Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"Tough on Crime and Tough on the Causes of Crime"

This was the mantra repeated endlessly before Tony Blair and New Labour was elected in 1997. Since then there has been at least one Criminal Justice Act every year. And whereas crime statistics show declines, people's perceptions of crime are rising. There is a conceptual gap.

Today Blair announced his new "Respect" agenda, which focuses on anti-social behaviour. It's central premise is that traditional approaches to justice must be reversed in order to protect civil liberty because "19th century" concepts of liberty are no longer relevant. The accused had received more protection than the victim. During his speech he appealed to the social contract, Hobbes, and Tawney. He emphasized that "membership of our society comes with responsibilities and rights."

There are two strands of thought in action here. One says that anti-social behaviour is bad and must be punished and eradicated. The other says however forget due process because anti-social behaviour is exactly that, it is an aspect of social life and so doesn't belong in the legal sphere. In this way it is brought to the same level as traffic offences. The burden of proof is reversed; there are instant fines; and no process of appeal that is not awkward. Implicit in Blair's message is the idea that once someone engages in anti-social behaviour, they forego the right to be treated as moral members of society. They are in a state of anomie.

While Tony Blair invokes eminent social commentators to reinforce his argument that respect has to be reimagined and raised to a common ideal, he veers away from the reasons why his programme is probably doomed. Durkheim attempted to show that states of normlessness, anomie, were the result of a fundamental change in society from a simpler "mechanical" state where there was less differentiation to a complex, more specialized "organic" state. Mechanical organization could employ reciprocity, barter, exchange, and so forth. Our modern organic state relies on arm's length contracting, bureaucracy, and specialization. This creates the breeding grounds for dissatisfaction, antagonism, the cult of celebrity and more. People are lost within their community.

The last twenty years of the 20th century with Thatcherism, the fall of the communist bloc, and Blair's reiteration of Thatcherism hastened the feeling of anomie. A prime principle of this period was deregulation. But what was intended was the deregulation of economic activity. There is no intelligent design here. Once deregulation starts, it is almost impossible to say it will not spill over into social activity. Of course it has and with that there are challenges to authority and a growing scepticism about notions of respect.

What Blair would like--and the Chinese Communist Party also--is demarcate these two spheres of life. The economic should be unfettered: let the market reign supreme. The social should be regulated: conservative incrementalism. As the Chinese mainland government is discovering, it's very difficult to keep these apart without introducing massive distortions into society. How do you let gasoline prices rise without damaging industries and consequent layoffs of many workers? What do you do with the unemployed? How do you keep them content with nothing? It can't be done.

One of the crucial elements that underpin a free market that inspires confidence is reliance on the rule of law. If the contract goes sour, there are remedies. If there is no free social behaviour, then presumably there is no need for due process. Without due process, without the rule of law in social life, how are the "aberrants" supposed to become morally-charged beings fully engaged with their community? On what basis can this take place? Frankly I don't know. But the contradictions inherent in Blair's position are too great to be ignored.

He's pushing "parenting orders", commands to parents of errant children to become better parents or be punished. Why not take it a step further and issue licences to those who fulfill the criteria to be parents? Once they have passed their parenting tests, they can have children. Shades of China's one-child philosophy here. In Huxley's Brave New World individuals could be switched on via genetic programming, a new form of eugenics.

We are a long way from the kinds of genetic programming that politicians may hanker after. But we are dangerously close to the exercise of social and psycho-eugenic programming. It's a form of social conservatism that is frightening in its consequences. It flouts the basic premises of human rights, but then although Blair spoke of rights, he never once mentioned human rights.

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