Monday, May 15, 2006

Freedom and punishment

In many respects I consider myself a libertarian, and I agree with much of the outrage expressed in some quarters (Samizdata, for one) over the UK government's curtailing of civil liberties. On the other hand there are trends and behaviours which I think it is the responsibility of the State to curtail, decisively if need be, and I don't feel that these two concepts are at all contradictory. This dichotomy is inherent in some rather interesting recent comments by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal:
Returning briefly to England from France for a speaking engagement, I bought three of the major dailies to catch up on the latest developments in my native land. The impression they gave was of a country in the grip of a thoroughgoing moral frivolity. In a strange inversion of proper priorities, important matters are taken lightly and trivial ones taken seriously.
This is not the charming or uplifting frivolity of Feydeau's farces or Oscar Wilde's comedies; it is the frivolity of real decadence, bespeaking a profound failure of nerve bound to have disastrous consequences for the country's quality of life. The newspapers portrayed frivolity without gaiety and earnestness without seriousness—a most unattractive combination.
Do read the whole thing. In this respect today’s remarks by Tony Blair seem to be somewhat encouraging:
Launching Labour's Let's Talk consultation, Mr Blair said: "I believe people want a society without prejudice but with rules - rules that are fair, that we all play by, and rules that when broken carry a penalty.
"And the truth is that most people don't think we have sufficiently such a society."
Mr Blair said there should not be "continual legal battles to deport people who are committing serious crimes or inciting extremism".
Drug-abusing offenders should not be put back out on the street without proper supervision, he said, and people flouting probation orders had to be penalised.
The lack of a connection between what the public expects from the criminal justice system and what it gets is becoming a recurrent theme for Mr Blair.
Maybe he too reads Dalrymple? It seems to me that if what he is saying is in fact a realistic assessment of the prevailing public opinion, then there is still hope for reform, be it under his watch or under his successor's.
At any rate, it seems clear to me that an appropriate balance can be stricken, and that there is much work to be done to reach that point. On the one hand it is appalling that people are being arrested for making frivolous comments. Everyone should be able to say absolutely anything they want, no matter how controversial, counterfactual or offensive it may be, as long as they are not directly inciting to acts of violence. This is clealy not the case at the moment, which I find deplorable. At the same time a person who visits violence on others (unless it is clearly in self-defence) needs to be subjected to extremely severe punishment, which should allow (limited) flexibility only in extraordinary cases of intense remorse and a proven willingness and ability to make a new start. This is also not the case at the moment, and Tony Blair, rightfully in this respect, indirectly blames the "human rights" and "civil liberties" crowd for this, as they focus exclusively on the rights and liberties of those who should be punished and not on those of everyone else.

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