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Algora Publishing - What Price Liberty?
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Tuesday,
What Price Liberty?
Yet the diminution of individual liberty has gone much further under New Labour as ideas of pre-emptive or actuarial justice have evolved in tandem with increasingly widespread electronic surveillance and data gathering. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Hate Crimes would once have seemed like Orwellian flights of fancy; today they are a reality. And CCTV cameras and computer databases mean that Big Brother is watching you more than you probably like to think.
Financial Times

What Price Liberty?

Review by Niall Ferguson

Published: May 23 2009 01:26 | Last updated: May 23 2009 01:26

What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost
By Ben Wilson
Faber £14.99, 480 pages
(e-book and pdf from www.whatpriceliberty.co.uk)
FT Bookshop price: £11.99

Cover of 'What Price Liberty?' by Ben WilsonI confess I was left a little puzzled by the recent exhibition at the British Library, Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights. By arranging the display around 40 documents described as “key icons of liberty and progress”, including the 1942 Beveridge Report and the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the curators left little room for the possibility that individual freedom might actually have receded in recent times. Yet the exhibition opened just four months after the House of Commons voted to extend to 42 days the time a person suspected of terrorist acts can be detained without charge.

I am glad to say that historian Ben Wilson’s new history of liberty offers a more critical account. What Price Liberty? is, it should be said, a very English book: it pays scant attention to the contrasting experiences of the Celtic periphery and the wider British empire, let alone the rest of the world. It is also in some ways a rather old-fashioned book, which kicks off in the 1620s with the first skirmishes between Charles I and the Commons, thereby understating the importance of earlier contretemps between the crown and the aristocracy, the clergy and the many corporate bodies who guarded their liberties so jealously in the medieval period. Yet his account of the modern period more than compensates for these omissions.

To appreciate how much things have changed, consider the following three characterisations of English liberty:

“The privileges of thinking, saying, and doing what we please, and of growing as rich as we can, without any other restrictions, that by all this we hurt not the public, not one another, are the glorious privileges of liberty.” These are the words of “Cato” (the nom de plume of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon), writing in the early 1720s. For the better part of two centuries, that view was widely held in England, and Englishmen were not wrong to believe that it set them apart from continental Europeans and “Orientals”.

Also integral to the English conception of liberty was John Locke’s linkage of freedom and private property. In the landmark Entick v Carrington case (1765), Lord Camden ruled against the government for raiding the home of the radical journalist John Entick. “The great end for which men entered into society was to secure their property,” declared Camden. “By the laws of England, every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass.”

Almost as important was the principle of minding your own business. “The taste for making others submit to a way of life which one thinks more useful for them than they do themselves,” John Stuart Mill explained to the French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville, “is not a common taste in England.”

Do what you like as long as you do no harm. An Englishman’s home is his castle. And mind your own bloody business. When did these three great principles of liberty cease to be sacrosanct in England? Wilson has little doubt that it was the two world wars that began the process. As he shows, the German menace was used to justify major infringements on individual freedom. The magnitude of the conflicts made this seem justifiable, if not just. What is striking is how swiftly politicians came to exploit emergency powers for reasons other than national security – and how hard it was to break the illiberal habit once it had been formed.

It started, Wilson argues, with the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) of August 1914. Its subsequent modifications, among other things, gave military officers the power to try and even pass sentence of death over a civilian who breached wartime regulations. Under regulation 14b, the home secretary could arrest and hold a suspect indefinitely without trial; the only right of appeal was to a committee appointed by ... the home secretary. Another regulation circumvented the Entick v Carrington judgment by allowing the police to search premises without a warrant. Under DORA, two Northampton ladies were fined for distributing dangerous literature, including a pamphlet written years before by ... none other than the home secretary. Similar absurdities arose during the second world war, controls denounced by the great economist Friedrich von Hayek as “the road to serfdom”.

Such extensions of state power could be justified in peacetime, too. Under the 1921 Emergency Powers Act, new regulations abolished the right of public assembly and allowed the police to raid printing presses. The enemy in this case was not the Germans but the unions. More recently, with the advent of terrorist threats – first the Provisional IRA, then the radical Islamists – the old arguments have once again been trotted out. “Let’s be very, very clear,” declared Tony Blair in 2005. “Were there to be a serious terrorist act in this country and afterwards it was thought we had not taken the measures necessary, believe me, no one would be talking about civil liberties.” Somehow it’s always a choice between hundreds of corpses and habeas corpus.

The police state has a natural ally in the nanny state, born in 1945 to replace warfare with welfare. If the former replaces individual freedoms with patriotic duties, the latter offers entitlements in exchange for responsibilities. Ironically, the postwar government most committed to rolling back the welfare state – that of Margaret Thatcher – ended up significantly increasing the power of the central government. Think only of the Public Order Act of 1986, which limited the freedom of assembly, and the Official Secrets Act of 1989, which removed the public interest defence for leaks of sensitive information.

Yet the diminution of individual liberty has gone much further under New Labour as ideas of pre-emptive or actuarial justice have evolved in tandem with increasingly widespread electronic surveillance and data gathering. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Hate Crimes would once have seemed like Orwellian flights of fancy; today they are a reality. And CCTV cameras and computer databases mean that Big Brother is watching you more than you probably like to think.

To be sure, libertarians on both the left and the right have resisted these and other extensions of state power. The judiciary and the House of Lords have struck a series of blows against an increasingly illiberal government, most recently over 42-day detention But ardent lovers of freedom are a minority and easily mocked as cranks. Most of us regard the erosion of our liberty with a mixture of apathy and apprehension. As Wilson bleakly concludes, our loss of freedom “has stemmed in great part from the diminution of the first condition of liberty: courage”.

“Freedom isn’t free” is an American line that we British would do well to learn. A true libertarian, Ben Wilson is willing to give you What Price Liberty? for free if that’s all you think it’s worth. I’d say this stirring – if troubling – history of freedom’s fall is worth its weight in gold.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and author of ‘The Ascent of Money’

What Price Liberty?