A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Society Has More Power Than Law

David Cameron at the G8 summit.

David Cameron is partially right about ostracising absent fathers - he may have been sweeping in his generalisations and discriminatory in only apportioning the blame to feckless men when there are countless examples of women acting in a similar manner, but, broadly speaking, he was correct. The idea of society regulating itself, rather than laws being imposed from on high, is a concept that's been absent from government for a number of years. Since 1997, in fact. It's about time it was reinstated.

For the last thirteen years, social liberals have had their way with the country, starting off with a massive majority, which lasted them all until Gordon Brown's dismal tenure. They initiated - or inflicted - some of the most ambitious changes to society in the last fifty years, and, in doing so, gutted many of the processes by which society self-regulates. Traditions, morals, values, codes, and individual responsibility all played a part in ensuring that people saw themselves in relation to others and had a responsibility towards others. New Labour did away with most of those things; tradition was marginalised, morals were replaced with moral equivalence, values were spurned and discarded, moral codes were frowned upon as illiberal, and individual responsibility was gradually eroded by increasing financial dependence on the state and government interference.

In 1997, the state's role was already being to expand rapidly, but the ascent of Tony Blair and New Labour took it to new heights. Before long, we had council officials telling us when to do our exercises and local government representatives telling us what to eat. They were advertising campaigns telling us what we should and shouldn't do - not what we can't do, but what we shouldn't do. The size and scope of the state ballooned under New Labour. The result, although it was one that even the opposition didn't draw attention to, was depressingly predictable: if you strip society of its ability to self-govern, what are you going to have to introduce? Laws. New Labour introduced three thousand new laws. Three thousand. That's one every day or so for the whole time it was in office.

So the ability of society to manage itself - as every society in the world has done since the start of civilisation, in some way or another - was greatly diminished, and a flood of new laws - often rushed through and poorly thought-out - filled the gap left behind by the fleeing standards that had once occupied that ground. Social liberals removed the aspects that allowed society to function without the excessive hand of the state, and then tried to prevent the ensuing social carnage by legislating against every new social predicament that they encountered. It was a bit like playing whack-a-mole. No sooner had they spied a problem that arose as a result of their social tampering, they had banned it, imposed a fine on it, or created a new quango to chew through a multi-million pound budget, whilst making it look like it was 'dealing' with the problem.

Unsurprisingly, all this achieved nothing. The quangos were nice, with flashy names and trendy slogans, but they could do nothing other than publish reports by think-tanks and renovate their offices. Most of their time was consumed by making themselves look relevant, rather than actually dealing with whatever problem they were tasked with solving. Their police did their best to enforce the raft of new laws, but, frankly, how are even they supposed to know what the laws are when there are simply so many of them? Remember the old saying, what isn't illegal is legal? The British people used to be able to put their finger on exactly what they could and could not do under the law; if it wasn't explicitly banned, you could do it. That went out the window. Now, it was hard to tell what was legal and what was not: if it could be misconstrued as 'dodgy' by anyone in a uniform, then it was probably wise not to do it.

There's a limit to how much the government can do. Society is far more unrestricted. Let's say that the father - or the mother - of a young child wanted nothing to do with their new family and wandered off? What can the law do about that? Fine him? Imprison him:? All menial things that will ultimately make no difference to a man who's quite prepared to do such a thing. Society, on the other hand, can hit these characters where it hurts: he may be able to pay off a fine or do a spell inside, it's no problem. He's just ran off from his family, he doesn't care. But he'll think twice about ever doing such a thing if he knew the cost would be his friends and his social life, or even his relatives, suddenly treating him with contempt and disgust.

The state - law - can enforce minor inconveniences. Society can take away things that really matter. Sometimes the most effective punishment can be one delivered freely by disgusted friends rather than one delivered by the over-extended arm of the state. Being silenced and spurned is a much more effective deterrent, too, than being hit in the wallet or locked up for a spell.

David Cameron should make it a policy of his - preferably separate from his 'Big Society' routine - to return as much authority to self-regulate to society. A lot of the problems in society at the moment - rising teenage pregnancy, runaway fathers, benefit cheats, gang crime, animal abuse, etc. would be solved - or be a lot easier to solve - if society turned its back on these people, rather than tolerating, or even glorifying them. The state can do nothing effective to people that walk out on their families, defraud the taxpayer, or beat up their dogs - society can. It is not laws that David Cameron should be promoting and enforcing; he should remove the state from the tiny aspects of our private lives, make some effort to promote personal responsibiility, and let society get a handle on itself again.

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