24 August 2009

Thinking about the meaning of "authoritarian"

I try to read a range of opinions and my feedreader contains a decent cross section of political bloggers, although sometimes I cannot remember why a particular one ends up in there. Nevertheless, I do follow the slightly pretentiously named "Letters from A Tory" and this morning a post (or "letter") did catch my eye as the title pretty much betrayed the author's opinion on its own: "Tories will bring back fox hunting by the back door" - of course there was a chance that "A Tory" would be enthusiastically arguing for hunting to be restored through the front door, but my interest was piqued by a seemingly rightwing blogger going against fox hunting.

I commented quite early on (15/65 - and counting) that there was nothing "back door" about the proposal and that it makes political sense for the Tories to signal their support for a repeal or reform of the Hunting Act. Framed in terms of animal welfare, the debate in the comments followed some well-trodden paths, but for me it got interesting when the charge of New Labourite "authoritarianism" was thrown at the self-styled "Tory" (aka LFAT).

His response (at 58) was as follows:

"I think it’s fair to say that banning something just because you don’t like it is indeed authoritarian. However, as some have pointed out above, foxhunting is not so much a case of banning something because you don’t like it – it’s banning something because it’s wrong. Governments have to draw the line somewhere when it comes to harm and suffering as there are certain things that a society should not accept e.g. rape or murder. I believe that causing harm and suffering to animals for fun also crosses that line without any shadow of a doubt, whereas hunting animals for population control (which fox hunting is most certainly not) is acceptable in my opinion. It’s all very well saying that banning things is authoritarian but people and animals should always be protected from cruelty – indeed, if they weren’t then something is seriously wrong."

It is quite right, perhaps trite, to say that governments do have to draw a line somewhere - they do that all the time, but when it comes to banning an activity, what counts as being authoritarian?

The problem in this case lies at the point where LFAT - or in fact the government (if you leave to one side all the non-animal welfare/class issues) - made its judgment, namely that fox hunting is cruel, because this is not a conclusion shared by the vast majority of people who advocate a repeal of the ban.

There is no point making an analogy with rape or murder - or even bear baiting - because you would be pushed to find a significant number of people who would honestly defend such things as being humane or desirable in society.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the defenders of fox hunting hold their views as faithfully and honestly (not to mention, vehemently) as the opponents. Many of those in favour have never been anywhere near a horse, let alone a hunt, so there is little self-interest in play or ulterior motive. Without any question, there is at least an arguable case for hunting (but please don't try and engage me in the comments in this argument - that's not the point of this mental download).
My point is this: where the arguments are so finely balanced a non-authoritarian government should generally come down in favour of liberty. The balance has to be in terms of the classic cost/benefit analysis - but where any perceived gain is so small in relation to the loss of liberty, it would be fair to use the authoritarian tag.

This analysis can be applied all over the place, for instance, today's mad proposal that ALL pubs be obliged to use plastic glasses, or, some would say, the blanket smoking ban. It works the other way as well, and restrictions of personal liberty that produce relatively dramatic gains can be completely justified - such as compulsory seat belts in cars on the lower scale, or more significantly, taxation.

Of course, we end up back at square one on this debate, when the proponents of a new ban claim that the benefits will be huge or the opponents refuse to accept the encroachment on what they perceive to be a vital liberty. I guess this is what makes politics still interesting.

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