William Paley on English Liberty


The liberties of a free people, and still more the  jealousy with which those liberties are watched, and by which they are preserved, permit not those precautions and restraints, that inspection, scrutiny and control, which are exercised with success in arbitrary governments. For example, neither the spirit of the laws nor the people, will suffer the detention and confinement of suspected persons, without proofs of their guilt, which it is often impossible to obtain; nor will they allow that masters of families be obliged to record and render up a description of the strangers or inmates whom they entertain; nor that an account be demanded, at the pleasure of the magistrate, of each man’s time, employment, and means of subsistence; nor securities to be required when those accounts appear unsatisfactory or dubious; nor men to be apprehended upon the mere suggestion of idleness or vagrancy; nor to be confined to certain districts; nor the inhabitants of each district to be made responsible for one another’s behaviour: least of all will they tolerate the appearance of an armed force, or the military law, or suffer the streets and public roads to be patrolled by soldiers; or, lastly, entrust the police with such discretionary powers as may make sure of the guilty, however they involve the innocent. These expedients, although arbitrary and rigorous, are many of them effectual: and in proportion as they render the commission or concealment of crimes more difficult, they subtract from the necessity of severe punishment. (William Paley, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), 17th edition 1809, Vol. II, pp. 295-97).

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One response to “William Paley on English Liberty

  1. Christopher Houseman

    All credit to Paley for voicing discontent with the erosion of liberty in what contemporaries might have called “the global war against post-Terrorism”. By contrast, I can’t help wondering whether to check for a liberty pulse in the British people today, content as they often are to be bagged, tagged, numbered, taxed and bossed about from birth to death.

    It’s also interesting to read Paley’s belief that the drive to improve “national security” pushed the crime rate down because the super-criminal state pushed the smaller fry out of business. I’m inclined to disagree with him about this because of interviews I’ve seen with former gangsters.

    They recalled that the restrictions imposed on civilians in WW2 were a kind of golden age for gangsters, smugglers and looters. They and their mates often looted bombed-out buildings either by pretending to look for bodies in the rubble, or by impersonating (or volunteering as) an ARP warden.

    Granted, the Napoleonic Wars were very different from WW2 in many ways. But criminals who can’t get enough votes have always been willing to commit crimes under the cover of being assistants of the state.