Thursday, 19 February 2009

The liberty paradox

(Submitted to the Carnival on Modern Liberty, the fifth edition of which is due to be hosted by Matt Wardman this weekend)

While the concept of liberty is multi-faceted and means different things to different people, one aspect to the debate relates to the tools of the state utilised against minor criminal offences and what is now often termed 'low level' wrongdoing and anti-social behaviour. Two of the tools in question are CCTV and speed cameras.

However, contrary to the notion that such measures are symptomatic of an increasingly authoritarian 'surveillance state', the argument to be presented here is that in fact the British state has taken an increasingly liberal approach to human behaviour over the past several decades, and that to a large extent counter-measures like CCTV represent little more than a tokenistic and largely ineffectual attempt to reverse the negative consequences of this liberalism.

One perhaps prosaic example of this relates to littering, which is arguably useful because we can all see the consequences of this and indeed look in the right places and it's easy to witness people doing it. Growing up in a small Scottish town in the 1970s it was unusual to see litter on the streets. Of course, no two locations are the same but, put simply, it's now everywhere. And if there doesn't seem too much of it in city centre shopping areas (say) then that's because a small army of council operatives scurry round after the litter louts, in effect sweeping the problem under the carpet (almost literally!). Meanwhile, other areas end up almost permanently litter strewn, simply because local authorities can't afford to keep everywhere clean on a 24/7 basis.

More to the point, how did this situation arise from a law enforcement perspective? Well it's not as if there was a network of litter wardens handing out fines in the 1970s, or even policemen, come to that. Instead, police would very probably take a litterer to task, but this was generally unnecessary, because less formal methods of enforcement - parents and teachers, most obviously - would ensure that children didn't drop litter, and this ethos would be carried into adulthood.

But gradually those methods of social control were loosened, and a generation or two later and a significant proportion of the population considers it as natural to drop litter as others consider it a moral imperative to put it in a bin.

Of course, this didn't happen overnight, and the precise dynamic behind this process is irrelevant for present purposes, but in essence the situation has moved from one of control to liberty, with parents, teachers and police significantly less likely to exert any kind of authority over littering.

On the other hand, and in recent years in particular, the powers that be have seen the adverse consequences of this retreat, and have tried to reverse the situation, for example by using CCTV to catch litters and taking them to task. But this is often heavy-handed in nature, and instead of informal methods of control a fine is often levied, which in turn very often leads to accusations of authoritarianism, and suchlike. For example, a couple of years ago a sudden flurry of fines handed out to litterers in Dundee led to claims in the press about civil liberties being breached etc.

Of course, part of the problem here is not enforcement per se, but enforcement in relation to rules which have largely been unenforced for a significant period of time and thus the misbehaviour targeted has become normalised for a significant section of society.

Another important factor is that the reality is that only a miniscule level of enforcement of this type is carried out, thus in effect these exercises are merely of the box-ticking/gesture politics variety rather than any serious attempt to induce behavioural change (although the authorities may well be deluded enough to think otherwise). Also, those selected for enforcement measures are usually of the 'easy target' variety, leading to "Primary school kid fined for dropping sweet wrapper" sort of headlines, whereas the late-night drunk contemptuously dropping a twelve inch pizza box is ignored.

But the perception created is one of authoritarianism, whereas the reality is that most littering is done with impunity, and there's little evidence to suggest that this liberal stance will be significantly reversed. Thus a creeping abandonment of control created the problem, then when the state tries to reverse the situation it creates the impression of authoritarianism, whereas the reality is nearer zero enforcement than zero tolerance, therefore the misbehaviour is still the norm for many people and the occasional 'crackdown' reinforces the perception of heavy-handedness, but in reality nothing much changes, and the whole scenario is perpetuated.

The analysis above started with the specific example of littering, but is similarly applicable to all kinds of low-level wrongdoing; for example, drunk and disorderly behaviour, noise nuisance and motoring offences. Of course, the latter category is pertinent to the speed camera debate, but the same analysis holds true - despite the near-hysteria over speeding fines, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of speeding offences are committed with impunity.

(An interesting contrast in relation to enforcement of littering and speeding offences is perhaps that the former is more likely to appeal to the libertarian right, while the latter might be more palatable to the liberal left? If so then this demonstrates one aspect to the debate on different philosophies on liberty.)

In summary, however, the 'surveillance state' and authoritarianism objections in relation to these issues are merely the result of different approaches to these hardly original problems; the cameras use technological advances to perform the function of formal and informal controls which have long since lost their efficacy. But the reality is that the problems being addressed have attained sufficient scale and have become sufficiently ingrained that they are not conducive to easy reversal. Meanwhile, the 'police state' and similar accusations regarding low level offending and anti-social behaviour are in reality founded on limited but exaggerated evidence, and 'surveillance state' criticisms in this respect also are based on notions more abstract than real.


Matt Wardman said...

>Meanwhile, the 'police state' and similar accusations in this regard are in reality founded on limited but exaggerated evidence, and 'surveillance state' criticisms are based on notions more abstract than real.

I've been researching just how many photographers are being harassed by police/PCSO and others (hundreds, everywhere, all the time), and the "Police State" claim is feeling more credible.

It's not just petty stuff, but the routine use of laws for situations they were not intended to address, and the casual use of irrelevant excuses ("I think you might be a terrorist") to justify taking actions that seem random.

Lazy, sweeping use of ill-defined powers without the need for specific justification is putting the police above detailed accountability.

Ideas of Civilisation said...

Phew that was a long post. You'd never catch me doing that...

Interesting piece actually and I'd agree with a lot of what you say, not least the 'police state' point.

Really what you're saying - and allude to in your piece - is that the type of community which was evident in the past doesn't exist anymore.

That would certainly be my interpretation. Many of the problems which people demand solution to - especially under the anti-social behaviour label - might have been easier to deal with in the past.

Take problems with young people. Whereas now people will phone the police in the past it's more likely people would have known them would mean a) they wouldn't have the same fear level and b) if they did they could complain to family members.

This isn't to bring rose-tinted glasses into play but is reflective of wider changes in society. And the less we know each other the more the only way the state can tackle such problems is by things cited as being part of a 'police state'.

Stuart Winton said...

Matt, thanks for the response. I deliberately steered clear of the type of thing you're referring to, and in the context of the piece as a whole the sentence that you quote was referring to low level offending and the like rather than terrorism, but I've amended the final paragraph slightly to make this clearer ;0)

I can't really disagree that these things can be abused and to be honest I don't live in an environment where I can properly evaluate the official response to terrorism and how this impacts on individual liberty - clearly it's difficult for officialdom to strike a balance - but over the years I've shifted from being intuitively aligned with your own stance to become automatically cynical about the liberty argument, and to that extent often think these things are a bit exaggerated.

For example, I walk and drive past dozens of cameras a day, and 99.9% of the time they're just used as a passive deterrent and for the detection of more serious crimes rather than anything more sinister, and to that extent I'm grateful for their presence, although even in those terms the whole CCTV ethos seems a bit crude and lacking in efficacy, but I don't have any problem with them in principle or as regards liberty.

To my mind CCTV just replaces absent police and/or responsible citizens, thus to that extent I can't see the problem.

Take the surveillance state argument against CCTV to its logical conclusion and having police on the street per se would be objectionable.

Stuart Winton said...

IoC, yes, anonymity isn't really an aspect that I'd specifically thought of, but it's certainly another facet to why the terms of the social control environment have shifted.

On the other hand, I think that if the control environment - whether parents, teachers and police - had been tougher years ago instead of slowly pushing back the boundaries then reversing this trend wouldn't be as formidable a task as it appears now, and also wouldn't lend itself so readily to police state accusations, because the whole culture would be different, irrespective of the anonymity argument, to a large extent at least.