From Free Life, Issue 23, August 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112
by Sean Gabb
Looking the other day through and old copy of The Times (13th April 1995), I read about a conference, "The Governance of Cyberspace", held last spring at Teesside University. So far as I can tell, its various delegates did nothing but complain about the Internet. Some complained about pornography, others about holocaust revision – some about recipes for making drugs and bombs, others about the "elitism" of a network that not everyone will or can join. But, whatever their pretext, they all agreed that free communication was a new and bad thing, and that the governments of the world should all get together and stop it.
I added this report to a file of similar cuttings from the British and American Press. Ever since enough people realised what it was, there has been a growing clamour against the Internet. This is entirely to be expected. For the past three generations, throughout the West, the authorities have been quietly recovering the ground lost to them in the 18th and 19th centuries. There has been nothing deliberate about this, nor often anything fully conscious. It has come instead from an unfolding of statist ideas; and this has let it proceed with a subtlety and coordination of effort that no mere conspiracy of persons could have equalled. Without any direct assault, the institutions of liberalism have, one after the other, been overthrown. Liberty of conscience and of unlicensed printing, for example, once embodied two principles – that individuals have the right to believe whatever they will, and to communicate this without hindrance. The institutions remain, their principles repudiated. Today, we can read about religion things that might have shocked Voltaire. But the important debates are no longer religious. Where they are important, there are new catechisms and new forms of blasphemy – and a policing of them that, increasingly, any inquisitor might have recognised.
Turning to the press, this remains unlicensed in name only. Faced by the giant governments of today, able to give or withhold information, and make credible threats of privacy laws and right of reply laws or extensions of VAT, it is subject in reality to a kind of licensing that makes compromise a fact of daily life in most countries. As for the newer media, these are openly and minutely regulated. We live in a world where freedom of speech is formally guaranteed – and where in a few minority publications it is exercised – but where the power of the authorities to manipulate what most people read and see and hear has hardly been greater since the invention of the steam printing press.
It is this power that the Internet destroys. It allows information to flow from one person to thousands or millions of others, without having to pass through a newspaper or broadcasting office. In the United States, where it is most widely extended, people are learning things that the established media dare not publish – about the massacre at Waco, about the two explosions at Oklahoma, about what crimes their President committed to get into the White House. Admittedly, much of what flows round the Internet is nonsense. But this simply calls for – and is producing – a revival of the critical faculties that newspapers and television seem almost designed to smother. I have no doubt that when the Internet has fully arrived in this country, there will be a similar transformation. There will be anonymous uploads of leaked Government papers, and of Ministers photographed with their rent boys – preferably with voice-overs from speeches about The Family. There will be open access to literature now banned or made artificially scarce. There will be no more official covering up, no more vanishing of dirt at the mere sight of a libel writ.
Looking ahead, there may be still greater benefits. At the moment, the desire of governments to tax and control everything in sight is turning from a drag on progress to an attack on civilisation. Black markets are an obvious answer. But their growth must be limited while they lack a real medium of exchange. Used banknotes are fine for getting windows cleaned or buying the occasional contraband. But the money laundering laws prevent a more extended commerce by anyone but the most dedicated or criminal. And the likely abolition of cash within the next decade will be a serious impediment for everyone.
However, the Internet will soon allow ordinary people to do what the rich have long since been doing – to open foreign bank accounts and use them for their more private or illegal transactions. All we need is a country that the United States cannot invade or otherwise bully into compliance with "international norms" – and there are plenty of these. Its banks will offer accounts that are guaranteed secure for all purposes, with payments routed through the Internet. I will not speculate on the precise form that payments will take – though it will probably use pgp or some other public key encryption, to hide the contents and verify the senders of electronic mail.
Once a payment system like this has emerged, it will spread uncontrollably. It will be used to make some payments in whole, and to top up others. I imagine secure ways will even be found of converting money back into domestic currency. Doubtless, there will be prohibitions. But even if enforceable, these will be a dead letter. The politicians will have too strong an interest in concealing their own affairs to go beyond ritual noises, while the tax receipts collapse and the instruments of state control wither away. And so the great counter-Enlightenment will come to a halt. Life, liberty and property will again prevail; and the progress that was first diverted and then slowed after 1914 will resume in the 21st century.
Or so I hope. Of course, if the kind of people who attended the Governance of Cyberspace conference ever have their way, none of this will happen. If they can impose their collective will on the Internet now, before its potential has been realised, they may permanently stunt its growth – keeping it as a medium for mail order shopping and the transfer of government records.
It may be, as I often believe, that the main struggle has already taken place, and been lost by my side. But I may be wrong.
According to my Daily Telegraph (17th July 1995), the National Front has just changed its name to the National Democrats. This has angered the Liberal Democrats, "who believe [that] party's extreme beliefs should debar it from calling itself 'democratic'".
I disagree. They have far more right to the word "democrat" than Mr Ashdown's followers have to the word "liberal". No doubt, the National Democrats are the usual dreary fanatics, who boycott Marks and Spencer and think the Government can make us all rich by printing x trillion ("non-interest bearing") £ 5 notes. But they are undeniably democrats. They organise. They select their candidates. They fight election campaigns. Whatever they might do in government, I have seen no evidence that they plan to get there without first winning a general election.
But the other Democrats can by no stretch of meanings be called liberal. For the most part, their attitudes and opinions are the exact opposite of anything to be found in the works of Locke, Adam Smith, Macaulay and J.S. Mill. Even Keynes, if he were alive, might denounce them as confused state worshippers.
I suggest it would much clarify our politics if these rivals could agree to share the word that really does describe them – becoming Democrats (A) and Democrats (B), perhaps – and shed the words that do not describe them. Libertarian patriots like me and my friend and proprietor Chris R. Tame could do a lot with the words "liberal" and "national". Just think of a multi-racial movement, wrapped in the Union Flag and committed to reviving the traditions that once made this country the freest and richest and strongest in the world.
But, whatever deliverance may come from the Internet or new political movements led by Mr Tame, I see none from the Tory Party. I never shared my friends' optimism about the leadership election; and the "new" Cabinet is no worse than I expected. Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister! Malcolm Rifkind as Foreign Secretary! Michael Howard left at the Home Office to complete his abolition of the Common Law! All this in a party that has lost two thirds of its membership since 1990, and is just waiting for another 1906 at the next election!
More importantly, I do not share their optimism about what will happen after this. The present wet ascendency within the Party may be a coalition of intellectual and spiritual dwarves; but these tower above most of "our" people in the House of Commons. Just look at them.
Look at Norman Lamont, the earliest of the potential challengers in the leadership election. Some of my friends actually respect this most discredited of politicians. His Euroscepticism did not keep him from sitting in the Cabinet that approved the Maastricht Treaty – or from doing everything possible to keep the Pound in the Exchange Rate Mechanism. We must all swallow the occasional toad, but Mr Lamont in office had an almost Gallic passion for them. Except he was finally sacked, he would still be at the high table with his mouth wide open.
Look at Teresa Gorman, twice recently described to me as a "libertarian pin-up". One look at her voting record should knock this phrase on the head. In 1988, she supported the clause in the Local Government Bill banning the promotion of homosexuality and nothing else. In 1994, she voted against lowering the homosexual age of consent either to 16 or to 18. Since she was not whipped into these things, and doing otherwise was hardly the political kiss of death, I take them as more reflective of her true beliefs than any impression she may accidentally have given that she is "one of us". Of course, we need to make alliances with such people. But I see no reason for worshipping them.
Look at John Redwood, the real challenger. Like Mr Lamont, he sat for years in a Cabinet that he now denounces for following policies hostile to the public interest. To be fair, he is an open authoritarian; and had he become Prime Minister, even more police state laws than Mr Major is delivering would have been no surprise. But take his promise to end corruption in high places. This was an odd promise from a man who – though himself of spotless integrity, I have no doubt – ruled Wales as something like a mafia colony.
Look at Michael Portillo, the future challenger. There is nothing wrong with being only half English and bilingual. There is nothing wrong with denouncing foreigners as corrupt. It is strange, though, to combine them. It is no recommendation to do the second twice in the same month, and to excuse each occasion as "off the cuff". Nor, when pressed, is it any recommendation for a man of 40 to let his friends join in with remarks about the exuberance of youth. Nor, perhaps more seriously, am I impressed by a man who could neither honestly challenge the Prime Minister in the leadership election nor honestly support him. I disliked Mr Portillo on sight. Even without evidence, I thought him a vain buffoon, less interested in ideas than in getting the right starch for his shirts. Nothing I have learned since then gives me reason to think he is worth supporting for the Party leadership, now or in the future.
I could continue like this for page after page, weighing the leading figures on the Tory right. But it is enough to say that I find them all wanting. We cannot look to them for deliverance. We might find people with more sense of what needs to be done, and with more ability to do it, by picking names at random off the House of Commons catering payroll.
Bearing all which in mind, I will finish here and go back to fantasising in quiet about a revolution by Internet.
© 1995 – 2017, seangabb.
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