19 March 2013

Levenson


My twitter stream tells me that three hundred odd years of a free press are at an end, that blogs like this one are going to be regulated by the government.

It might even be true. The establishment is quite capable of riding a popular wave and then doing something completely unrelated when they actually get around to acting. After the Dunblane massacre, the government banned crossbows. After the World Trade Centre bombing, the government passed a law giving itself the power to seize the assets of Icelandic banks. It is perfectly plausible that the government would respond to the News of the World accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail by silencing bloggers.

On the other hand, the cross-party negotiations that produced the agreement yesterday appear to be the usual symbolic battle about nothing at all, this time in the form of a pointless distinction between “statutory” and “non-statutory” regulatory frameworks. Some some of the commentary takes that argument seriously, making me doubt whether the commentators concerned are actually paying attention.

I don’t know. I’m perfectly fine with not knowing. If this new thing really is going to restrict my blogging, I’ll find out soon enough. The only case in which I would need to know now would be if I could actually do something useful about it. It is that illusion that causes all the ignorant flapping speculation about something that will be perfectly obvious within a few months.

In any case I can’t get too worked up because, while I believe that basic freedom of communication is an important freedom which governments should respect if they want the society and economy to function smoothly, I don’t believe in the “political right” of free speech as a way of opposing the government. I don’t believe in any political rights, and if the government tries to shut me up, it is making my own argument for me.

Effectively, my ignorance is doubled. As well as not knowing whether the government is or isn’t going to seriously clamp down on the press and/or blogs, I do not know, in the full context, whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing. I might be fairly sure that, other things being equal, it would be a bad thing, but other things are not equal. The end of press freedom might cause a major reactionary swing, which might hasten the downfall of the democratic regime and the restoration of Royalism, which might be a good thing. It might cause a major liberal swing, which might preserve the democratic regime longer than otherwise, which might cause a better successor regime to replace it than would otherwise be the case, which might be a good thing. Not only can I not judge how likely these outcomes are, I can’t imagine the depth and breadth of knowledge that would make it possible to judge how likely those outcomes are. It’s preposterous for me to sit here and claim to know whether this is good or bad.

Finally, of course, and looking only at the short term effects that it is actually possible to estimate, the government is far too incompetent to actually be able to suppress opposition media. Not only that, Western governments have gone to great lengths to provide mechanisms for dissidents in non-democratic countries to publish electronically without effective control. Either we can use those, or the non-democratic governments themselves will provide a mirror-image in order to show up the incoherence of the West. Imagine the UK trying to lean on China to shut down websites used by British dissidents — they would laugh their arses off.

The real suppression we face is by society refusing employment or otherwise acting informally against those who hold unfashionable opinion. That is the reason I write anonymously. But that exists already, and we are coping with that — I don’t think the law will produce nearly as much oppression as exists already in the form of unwritten liberal blasphemy law.

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