive and over legislative and therefore violate (i).

    However, it is possible to have both (i) & (ii) without over legislation and coercion, but it requires us to have a shared culture with shared aims so that our actions in favour of (ii) do not have to be dictated by can spring from our realisation of (i).

    The trouble is, I think our society adds a further desire:

    (iii) There is to be no overarching narrative/culture.

    My guess is that you can any combination of any two of (i), (ii), & (iii), but you can't have all three.

  2. Thanks, Blue.

    Albert - an interesting point, but I suspect you're implicitly assuming that it is government's role to secure the common good. Surely government should be limited to preserving (i), enunciating (iii) on behalf of all of us, and then getting out of the way so that we can all pursue (ii)?

  3. I think perhaps you've misread (iii). It states that there is to be no overarching narrative/culture (one of those self-defeating ideas of contemporary society).

    However, I do think government should seek to pursue (ii). Indeed, I wonder what society would look like without the government seeking to secure (ii), no police, no armed forces, no state schools, no state hospitals or care for those in most need.

    However, my point would be that when governments seek to secure (ii) they should do so as an expression of the society, not in opposition to it or at the expense of the society's efforts. In other words, I think we need to replace (iii) with

    (iv) There is to be an overarching culture/narrative.

    I think the point you are probably aiming at is correct: we have reached a point when government takes responsibility for (ii) in such a way that the rest of us are excluded from working towards (ii). The closure of Catholic adoption agencies is just one fine example among many that we can expect to be adopted by the Conservatives. Hence the problem is not just one of this or that wrong policy, but of the over all philosophy that drives our political life. It is the confused outlook that our politicians of either hue share that is the problem.

  4. Yes, when referring to (iii) I meant that the Government should enunciate the nature of the country's culture and put in place the necessary factors to allow us to achieve that.

    State schools and a police force (etc) might be part of that culture, if we so decide. If so, establishing them on this basis rather than in order to secure the common good would serve to limit them. We might however decide to provide some or all of these privately. Why should it be axiomatic, for example, that only the State is competent to provide refuse collections?

    I remain firmly of the view that (ii) is outside the Government's proper remit. You and I might be disagreeing on the relative definitions of (ii) and (iii), but my original post stems from irritation that New Labour clearly think that (ii) is theirs, and theirs alone.

  5. my original post stems from irritation that New Labour clearly think that (ii) is theirs, and theirs alone.

    Agreed. My one caveat would be that we may require the state in some circumstances to provide for the common good, because we cannot so effectively do so without a larger framework. Armed services would be a good example, providing a safety net for people who have fallen through the net of every other (private) charitable agency might be another. My suggestion though would be that we would struggle to agree on any of this without (iv). Accordingly, the enemy of individual freedom is our cultural nihilism: it's that that leaves the space and excuse for coercive legislation in order to achieve (ii).

  6. P, I am confused. Could you tell me if my neighbours' kids go to the ironmongers or the pharmacy to buy ricin, an AK-47, handcuffs and Semtex. They are such adorable little monkeys, well, teenagers now, and they do like their little experiments. They are so good at showing off what they were taught in their BTEC Level 1 in Applied Science so I know they are going ask. They were such darlings when they were younger.

    Just trying to balance up the argument. BE's post was slightly different in that an employer's duty of care is more onerous than that which can be attached to the parental responsibility of a 16 year old. It is all about degrees of control, but I suggest parental support for education is re-engaged at all levels of society before we freely sell knives to teenagers. If my child needs a knife for occupational reasons, I should be responsible for lending or acquiring one for him so he is reminded not to go off on a frolic of his own. ;-)

  7. Measured, I detect a bit of a straw person in your argument there. Nobody is proposing to allow the sale of deliberately offensive items such as ricin or guns. Perhaps you are right that a child of under 16 should not be allowed to buy a kitchen knife, but once someone is legally adult isn't it his/her responsibility to decide what he/she should do with said knife?

    As kids we had a chemistry set and all manner of lab equipment in our cellar. I nearly burnt the house down when the polystyrene packing of the chemistry set got a bit too close to the bunsen burner. That was a self-learned lesson to be more bloody careful. The alternative to being trusted to take responsibility is 24/7 surveillance by "superiors" which is a terrifying prospect.

    As if we needed reminding, the government now believes it is its responsibility to tell us how many pieces of fruit and veg to eat every day, how many units of alcohol not to consume, etc. etc. Once we opt out of taking our own responsibility for some of our own actions we will end up with no freedoms at all.

  8. Measured - BE has caught you out. Your examples are of things that only have a harmful use; mine was (deliberately) dual use.

    I think your point about parental responsibility is valid, though. Although if they still need reminding at 17, it is probably a bit late?

    BE - there is still a large burn mark on the ceiling of the chemistry lab at my old school, for which I claim responsibility. On the positive side, I learnt very quickly what exothermic mixing was, and have not forgotten.

    I like "Once we opt out of taking our own responsibility for some of our own actions we will end up with no freedoms at all". We should put that on a T-shirt!

  9. I know you do not like extreme arguments but I would contend that on this occasion, it furthered the discussion. It is all a question of balance. I have no difficulty in agreeing this government overreacts and always wishes to be seen doing the 'right' thing without adequate weight being attached to the drawbacks of their actions. Deciding whether to constrain/enforce/prohibit requires weighing up all the factors and there should be a presumption of no regulation if in doubt.

    For me, knives are lethal weapons that can readily ruin lives. One stab can kill. If maimed or killed, the victim never receives adequate redress. The police have enough difficulties coping with urban gangs without the widespread threat of knives being available to teenage gangs. Any well equipped kitchen would provide or store knives for your young chef and in my view their need does not warrant the sale of knives to the under-aged.

    To cheer you up, think how much this is saving from fewer A&E patients and lower policing costs, another consideration to be taken into account. I have less of a problem with the sale of large spanners although, while it may not kill me, I do not want to be hit over the head with one. BE is right in that maybe 18 is not the right age to assume responsibility for one's actions and the government has interfered too much with just about everything.

  10. Have you read the Home Office impact assessment on the knife law changing from 16 to 18?

    I've done a post on it here

  11. "Measured - BE has caught you out. Your examples are of things that only have a harmful use..."

    Well, except the handcuffs. They have...other uses ;)

  12. Hi Julia - I did wonder if someone would pick me up on that!

    Measured - yes, argument does clarify the point. The "well-stocked kitchen" point goes both ways, of course; it means that they are less likely to need to buy one but also that the ban does not affect them. So, as ever, the ban hurts the good teenagers while failing to restrain the bad ones.

    Steven - welcome, and thanks for the link. I hadn't read that report, but it does seem to be exactly as my inner cynic expected! (sadly)