July 15th, 2010


Vaclav Klaus: Freedom Under Attack

I don't think of myself as being a Conservative like him, but somehow or other Vaclav Klaus keeps saying things that nobody else seems to be saying, and with which I usually find myself in agreement.

He's recently delivered a speech in German, which was then translated into Czech. It's now been more or less translated into English by Lubos Motl. Here are a few extracts from it, occasionally with some improvements by me of the English, but I hope not of the sense.

Although we expected just the opposite event to take place, the fall of communism hasn't strengthened classical liberalism and its position in the contemporary Western society. Instead, it has weakened its position, however paradoxical it may sound...

After the fall of communism, the majority of mankind began to believe that the world has suddenly switched over to a new state of permanent safety in which even good old classical liberalism has become unnecessary. Either knowingly or unknowingly, they adopted the non-liberals' theses about classical liberalism being an obsolete and outdated anachronism. They have also accepted a concept that contradicts all of history, namely that mankind has entered a new, previously unknown epoch. They began to believe in de-ideologization of politics and in the "information" or "knowledge" society (and they are very upset whenever I remind them that Brezhnev also similarly believed in the scientific-technological revolution, surely much more so than he believed in communism itself). They began to believe in the end of the history or the end of ideologies. Gerhard Schwarz knows that these ideas are terrible mistakes that are soon going to strike back at us.

These majority attitudes are gaining an ever increasing amount of space and support and they lead to the gradual formation of a new version of Huxley's "brave new world" which is leading to a new (or old-new) form of an illiberal societal arrangement.

He's quite right. After the Berlin Wall fell, and the Communist bloc disintegrated, everyone heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the Cold War. It was no longer necessary to trumpet the virtues of freedom and democracy and open, liberal society. The big bad wolf was dead, and the trumpet could be put back in its box. And now we're finding that we're losing the freedom and democracy of our formerly open, liberal societies. It was as if the old Soviet Union kept us on our best behaviour. Once it was gone, we ceased to bother - as if it had all been mere rhetoric.

In international relationships, states are being increasingly suppressed and replaced by victorious European communitarianism (a particularly successful branch of various globalisation doctrines). Any sign of efforts by one country or another to strengthen its sovereignty is labeled as nationalism. Something as absurd as global governance is significantly strengthening at the global level.

In the realm of ideology (and among large secular religions), environmentalism became the latest fashion. During recent decades, it has been transformed into the largest - because more likeable than anything else - threat to human freedom and to the prosperity that accompanies it. In philosophical thinking, the dominant themes are destructive relativism, contempt for rationality, postmodern lack of correlative reasoning, and inconsistency of thinking in general.

Nothing to add to that.

It was largely inevitable - and not just a historical mistake - that our Western world has pushed us to this highly illiberal arrangement again. In my opinion, the main reason is that for at least two decades, everyone has been largely satisfied that any rough totalitarian push to suppress freedom has become a thing of the past - which is why no one is currently trying to protect genuine freedom. It seems as though (or, at least, some people try to paint it in this way) freedom is just a pettiness or pedantry. What's wrong with mandatory helmets for bikers and skiers? What's wrong about the smoking bans? Why shouldn't the people be told to replace the light bulbs by allegedly more efficient ones (with inferior light)? Why shouldn't the vaccination against swine flu be mandatory? After all, it helps everyone, including those who don't know about its advantages yet.

Isn't it great to hear a European statesman question smoking bans? And mandatory helmets. And dimbulbs. We could do with a Vaclav Klaus in Britain. He complains about

an unbelievable superficiality and indolence of current thinking.

e.g. the 'Big Society', and 'Your Freedom'? Political debate is utterly vacuous these days. 20 years ago it was very much alive and kicking.

He goes on to complain about pop culture and the permissive society. As a child of the 60s, I can see his conservatism there. Bubble-gum pop culture and the permissiveness that accompanied it was always being tut-tutted about back then. He also complains about declining standards of education.

A key role in the deepening and strengthening of these processes is played by the media's pop culture and especially its most visible component - television. It has replaced words by images. A consequence is that thinking - which takes place in the form of words - has been replaced by watching. Most people have become mere viewers who watch the world around them, and passive objects of their own fate. This majority is not being seriously informed about the world; it is being mystified and manipulated...

The mainstreams in politics and the media are exhibiting an unprecedented unity, at least in some aspects. While in the classical era of liberal democracy, the media were usually playing the role of the opposition towards the establishment, today we see something completely different: the politicians are adopting the media's catastrophic scenarios (for example, global warming) and they are adjusting politics to match these scenarios. In the same way, the media are propagandistically supporting governments (e.g. when it comes to the ever deepening integration of the EU) and they manipulate the citizens to uncritically accept many questionable political decisions and trends. They are unanimously painting the world as an arena where new threats are constantly emerging - but also a space where only one correct solution exists.

In front of our eyes, one catastrophe comes after another every day. As soon as it gets depleted in the media, it's replaced by its successor...

...this kind of unity among the propagandistic and manipulative players in the political and media mainstream has only ever been known in totalitarian dictatorships - which some of us still remember it very well.

Klaus should know. After all, he lived for 50 years under Communism. Then he turns to the return of Keynesian interventionism:

Crises can't be completely avoided. Crises have to take place. In their very essence, they're curative processes. They represent a necessary and irreplaceable liquidation of unsustainable economic activities that were based on previous mistaken decisions. It's not sensible to liquidate crises by an artificial conservation of these activities which is paid by the immense increase of the debt...

The current socialist visionaries are no longer satisfied with Keynes' revolution. They want to go one step beyond it - to restrict the markets even more so than Keynes intended.

They were being helped by the recent financial and economic crisis which was undoubtedly more serious than the crises in the recent decades. But it was not caused by the markets. This particular crisis was caused by ambitious yet irrational interventions of the state to the interest rate policies and to the money supply in the U.S. which was accompanied by an ill-conceived state regulation of the financial sector. Another wave of suppression and distortion of the markets is being proposed as a solution: it de facto removes the market from the game. The market ceases to be - and it's something we sufficiently realized during communism - considered an autonomous system. Instead, it is becoming a tool in the politicians' hands. I can't believe my eyes - although we live more than two decades after the fall of communism - when I encounter statements such as "the economy has to serve the people" (the main slogan of a recent gathering in Davos) or "financial systems in the services of the mankind" (headline above one EU country's president on a big financial conference).

I'm not sure what Klaus (who is an economist) would have done differently with the current crisis. Perhaps he would have just let the banks go bust? I don't know. What he does seem to be saying is that state intervention to stop the banks going bust merely served to extend the crisis and delay recovery. It certainly seems to me that by shovelling public money into them, and racking up enormous debts in the process, the crisis has simply been transferred from the banks to the states that have bailed them out, and that it will be states (like Greece) which will go bust instead.

He then considers Europe:

I don't accept the opinion that "the more European, the better", "the more we integrate, the more we can win", and "the more state power goes to the European institutions, the better". I am convinced that a positive future of Europe can't be guaranteed by continuing in this direction. Another thesis of mine is that it is necessary to respect Europe and its historical evolution rather than to try to construct it right now and from scratch, using our disdainful reasoning...

Contemporary Europe is an immensely complex conglomerate of historical deposits, rational and irrational complexes and prejudices, various historical experiences that make things more difficult, but also entirely legitimate and significantly differing interests of the individuals and whole nations that live in Europe as well as the states that constitute Europe. To move across this terrain without the respect towards its fragility is a symptom of political blindness and deafness which are hiding significant risks...

I want a Europe that will build on a rational and friendly collaboration of equal and sovereign states, not a "homeland" of all Europeans that is artificially organized from above. In particular, however, I want the citizenship to remain the main principle in the arrangement of any human community in which it is possible to live freely. So far, that was also the most characteristic feature of Europe relatively to the rest of the world. However, to create citizenship on a continental level is not possible.An authentic citizenship can only exist at the level of natural state entities. I consider this thesis of mine to be the key to the whole problem.

My sharp opinion about these things originates, among other things, from my personal experience with communism in which I have spent more than two thirds of my life. This system has also denied the equal rights and sovereignty of states. It was organized from above rather than from below. It has de facto suppressed the principle of citizenship because it was based on internationalism rather than the respect towards the state as a necessary and irreplaceable primordial entity that underlies any genuinely democratic political arrangement.

That's the way I'd like to see Europe as well. As a collection of co-operating sovereign states, not a European superstate with its capital in Brussels.

I think the point about authentic citizenship is very important too. I'm English, and I'm always going to identify with England (much as I like many other countries). I'm never going to be a euro-citizen, as hard as I might try. The same would be true if I were French or Spanish.

The EU has been completely substantially changed in one more aspect in recent years. This change was caused by the immense expansion of the Union that took place in the first decade of the 21st century. The European Union that began as a bloc of 6 countries has been expanded to 12 and 15, later to 25 and three years ago to 27 countries.

We could say that at least to some extent, the initial group of six, but maybe even the bloc of twelve or fifteen countries constituted (up to a few exceptions) a specific and relatively homogeneous entity that was defined in a clear contrast to the rest of Europe. That's why they could aspire to create a special kind of federation or a quasi-state that could - eventually - be gradually unified and centralized by new and new Lisbon-like treaties.

The EU has simply become too big, too fast. And it's trying to impose a one-size-fits-all political model on a diverse patchwork of cultures.

The diversity of the national identities, traditions, cultures, habits, and historical experiences has always been and still is a European treasure. But the present European integration views it as a problem and it ignores the complexity of this historical terrain. That's why there are strengthening attempts to force all aspects of lives of the citizens of the European member countries to follow unified rules. The absence of the political assumptions and the impossibility to create new functional democratic mechanisms at the European level have an inevitable consequence, however: the deepening and acceleration of the European integration is increasingly occurring via technocratic and bureaucratic methods, behind the backs of the citizens.

I'm not sure why it's 'impossible' to creat functional democratic mechanisms at the European level. Maybe it's because Europe is just too big. But it's quite clear that there is a real democratic deficit in Europe.

It's quite a long and wide-ranging speech of a sort that I can't imagine a single contemporary British politician who might have been capable of making it. Nor of making anything remotely like it. Can you imagine Nick Clegg saying anything like it? Our politicians simply lack this sort of perspective. They are unbelievably superficial.

It's a very thought-provoking speech. And perhaps the explanation of the current increasingly illiberal trends in Europe does indeed go back to the end of the Cold War. Once the communists of the Eastern Bloc had gone, the European conservative guardians of freedom went to sleep. But their internal opponents on the political left did not go to sleep, and it is their influence that has paradoxically become dominant throughout Europe over the past 20 years, to the point that our Lib-Dem party is a party of the Left, and so is the Cameron Conservative party. We are where we are because of the absence of the right as an effective countervailing influence. Which is perhaps why it's so refreshing to hear an authentic conservative speak.

Maybe we need both left and right. Much like having both hands on a steering wheel. Remove the right hand, and the weight of the left hand upon it turns the wheel to the left. And so we're now heading off the lefthand edge of the road. If it had been the other way round, we'd be heading off the righthand edge of the road.

ASH Rattled, Eh?

It seems that the multitude of suggestions made on Your Freedom for the repeal or amendment of the smoking ban has rattled ASH:

Pro-health campaign ASH has accused the tobacco industry of orchestrating pro-smoking comments on a website launched by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in a move to get ‘unnecessary’ laws and regulations scrapped...

On the first day the site went live at least 18 people called for less restrictive laws on smoking in pubs, tobacco advertising or signage, making it one of the most popular topics...

An ASH spokesperson said: ‘No politician in their right mind would consider advocating overturning the smoke-free legislation.

‘I think this surge of suggestions has probably been put up by the tobacco industry and campaigners, but it is probably a bit of a fad and will all die down.’

I wonder when politicians will realise that, despite ASH and other antismoking organisations declarations that the smoking ban is widely approved of, even by smokers, most smokers hate it in the same way that Jews in Nazi Germany hated the Nuremberg laws. Like them, however, there is little or nothing they can do about it.

I visited Your Freedom, and voted for the various calls to amend or repeal the smoking ban. I didn't even bother to make my own suggestion along the same lines. What I did do, a few days later, when site moderators started closing and deleting many of the anti-smoking-ban suggestions was to suggest that moderators who did this should be fired.

Who am I? Which tobacco companies do I work for? Which pro-smoking activist organisations do I belong to? I don't work from any tobacco company. I've never even had an email from a tobacco company. There's never been a comment in this blog from any tobacco company's representative. In fact I never hear anything from tobacco companies at all, ever, anywhere. And I'm not a member of any campaigning organisation. I'm just someone who used to enjoy going to pubs and having a quiet drink and a smoke, sometimes with friends. I'm someone who has, as a result of the smoking ban, had my social life pretty much entirely destroyed - because after the ban came into force, there was nowhere welcoming and hospitable to meet people any more. I'm very far from being alone in this. It's the experience both of smokers I know personally, and of people who have commented on this blog (see the right margin appeal). And I'm angry. I've been angry for 3 years at this piece of wanton destruction of the culture of this country. I'm particularly angry because the ban has been based on the lie - the outright lie - that passive smoking poses a health threat. What the ban is really is a naked attempt at social engineering, to make people stop smoking by allowing them fewer and fewer places where they can legally do so. The result, in my case, has been a determination to carry on smoking.

I don't know why ASH is so bothered about the plethora of calls (about 300, last I heard) on Your Freedom for the repeal of the smoking ban from people like me. Because Nick Clegg, our Deputy Prime Minister, has already said that there's no more likelihood that the smoking ban will be amended than that capital punishment will be re-introduced - thereby indicating that the Your Freedom website is just a government stunt, a token gesture to show that the government is listening, when in fact it isn't.

So what's bothering ASH? It can only be the very idea that anyone anywhere in Britain might not like the smoking ban, and actually be allowed to say so. According to ASH, absolutely everybody - including smokers - loves the ban. So it's deeply disturbing that anyone in Soviet Socialist Britain should voice any sort of complaint at all about this wonderful new progressive measure. And ASH is the government watchdog that ensures that everyone stays on-message about the smoking ban, and no hint of dissent ever surfaces. But while ASH can control the media and the government and the NHS, the one thing it can't control is what ordinary people on the ground think and say. It can only prevent their voices being heard. Or, in this case, since it's been unable to block calls on Your Freedom for the repeal of the smoking ban, it has sought to dismiss them as the work of the tobacco industry.

It's puzzling that they think that these calls are 'a bit of a fad' which will 'die down'. That doesn't quite square with the parallel suggestion that they've been organised by tobacco companies. Why should it become a 'fad' to protest against the smoking ban 3 years after it has been imposed? 3 weeks afterwards would be more plausible.

My own guess, for what it's worth, is that the calls to repeal the smoking ban are not part of any sort of fad at all, but the expression of a deep underlying anger which isn't going to go away, but will get stronger and stronger, and harder and harder to ignore or dismiss. I know that anger because I feel it. It's not going to go away.

Organisations like ASH can only maintain the appearance of public acceptance of the smoking ban by preventing any expression of dissent in the mass media or in government. ASH is in the business of controlling the media, and manufacturing public opinion. Anyone who steps out of line, I can only suppose, will get demoted or fired. They have considerable power.

I myself saw that power being exerted on air, back in 2007, on Richard and Judy shortly after the smoking ban had come into force. They were interviewing Bob Feal-Martinez, founder of Freedom To Choose. Midway through the interview, Richard put his fingers to his ear-piece. ASH had phoned in the middle of the programme to make sure that it was pointed out that Feal-Martinez was a tobacco company stooge, and that F2C was a front organisation for them. After that, the questions got tougher. The whole tone changed. That's power. Can you imagine phoning up a TV programme while it's on air, and being put directly through to the presenter in the studio while he's talking? Me neither. But that's what ASH can do.

It's possible to control the mass media in this way because there aren't that many newspaper and TV and radio editors that need to be kept in line. While they're kept under a tight leash, the appearance of harmony and public acceptance can be maintained.

It is a complete fraud, of course. It is the most enormous fraud. It is a fraud that strikes at the heart of democracy, because it acts to ensure that the voices of the people pass unheard, and that only the voice of ASH is heard in the corridors of power, speaking 'on behalf of the people'. And it's a crime. It's a terrible crime, to tell so many lies, and to entirely subvert democracy. We send people to prison for life for much, much less. What should the punishment be for doing much, much more?

But the effect of this fraud, this stoppering of the channels of communication between the people and their representatives, is that a back pressure builds up, as people find themselves thwarted and stifled. That pressure can only get stronger and stronger, like water rising behind a dam. At some point it's inevitable that either the dam will burst, or that water will start spilling over the top. Sooner or later what people really think is going to be heard. It can only be bottled up for a little while.

The antismoking fraud carried out by ASH and other well-financed antismoking organisations is not the only vast fraud being perpetrated. All healthist 'lifestyle' campaigns operate in much the same way, and with the same mendacity, and the same contempt for dissent, and for public opinion. The AGW fraud is another even vaster fraud. One wonders where it ends. One wonders what has not been corrupted.

The longer these frauds continue, and the longer that real debate is denied, the angrier ordinary people are going to become, and the more explosive the final dam-burst will be when it comes, as it inevitably will. And by then people won't just be wanting things cleaned up: they'll be wanting vengeance. Real vengeance.

And it may well be that Nick Clegg was right that there's no more likelihood that that the smoking ban will be repealed than of capital punishment being re-introduced. Because I suspect that when the smoking ban is repealed (as one day it will be), it will be when capital punishment is re-introduced, and almost the entire present political class led to the gallows, along with every active member of any antismoking organisation, and all lifestyle health campaigners, and all climate scientists, and the entire medical establishment. And quite a few other people too. It will make the French revolution look like a tea party. And Nick Clegg will be one of them. After all, he voted for the smoking ban.

This is the sort of thing that's always likely to happen when suppressed anger boils over. This is what happens when democracy is subverted, and the voice of ordinary people is suppressed. They just get angrier and angrier. And no amount of CCTV cameras and knife bans and gun laws will stop it. It's something that democratic processes are intended to avoid, by allowing people's opinions to be heard and acted upon before they become a howl of unstoppable rage.

The simplest course of action would be to announce a review of the ban, and call upon interested parties to testify, and adopt appropriate, sensible, pragmatic measures. The other course of action is to keep lying that everyone likes the smoking ban, and keep lying about the threat of passive smoking, and keep lying about everything else, until the pent-up forces finally explode out into the world.

Will the simplest course of action be taken? Will the pragmatic and sensible thing be done? Almost certainly not. And it will take some sort of explosion to remove the obstruction. And then heads will roll. Real heads.