The pursuit of liberty is worth it because it is essential for the health of society. It sounds like a simple aspiration, but it is not one we hear articulated much these days. At a time when values
are constantly invoked by politicians, the sense of what these values might be becomes harder to grasp. The idea that liberty – and all the laws, institutions and commitments which go with it – are a sacred value, against which the claims of safety, security and utility must strain to justify themselves, sounds quaint these days.
A new idea has come to prominence. We live in an age in which risk management [pdf] is at the heart of politics. Long before it came to power, New Labour was mesmerised by the private sector's use of data to assess risk and allocate resources. Reading through a splurge of government reports from a decade ago, it is quite clear the ardour for risk management was intense and the vision was utopian. The government's lingering faith in ID cards demonstrates the power this kind of thinking has.
Risk management developed by the private sector produced a range of pre-emptive measures, such as defensive space architecture, smart products which could be immobilised if stolen, surveillance techniques and other things which individuals and companies could do to "design out" crime by manipulating the physical environment. This is known as situational crime prevention and, in the words of one of its proponents, it creates a "fortress society" in which crime becomes harder to commit. And indeed, in a shopping centre or street dedicated to the war against crime and antisocial behaviour the innocent and guilty are treated the same – as potential miscreants. It is an egalitarian theory.
The private sector had become better than the state at shaping habits. It was a subtle form of discipline conducted by market forces which could modify behaviour and penalise the costly. Of course, I do not by this mean the market wanted to make the world better; it was aimed at maximising profits. Databases revealed who was blameless and who entailed a cost on others through risky or unhealthy behaviour. The ability to monitor the world revealed risks which no one realised existed before and pinpointed where accountability lay. Risk, once it becomes apparent, has to be policed: it is an economic necessity. The risk economy could, supposedly, predict the future and pre-empt danger. It was hungry for information, personal information; no amount could ever satisfy it.
Politicians of all hues found this deeply attractive. For the right the behaviour-shaping influences of the market satisfied on many conceptual levels. For New Labour it seemed to offer a solution to what it saw as the unacceptably high social cost of economic individualism without reviving a large state or traditional social disciplines. Data could change society, therefore giving up data was no longer an imposition but a selfless act, a duty to society.
And so society changes. When risk management is trumpeted so loudly it is logical for consumers and voters to lay blame on authorities if something goes wrong: why wasn't everything done? And in turn service providers are encouraged to imagine the worst and hunt down dangers: there is never enough you can do to eliminate risks. There is also a tendency to put expert opinion over principles. Hence we see politicians justifying everything from health and safety rules to anti-terror laws on the grounds that officials demand them. What chance do civil liberties stand?
The language of politics has become suffused with the jargon of business. And the mentality. It becomes a duty of government, to provide "consumer-focused services (pdf)" . Increasingly civil liberties are subject to a cost/benefit analysis. In an age when a small band of terrorists can wreak havoc on a vast scale, it is said, civil liberties entail a "marginal cost": better to wrongly imprison a suspect than let one go if the risk is adjudged to be sufficiently high. Civil liberties do indeed come to be seen as hindrances to the technocrat as he or she goes about the business of battening down the hatches. In his or her risk-obsessed mind everyone is a potential danger – which is another way of concluding that everyone is guilty in advance.
The introduction of market-led thinking into government has changed the relationship between the state and citizen. The behaviour of individuals, when it is at odds with the consensus, comes to be seen as not just selfishness but dangerously antisocial. In rebalancing the criminal justice system towards victims (at the expense of ancient civil liberties such as jury trials, double jeopardy rules and other constraints) it was openly responding to consumer (sorry, voter) demand and shifted the emphasis towards the safety of the community and away from the protection of individuals from miscarriages of justice. The worst of our anti-terror laws are an example of a state run along the principles of risk aversion. Privacy – which is at the heart of any concept of liberty – comes to be seen as selfishness. This is the utilitarianism of management, not the principles of a free society.
An economy supposedly based on the efficient policing of risk collapsed around us. Humans are spectacularly bad at predicting and shaping the future – and the very attempt in an age of doom-saying is bound to mean suppression of freedom. What it means is subservience to an imagined future.
But such thinking should be resisted for other reasons. There are plenty of signs that issues of liberty will be important in the next election. We should be wary of platitudes. The great threat to liberty comes from the habits of a risk-averse society. We should remember that there is more to pubic life than technocratic management. At the end of the road marked 'risk-aversion' is the fortress society. Safety, not liberty, first.
To pretend that the delivery of services, justice and security are ideologically neutral is to conceal the truth. They are laden with ideology. We need more politics, not less. Asserting values over the powerful (but delusive) promises of total safety and fear of the future takes courage. It is the same courage which brought about liberty in the first place. Cowards die many times before their deaths.