Books Australia

For your own good

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

Liberty, Equality & Democracy Chris Berg

Connor Court, 2015, pp.206, $24.95, ISBN: 9781925138566

I grew up queer in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen was populist, racist, and religious: he hated socialism, but the Queensland of my youth also had Australia’s only free hospitals. You couldn’t get an abortion in one of them, though – that necessitated a quick trip south of the border, into New South Wales.

Queensland was not a good place to be queer. My most enduring memory from that time does not, however, involve the police beating people up in gay bars or booking Aborigines for driving while black. It involves being told – earnestly, sincerely, and at length – by various conservative Christians that God had sent AIDS into the world ‘to clean out the shit’. It was a force for good, would save queers from themselves, and maybe even win some over to Christ. ‘AIDS,’ they told me, ‘is the plumber’s friend of God: pump, pump, pump!’

Conversations like these – although awful enough to make me glad of the closet in which I was hiding at the time – were also illuminating. I needed saving from myself. And, because I spread disease, other people needed saving from me.

A great deal of public policy these days is predicated on saving people from themselves, for their own good and the good of others. And it needs to stop, in large part because it springs from the same place as the belief that AIDS is the plumber’s friend of God. I realised the extent of this when I read Chris Berg’s Liberty, Equality, and Democracy. I have never before seen the case against laws enacted ‘for our own good’ put with such wit and grace.

At the core of Berg’s book is this: if we persist in thinking people cannot make simple decisions about what to eat or when to drink, why then do we think they can do something as complex as choosing between different political visions?

Berg takes particular aim at rule by experts. Perhaps the best bit is his account of how those who purport to have superior knowledge are susceptible to exactly the same sort of cognitive biases and systemic errors as the rest of us. Likewise, just because individuals make poor decisions, that does not mean governments make better ones. There is abundant evidence they generally don’t, and because governments are so large, their bad decisions have far more dramatic, expensive, and destructive consequences.

He also considers what he calls the ‘cult of independence’ – that is, the creation of ‘arm’s length’ agencies formally separated from lines of government accountability and immune to the whims of the electorate. He is kinder to technocrats than to public health experts, in part because the most prominent examples of independence are central banks, and at least some central banks have proven more economically competent than politicians (although the people of Greece may disagree). However, his related point – that when technocratic agencies do not improve governance, they should be abandoned – is well-made.

Unusually for a work of modern classical liberal scholarship, he also considers race and gender hierarchies, laws based on the idea that ‘betters’ ought to rule ‘lessers’. Classical liberalism emerges (to its credit) as a strong opponent of racism, both historically and more recently. Meanwhile, the relationship of our tradition to historical support for gender hierarchy is more complex and less flattering.

In a thoughtful discussion of the Levellers and their contribution to classical liberalism, Berg notes that they spoke of ‘the poorest he, not the poorest she’. He outlines some later political history, and goes on to observe that ‘hierarchy based on gender is a long stain on the development of liberal democracy – even some of the most passionate democrats of the past had this unforgiveable blind spot’.

While you should read Berg’s book for its merits, I wish to use it to press the point about laws ‘for our own good’ and the often fraught relationship between classical liberalism and feminism.

It’s often argued that the rupture between feminism and classical liberalism is borne of the former’s tendency to call on the coercive power of the state to achieve its aims. The rupture is real enough, played out on a daily basis on libertarian and feminist blogs and webpages, in acrimonious fights on Twitter and Facebook, and no doubt elsewhere.

However, I think this rupture exists in large part because feminism has a troubled relationship with the nanny state. The coercive power it has enlisted historically wasn’t just about equal pay or anti-discrimination laws, things that are now a respectable part of the political mainstream. Historically, feminism was just as often about controlling what people put into their bodies or consumed as entertainment. Often, it was about laws introduced to restrict personal choice ‘for the individual’s own good’.

I am of course talking about Prohibition, but criticisms of both sex-work and violent video games many feminists now make are siblings under the skin to banning booze, particularly when they seek to enlist regulatory aid, either from the state or large corporates and universities.

During Prohibition, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was fond of boasting that ‘As long as the Nineteenth Amendment Stands, the Eighteenth will stand also!’ Suffragette leaders in the United States were happy to make common cause with some truly toxic organisations – including the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan – in order to advance their interests. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Prohibition enforcer, feminist, progressive, and throughout the Twenties the most powerful woman in the country – knowing that the Klan had thrown its weight behind woman suffrage – commented thus: ‘I have no objection to people dressing up in sheets, if they enjoy that sort of thing’.

Prohibition is the sine qua non of laws ‘for our own good’. Its cataclysmic failure is, however, in danger of being forgotten by modern legislators and activists who want to control people’s consumption habits in one way or another.

We feminists should consider our premises if we find ourselves on the same side as those who would micromanage people’s private choices, if only because we have had it done so often to us. Arguments about trying ‘to save people from their own objectively bad choices’ – smoking, say, or drinking, or watching porn or playing Grand Theft Auto V – come perilously close to the Catholic Church’s denunciation of people like me as ‘objectively disordered’.

I do not need laws saving me from myself. Most of the time, nor do you.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Helen Darville is a writer. In her other life, she works for a classical liberal parliamentarian.

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Show comments
  • Great review! In health care the guiding international standard is Informed Consent. The same concept applies to all areas of public life (with, govt, as the US Declaration of Independence put it, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” ). The current attempts in Australia, California and elsewhere to abrogate our philosophical and religious conscientious objections to mandated vaccination are an example of violation of the principle. More about that here:

  • leongillingham

    as regards her bio line, she’s not much of a writer, if this rambling, formless review is any guide