Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Saturday January 07 2006

Well, it seemed to pass off okay.  Afterwards someone asked for my phone number so they could maybe ring me about giving another talk, which is the first step towards any kind of proof that it was actually much good.  Also, my friend Bruce the Real Photographer still wants to pick my brains about how to give talks, in exchange for me picking his brains about environmentalism, which was another good sign.  I got a few laughs.  Before that, they seemed to be listening.

I’m afraid the actual subject matter proved too much for me.  I had bitten off far more than my somewhat lackadaisical extemporising ways enabled me to chew, but I did say quite a lot of what I wanted to.

Roughly, what the talk was about was how the steady rise to its recent state of world-engulfment of Total War as a way for Great Powers to settle their differences, followed by the abrupt switch to having to get along with one another better, following the invention of atom and hydrogen bombs, plus the new ruling class nightmare of terrorism, had successively different effects on the libertarian movement during the last two hundred years or so.

Libertarianism, after a successful phase earlier in the nineteenth century, was eclipsed at the end of that century, because the demands of preparing for Total War, and then of actually fighting Total War, made libertarian arguments unwelcome to those who ruled the world.  More recently, our rulers have been much more welcoming of libertarian ideas about economics, because it no longer makes sense for them to be preparing for Total War, by, for instance, ensuring the survival of “strategic” industries, such as steel or agriculture, by pissing off foreigners with tariff barriers and such like.  Total War would be a catastrophe as soon as it started, so there is no sense in preparing for it, merely in doing the necessary minimum to deter it.  Hence “globalisation”.

However, the new ruling class nightmare is that they will wake up one morning to learn that Paris, or Chicago or Birmingham or Berlin, has been blotted off the map with one big bang, perpetrated by . . . who the hell knows?

Hence the libertarian failure to make much headway in the area of civil liberties.  Our rulers believe that they need, not to know everything, but to be able to find out about anything in particular.  Anything at all.  Any impediment to them finding out whatever they want to find out must be brushed aside.  Any means of increasing their power to investigate any particular thing or person, by means of such things as satellites or electronic cards or tags, are welcome to them.

As are regulations, of anything.  Regulations mean that we are all guilty, of infringing some damned regulation or another, and if they want any particular one of us to co-operate with them by, e.g., spying on a colleague or filling in the gaps of their knowledge about, e.g., our siblings, they can easily persuade us, with selective enforcement of these ubiquitous regulations.

Think of those scenes in US TV cop shows where our hard working heroes enter a bar and show a picture to the barman, only to be told that he’s never seen the guy in his life.  But something about the blank stare the barman then subjects them to convinces our heroes that actually the barman knows more than he is telling them.  At which point they start a conversation about health and safety inspectors, “one of whom just happens to be a good friend of mine”.

The point is that even if you are entirely innocent of any infraction against the regulations they decide to throw at you, the process of fighting off the attack is itself immensely worrying and burdensome, even if successful.  So the threat of detailed official scrutiny is, for most of us, enough to scare us into telling these people whatever they want to know.

That’s the way the world is heading, I fear.  I made up a little story along these lines, involving a university lecturer (I pointed at a guy in the audience who looked a lot like a university lecturer and afterwards turned out to be something like that – he is a scientist anyway) whose brother they wanted to check out, and when he was reluctant to assist, they did him for failing to inform his students at the beginning of the academic year about the location of the fire exits to his lecture theatre.  “So you want your students to burn, do you?”

Later a questioner from the floor, in the course of trying to throw doubt on my qualified admiration for President George Bush, told a story about how her brother had been doing something that US officialdom didn’t like, and they had done him over for using the wrong door of some law court.  The point here being that this enormous apparatus of snooping, although allowed to come into existence because of what I sincerely believe may well be genuine concern on the part of our rulers about the threat of terrorism, is most unlikely to be confined to combating that threat.  In the case of this lady’s brother, his crime was not that they thought he might be a terrorist, but that he had done some investigating into George Bush’s personal finances.

I am now in a rush to get out and do various things, including attending another event this evening, which means I have no time to include any links in the above.  Sorry and all that, but you get what you pay for around here.