by D.J. Webb
The way social power is used is very important in English thought. We have always admired measured used of power and the giving of opportunities to the weak to put their point of view in open judicial and other processes. For example, the judicial review provision of the courts aims to prevent the government from implementing imperious and poorly considered decisions. The government must give evidence of having considered various interests properly before coming to its decisions. While I cannot accept the way judicial review has morphed into judicial striking down of decisions that are properly executive, I do see the reasoning behind the development of judicial review.
The importance of measured use of social power was underlined to me when I saw the BBC’s television dramatisation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South. That drama is highly recommendable, and shows a lady seeing a “master” (a factory owner) beating his employee later exclaiming:
I saw you beat a defenceless man who is not your equal!
Now I can’t find these words in the book itself. Nevertheless, a traditional view of the way in which relations between the classes ought to be handled is contained therein. Those who have social power are in a position to abuse it, and for that very reason they should exercise the self-restraint required not to abuse it.
Part of the reason why employment legislation exists—legislation that is abused and monopolised by politically correct interest groups to advance their agendas—is lest some low-level managers take it upon themselves to behave in overbearing ways towards their employees. For example, employers are not to use “constructive dismissal” (sly and underhand methods of encouraging people to resign their jobs). The libertarian view on whether such laws are required in a welfare state is for another article. But I am citing this as an example of an area of law that has mushroomed into existence because of the importance in our culture of measured use of power over others.
We may contrast, by way of example, the Chinese culture, where abuse of power is the norm among the governing classes. Until recently, it was the norm for “work unit leaders” to insist on taking the virginity of their female employees as the price of their written permission for their marriages. When I was in China, living in Kunming, I heard of a fuss at Yunnan University, where the foreign teachers all complained to the administration about a university official refusing such a permission unless he could take a young teacher’s virginity himself first. The law has since been changed and Chinese employees are not longer required to get the written permission of their work unit leaders in order to marry. The reason the law was changed was because such abuses had become the norm.
Another example is the Chinese government’s persecution of a blind peasant who became a self-taught lawyer, Chen Guangcheng. He defended the rights of peasants to their land, and was arrested on absurd trumped-up charges of “disrupting the traffic”, something a blind person could hardly do. His case became famous when he fled to the US embassy and was eventually allowed to move to the US. To us in the West, persecuting a blind man appears to be a very low thing to do, the sort of thing no self-respecting ruling class in any country would do.
Clearly, therefore, in the Western culture, being careful how you use social power is an important principle. And yet we seem to be losing sight of this principle as self-serving bureaucracy sets in in English culture. An unpleasant example that came to my notice recently was the case of the “natural home” in Pembrokeshire (see http://naturalhomes.org/save-charlies-house.htm). A home was built by a young man using natural materials, including using tree saplings to form the beams and joists of the house, on his parents’ land. The innovative house cost him £15,000 to build, but Pembrokeshire Council have now decided to bulldoze it, because “benefits of the development do not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside”. No one viewing the images of the house at the link could agree with this assessment. But more broadly, this is one of an increasing number of cases of heavyhanded use of power in the UK, something to which I fear we are becoming inured.
Everyone has his own favourite example of this sort of thing. There are numerous reports of people being tasered for no sufficient reason in the UK. The behaviour of the Yorkshire police after the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy—a longrunning saga of deliberate vilification of the dead and a refusal to take responsibility by the police—is a clear example where our rulers no longer feel they have moral constraints on the use of power. High death rates due to neglect by nurses at many hospitals also reflect the invincibility of the public-sector workforce, who know they can do anything they like to their patients.
The cultural revolution on matters racial and sexual seems to be a particular area where abuse of power has become the main way of advancing the political agenda. The case of Emma West, whose children were taken into care after she issued a trenchantly worded lament for England’s plight under multiculturalism in a Tube carriage, has been much-commented on by the Libertarian Alliance. My “favourite”, if that is the right word, was the case where a child was locked alone in a room for referring to “chocolate on the face” of a black schoolmate, while the police were called and the parents warned that social services could become involved if the child did not verbally adhere to the political agenda of the authorities.
It seems to me that moral vilification of opponents of the cultural revolution has been used as a way of justifying abuse of power against them. In turn, fear of extreme reprisals then creates a climate of fear that naturally calls forth compliance with the authorities’ agenda(s) on a number of disputed issues. I think we can go further and see that a greater tendency towards the employment of female officials in the state (and female managers in the private sector) has helped to produce a greater volume of personally invasive, spiteful and vindictive actions by those with power over others. One example is the female official in Rotherham in charge of the abduction of children being fostered by a family believed to support the anti-EU party, UKIP. It seems women speak the language of pretending to care and pretending to be outraged by various things more fluently than men, and so we have an increasingly nasty officialdom to contend with in the UK. This sort of thing is not confined to the public sector, however, but is a cultural shift exhibited by the managerial class as a whole.
Whether it is the officials who authorise a spying campaign on a family who put too much rubbish out for collection—how can there be such a thing as too much rubbish? If something is rubbish, it needs to be disposed of—we are sleepwalking into a culture that has lost its moral bearings. Oddly enough, the state officials use their perception of their moral superiority to justify frankly immoral actions which amount to abuse of the rights of Englishmen. Where there was a clear class distinction between the Establishment and the rest, the privileged few were well aware of the need not to overdo the exercise of power. Nowadays, it is all faux egalitarianism and over-the-top crushing of dissent. I fear it will not be so pleasant in the future to be among the lower orders of the English nation, a population that will be walked over roughshod by an Establishment that feels it is demonstrating its moral credentials by doing so.
This cultural shift poses a problem for libertarians. For where there is no moral compass in society, people naturally call for state intervention to prevent abuses. In the absence of employment legislation, it seems likely, for instance, that “Little Hitler”-like behaviour among managers would become even more widespread in the private-sector workplace. (Workplace dismissals for private political views?) A free society presupposes some commonly accepted cultural notions of the right way of doing things. For this reason, we ought to speak out against high-handed government—while also bearing in mind that high-handed behaviour is not limited to government, and that, as a wider cultural problem, it is found in the private sector too.