Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Liberal Democrats and dispersal orders

I may moan about the Guardian, but it is amazing what you learn from reading it. For instance, here is something from today:

The Liberal Democrats are to counter Labour jibes that they are "soft on crime" by performing a U-turn over anti-social behaviour measures.

The party accepts that it scored an own goal, and provided opponents with ammunition, when it voted against last year's anti-social behaviour bill on the grounds of its opposition to dispersal orders.

I am not aware that the party has been asked its view. What has happened it that Mark Oaten has changed his mind and announced it to the press.

He says of dispersal orders: "Having gone round the country, I can't, hand on my heart, say these aren't a useful thing."

A politician who is willing to change his mind in the face of the evidence is a rare and precious thing. But the idea that we Liberal Democrats opposed these orders because they were not "useful" is odd. We opposed them, as I understand it, because they gave the authorities too much power over individual citizens.

As Matthew Green told Young People Now magazine recently: "Young people have got as much right to stand in groups on a pavement as anyone else has."

Oaten's surprise that dispersal orders are useful reflects a mistaken view that is common among liberals. It holds that we face no hard choices because the most liberal measures will always be the most effective ones too. An example of this is the liberal faith - backed by very little evidence - that more sex education is the way to reduce teenage pregnancies.

I believe that liberal measures often are effective - that's why I am a liberal. But it is nonsense to pretend that we are never faced with dilemmas. If you want some philosophical backing for this idea, look at Isaiah Berlin's work on the incommensurability of values. As this encyclopedia entry says, Berlin argues that:

Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty (the latter two values, contra Keats, may themselves be incompatible); knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are "an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life"; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are"; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand.

In any case, the controversy over dispersal orders masks a deeper and more troubling question: why do adults no longer feel able to tell groups of unruly youths to clear off but seek police intervention instead?

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