Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big tax, Big Government, Big Brother

NB I am not his Sulphuric Majesty the Devil. This text is cross-posted from the blog of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

David Goodhart, Editor of Prospect magazine, has an interesting if mistaken article just out in their April edition on the subject of civil liberties, individual freedom and the database state. I'm not a habitual Prospect reader, but this one came to my attention as he makes an analogy between personal data and taxes - an interesting comparison, though one that in my view he draws the wrong conclusion from.

Goodhart's essential thesis is that people who are utterly opposed to the way the state has increasingly gathered information about individuals, from the NHS database, the DNA database and CCTV to proposed ID cards, are overegging the pudding with alarmist warnings about a slide towards a police state. Instead, we should be happy to share a reasonable amount of data because we owe it to the State, otherwise they wouldn't be able to provide decent public services.

It is here that the comparison with taxes comes in:

It might be useful if we started to see our data as similar to tax, something we willingly surrender to the authorities in return for various benefits, but over which there is also a political negotiation about how much to surrender. The liberty lobby, in this analogy, becomes the Thatcherite Taxpayers’ Alliance of the database state—wanting individuals to hoard their data and leaving the state powerless to serve citizens as it could.

Goodhart is effectively arguing for what you might call "progressive invasion of privacy", to continue the analogy with the rhetoric of those who support high taxes. This is based on the idea that it's somehow simply short-sighted and selfish to think that what you choose to do in your private life, or even what your DNA code or retina look like, belong to you and you alone, and the state has no right to force you to surrender them.

I suppose that if you hold the view that the State should have an unlimited right to dip into people's pockets and take their money on the basis that it's all for your own good, he's right. If you believe that the State can always take better care of your money then you can, then there's nothing wrong with the idea of the state invading your privacy and restricting your freedom, because Big Brother knows best. It's no coincidence that this high taxing government are also introducing so many new powers of snooping, gagging and internment.

Where he is mistaken is in what this correlation between high taxes and Big Brother actually proves. Instead of appealing to fellow leftists to abandon their pro-freedom views by making them feel dirty with the suggestion they are to the civil liberties debate what the TPA is to the tax debate, I suspect he is actually pushing people the other way.

The vast majority of the public do not "willingly surrender" their money to the state in the form of taxes. In fact, the overwhelming majority are in favour of lower taxes, and the state leaving them as much of their own money as possible, particularly because they know the Government will waste and squander large amounts of it. The reason there has been a growing swing away from support for ID cards, DNA databases and internment without trial is that people are swiftly realising that their freedom is an asset like their money - if you give it to the Government, they will squander it through a mixture of stupidity and wickedness and you will be left with nothing.


Anonymous said...

You say that an overwhelming majority of the public favour lower taxes. But where's the evidence? The public doesn't seem to vote for lower taxes and when governments do succeed in controlling expenditure (e.g. John Major), no one is grateful.

Anonymous said...

I read about this today:

This has suggested an evil idea to me. The police will treat as a criminal anyone who has a document containing a link to a child pornography web site.

Therefore, every government document should include a child pornography link on it. Then, anyone with a copy of that (like whistle blowers) can be arrested. Easy.

Conversely, I think I'll change my name to "" and wait to be databased, then set the police on the "private corporation" that has kept my details for being pornographers.

Anonymous said...

Big Brother Rules - ok?

We are already living in a big brother police state.

Warning: anybody with a history of high blood pressure in their family should seek medical advice before viewing the above.

Tenure said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tenure said...

Listen, Devil, I've been trying to email you, but I can't seem to get access to the contact details from your site, so I'll just post it here:

***Please, just pass this on if you yourself aren't interested, but know someone who would be***

As you are no doubt aware, next week London is going to be awash with Anti-Capitalist protesters, damning the bankers and damning the Government for "not doing enough" to restrain them -- by their necks.
I suspect that this is going to be reported by the media as representative of the public opinion. However, as you and I both know, this is not so, as is evidenced by the existence of groups like your own. I'm sure you've seen Daniel Hannan's video on youtube, where he attacks Gordon Brown for leading us to this crisis and then again for putting us deeper into a recession.

I'm proposing a counter-protest next week, in the vein of the "re-Tea Parties" across America -
The Revolution might have been against the British monarchy, but the Revolutionaries were the children of Britain, in terms of history and philosophy. I propose we prove this by going out and staging our own counter-protest on Thursday, 2nd April outside the G20 conference at the ExCel centre.

I have set up a group on Facebook to act as a hub for organisation - and I am working on a site to provide more in-depth information. I would love to see you all there! I am working on a site, which is still a work-in-progress, here:

Please, pass this on if you cannot make it, and please pass the word on to anyone within your organisation who would be interested in attending. I realise that only lazy, unwashed students like myself are usually the only people who have this kind of time to spare, but, if you can make it, please do!

Yours Sincerely,

Rory Hodgson

Mark Wallace said...

Anon: "You say that an overwhelming majority of the public favour lower taxes. But where's the evidence?"

Plenty of recent polling from a variety of sources demonstrates that people want lower taxes, they believe the Government squanders large amounts of their money and they see lower taxation as a better remedy to recession than greater public spending. For example, try the TPA's autumn poll:

Celteh said...

willingly surrender to the authorities

No-one does that, except through the threat of force.

Anonymous said...

A Letter to Wall Street

chris said...

Dear Mr Anoymous at 3/26/2009 12:38:00 PM, if you really are under the strange delusion that people don't want tax cuts then try the latest YouGov poll. Not only do people want tax cuts they are willing to take cuts in government to get them.

Roger Thornhill said...

Goodhart is attempting some form of triangulation. His view is disingenuous in the extreme - reeks of Fabian.

Anonymous said...

You're preaching to the choir here, so to speak, so I'll try and give you so something to think about.

I'm often left uneasy with the pro-freedom arguments on this issue because 99% of people, even market anarchists, desire some level of security in their lives. Thus, contrary to the tax argument, criticising government efforts to make our lives safer is, for most people, counter-intuitive ; an opposition to state-provided security is easily conflated with an opposition to security itself.

Whatsmore, the "civil liberties" argument is further obscured by a systematic opposition to the technologies or techniques employed. Goodhart thus appears to stand on a platform of common sense when he says "I find the cameras reassuring (on some estimates half of all British transport police convictions are won thanks to CCTV evidence)"

But its a strawman ; I have no problem with CCTV systems, databases, surveillance etc etc, none of these "methods" are, in themselves, illiberal. The problem only arises when they fall into the hands of state officials.

Unfortunately, I see far too few pro-freedom arguments being made against the state as an institution, and even fewer in defence of CCTV cameras and other security measures which are no doubt efficient when employed in the context of a society built on the principle of private property.

The question for minarchists is : if you believe that the state should maintain the monopoly use of force in society (police, national defense etc), how do you square this with your opposition to the techniques employed in trying to exercise such a role in the most efficient manner possible? If CCTV and DNA databases are to be opposed, what about mugshots and ink-based fingerprint records? The technology has changed but the principle surely hasnt. Where do you draw the line and on what grounds?

Roger Thornhill said...


Efficiency is not justification for a reduction in privacy of the innocent. To take your argument further, it would be possible to resolve things by injecting everyone with a GPS or RFID tag and constantly monitor the movements of each person, rendering it almost impossible - barring tamering - to commit most crimes against the person. Would you be happy with that? I doubt it. But it is far more "efficient" no? Face recognition via CCTV is almost doing the same thing. Network ANPR does it now for our vehicles.

The problem is not the database per se, but that it will be - and don't fool yourself about this - used for fishing expeditions which will end up seeing innocent people having to prove that in court.

Oddly, I am not against ID databases per se, but just a State run monopoly. I think multiple organisations should be able to provide ID verification services and compete. The State would need a warrant and not be permitted to retain evidence without Probable Cause. It should be so arranged that the data remains owned by the individual - the human being - so any unorthorised duplication, dissemination or retention would be a criminal act.

On DNA and Fingerprints. Fingerprints need one to be there and to touch a specific object. DNA can arrive at a place or be picked up by the remotest interaction. A hair, for example, could fall from your head on a bus or tube onto someone else who then leaves it at a scene. I know the case is not solved yet, but remember the boot of the hire car used by the McCanns - it had their daughter's DNA in there, but it could well have found its way in due to personal items being stored in there. The car was not hired until a week after the girl disappeared. If the timing of the car hire was not so firm, the McCanns would have been in a position of fighting to prove their innocence.

One cornerstone of English Common Law is Innocent until proven Guilty. With ever more laws being produced in a Napoleonic context and our "lawmakers" being sluced through with same, we are at risk.

FlipC said...

On the notion of lower taxes be careful not to fall in the trap set by the government/councils. My own county is still suffering from the neglect that over-zealous expenditure cutting has had.

The councils present it as a simple dilemma - If you want these services you have to pay for them; if we decrease our expenditure we'll have to decrease those services.

No! What you do is make the services you provide more efficient thus providing the same services for less money.

This is where the polls get screwed up. Ask someone if they're in favour of cutting back on services and they're likely to say no. Ask the same person if they're in favour of lowering taxes and they're likely to say yes. The councils tie these polls together throw up their hands and say "Well you can't have both"

Anonymous said...

Hi Roger,

Efficiency is not justification for a reduction in privacy of the innocent. To take your argument further, it would be possible to resolve things by injecting everyone with a GPS or RFID tag and constantly monitor the movements of each person

No indeed, but the point was, unless you believe in the total abolition of the state where do you draw the line? And if "efficiency" isn't a good measure of "good" and "bad" police enforcement techniques, what are? And are they any less arbitrary?

On what grounds does one legitimise speeding cameras, fingerprinting, mugshots etc., while objecting to CCTV and DNA databases?

The problem is not the database per se, but that it will be - and don't fool yourself about this - used for fishing expeditions

Even if we supposed that the database would be used for all the right reasons, I would still oppose it on the grounds that the state is operating it, perfectly or imperfectly.

A hair, for example, could fall from your head on a bus or tube onto someone else who then leaves it at a scene

Again, this is not an objection of principle but of practicality.

The problem with the current civil liberties argument is that it offers no alternative, it simply disputes "how far" the state should be allowed to go. The average person is thus lumbered with the worst of both worlds ; a monopoly of force but with no provision of acceptable security. No right minded person is going to live in fear and will probably make concessions to the state despite libertarian objections, which is the sentiment Goodhart and other statists tap into when making their case.

Oddly, I am not against ID databases per se, but just a State run monopoly

A state without a monopoly on the use of force would cease to be a state, which would mean you favour the anarchist position? It would be a logical one to hold and one I favour.

neil craig said...

If the argument for human freedom were simply to dispute that big brother knows best it would be weaker than it is. Sometimes those incharge do know nbetter than the ordinary citizen because there are a lot of citizens bringing the average down. It fails because those in charge cannot have as much information about your own wishes as you do & because usually those in charge have more interest in playing up to their own or their friend's vested interests than to the common good.

Ari Block said...

Whores and Assassins have got it right they have a simple model, you pay they give you the goods.

There is a fix and simple price for their service depending on the service level you would like.

The key point being simplicity, could we say the same thing about the government ?

Both the government and whores expect you to pay and will send thugs if you don't.

However whores unlike the government have clear pricing, and a customer oriented service.
And you get what you pay for!

So lets replace the government with a bunch of whores can only improve the situation in my opinion

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