FLC153, That Sheep May Safely Graze, Sean Gabb, 26th September 2006

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 153
26th September 2006

That Sheep May Safely Graze
by Sean Gabb

This evening, the 26th September 2006, the BBC will broadcast its latest Whistleblower programme. This investigates the sharp and often illegal practices of court bailiffs. They are accused of tricking debtors—and frequently third parties —out of thousands of pounds that are not owed.

According to a report in The Daily Mail, the bailiffs in one firm are accused of:

  • Doubling or tripling a judgment debt, and then appearing generous by deducting £100—and keeping the whole excess for themselves;

  • Telling the relatives of debtors that they would have their own possessions seized;

  • Threatening debtors with violence;

  • Breaking and entering the premises of debtors and of third parties.

So far as they are true—and I have not seen the programme in question—these accusations show patterns of behaviour of which I was not previously aware.

Now, of course, if the law has been broken, those breaking it, and those procuring its breach, must be punished. If the law has been abused, it must be changed, so that the rights of debtors and of third parties are more effectively protected. There can be no doubt of this. Laws exist to shield the innocent and to protect the legitimate rights of all. They should not be suffered to exist as a systematic weapon for the unscrupulous.

This being said, the story raises a disturbing thought in my mind. This is to what extent people who think and behave like sheep deserve to be treated like human beings.

If someone knocks on your door waving a piece of paper and demanding money, it is reasonable to expect that you will insist on reading that piece of paper. If you do not understand the meaning of the words on that piece of paper, it is reasonable to expect that you will demand an explanation of its meaning. If a satisfactory explanation is not given, it is reasonable to expect that you will seek advice from someone else who is competent to give such advice. If you stand aside and let him in to burgle your home, you have—in what is still a country based on law— consented to your own oppression.

I believe that some of the victims whose stories are told in the programme could not be expected fully to insist on their legal rights. There is the story of a man dying of cancer, who was plundered because someone else had illegally used his disabled parking badge. There is the story of children terrorised with the threat that their mother would be sent to prison for non-payment of a debt. But many of the victims of these bailiffs were adults operating under no obvious defect of health. These people do not seem to have behaved reasonably in the face of purported authority. So far as they failed to challenge the legality of what was done to them, they largely have themselves to blame.

Now, I can hear an answer forming to what I have just said. "Sean" it goes, "you are middle class. You have a legal education. You are not particularly frightened of the ordinary organs of the British State. You know roughly what your rights are and how to get them respected. These are poor and ignorant people whose attitude to authority is one of terrified respect. They do not know what their rights are. They do not know how to find out what these are or how to enforce them. You cannot expect them to behave as you might in their position. You are speaking like one of those people who give libertarianism a bad name."

There is something in this answer, and English law has tried for many centuries—if not always consistently or very well—to take it into account. The phrase "poor and ignorant people" is enshrined in the Rules of Equity. Judges have sought to apply contracts with such people with a requirement on the stronger party of just dealing.

The problem is that, during the past hundred years or so, the poor and ignorant have been given the same political rights as everyone else. They are allowed a say in the election of a government. They cannot be trusted to look after their own affairs. But they are trusted with a vote that allows others to look into our affairs.

If this were a problem affecting five or perhaps even ten per cent of the adult population, it might not be a serious nuisance. But is a problem that, during the past hundred years of so, has been greatly compounded.

When he was alive, I used to discuss with Chris R. Tame to what extent many people, even in the better ages of our country, were two legged sheep. How many people, I would ask him, knew why they should be angry with Charles I and James II? How many people were in the habit of demanding due process of law in their dealings with the authorities? His answer was always "enough people to make a difference".

The difference between then and now is that there are not now enough people to make a difference.

On the reasons for this change, I could write a book and still not do justice to the theme. But there are a number of reasons obvious enough not to need more than a cursory treatment.

The first of these has been the rise of an extended welfare state. I have no principled objection to some state welfare. If people are, through no gross negligence of their own, in want, I will consent to pay taxes for their basic relief. This covers some maintenance for themselves, so health care, some education for their children. The law should not encourage claims. It should, much rather, encourage self-help and should encourage voluntary provision for much else. But I do not wholly reject some role for the State in relieving certain kinds of want.

However, the welfare state we actually have goes far beyond these minimal functions. It discourages self-help. It tends to co-opt voluntary provision—where it does not positively discourage it—into the agency of the State. It has raised up an army of people whose attitude to the authorities is one of supplication. They have resigned care over their own affairs to the authorities, which stand over them as a parent does to a child. It is asking too much to expect such people to retain any habits of self-respect or of independence. When faced with the demands of authority—whether real or purported—they will defer.

I do not need to enter into the further question of how such deference arose and is sustained. It may be purely a cultural change in response to changes of institution. Or it may be— as I suspect—a genetic change in the character of the British people. We lost close on a million of our best young men in the Great War. We lost millions of others in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to emigration. Is it possible that those who remained—these being less brave on average and less resourceful—then bred further generations of the similarly unfit? Is it possible that their breeding of these further generations was facilitated by welfare policies that externalised the costs of procreation?

There is, I do suspect, something in this argument. But I do not need to go any further in its development. And it would lead me into connected arguments that it might not be in my best interests to elaborate. But indiscriminate welfare, I do not see any reason to doubt, has raised up an army of two-legged sheep.

I turn to the second reason. This is the general corporatisation of our economic life. Until a few generations back, most people in the middle classes were self-employed. If they paid income tax, they dealt directly with the authorities. Regardless of whether they earnt enough to pay the modest income taxes of the day, they had to make all the important decisions of their lives for themselves.

The great majority of middle class people nowadays are the salaried employees of large organisations. Whether these organisation are openly departments of state, or are state-privileged trading bodies in the formally private sector, they expect and impose habits on their employees of external reliance. These people resign everything from career development to pension planning to their employers, and defer in just about all matters to their line managers. They sell their time to a single client. If they are dissatisfied with the deal, they look for another. And never think to expand the number of clients.

The effect has been very similar to welfare corruption. Most people in this country, of whatever degree, are not self-reliant individuals. Even if they acquire an intellectual understanding, they do not directly understand how free people think and behave.

This explains much of how this country now operates. It explains the endless scare stories in the media—everything from "global warming" and "passive smoking" to the alleged danger of letting ordinary people own and use firearms, to the case for omnipresent surveillance cameras on the roads and in other public places. It also explains the demands that "something must be done". Little of this nonsense, I agree, comes spontaneously from the people at large. It proceeds in nearly all cases from the agenda of various interest groups that want power and income for themselves and their clients. But the successful unpicking of our ancient ways proceeds from the fact that we are—for whatever reason—no longer the people among whom those ancient ways emerged and took hold.

We have become like the Roman People of the early Principate. These were no longer the people who had faced down Hannibal outside the gates of their city. They were no longer even the people who rioted at the funeral of Julius Caesar. There were instead the tame people who let the funeral of Augustus pass without disturbance, and of whom that frustrated conservative Tiberius spoke when he condemned himself for having to govern a nation of swine.

If there is ever a successful reaction here to this unpicking of our ways, those directing it will need to make some hard and radical decisions about the nature of political accountability. I believe those Victorian liberals were wrong who insisted that all adults could be trusted with the vote. But there was enough in their insistence for conservatives not to fight tooth and claw against the extensions of the franchise. But most people now are not to be trusted with the vote.

This applies most obviously to those unfortunates who appear to have let themselves be plundered by dishonest bailiffs. It also applies to those who feel more than commonly sorry for them, and to all those who are content to have control of their lives be fought over by the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron. Some of these people have good incomes and nice houses. Some have good taste for clothing and antiques. Some have considerable formal education. But they are not the equals of those who cried "privilege" against the Ministers of Charles I—or who took up arms against him, or even for him.

Some accountability is necessary for all constitutional government. But the nature of this accountability is not always most effectively based on universal suffrage. It cannot be so in a nation where the majority are in the legal sense "ignorant".

What it should be after any Great Reaction I cannot yet say. But I will watch this evening’s episode of Whistleblower with an uncommon interest.

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