Defend the Right to Make the Wrong Choices

It is good to see some cottoning on to the importance of standing up for liberty in New Labour's second term. But we need to go much further in defence of freedom.

It is good to see some cottoning on to the importance of standing up for liberty in New Labour’s second term. But we need to go much further in defence of freedom.

The UK government has proposed or already pushed through a raft of authoritarian measures that promises to do everything from attacking people’s right to trial by jury, to granting the authorities new powers to intercept email (1).

This grim manifesto has yet to cause much disquiet among the massed ranks of supposedly rebellious Labour MPs (2). But it has prompted some concern outside parliament, among both right-wing and liberal commentators (3).

The problem is that too many would-be defenders of freedom are inconsistent in their attitudes to our liberties. Many on the right will insist upon the individual’s right to hunt with hounds or own a gun, but are less keen on standing up for the right to abortion or gay equality. On the liberal left, meanwhile, something like freedom of information is a popular cause, but few will defend free speech for racists.

One result of this shilly-shallying is that much of the talk about liberty becomes a self-serving charade. So a former Thatcherite cabinet minister like Peter Lilley can now pass himself off as some kind of radical-thinking freedom fighter, simply by suggesting that perhaps cannabis might be decriminalised - a policy that those well-known libertarians, the Metropolitan Police, are already implementing in Lambeth.

Let’s get serious about this. What is required today is a more consistently pro-liberty approach; one which insists that individuals be allowed to live as morally autonomous, responsible adults, with a right to privacy, and freedom from intrusion by the state or quasi-state agencies.

In the coming months, spiked will be seeking to develop just such a consistent approach to freedom. One idea which encapsulates some of what we want to defend is the Right to Make the Wrong Choices.

The notion of ‘choice’ is a key concept of these consumerist times. Too often, however, what it means in practice is that you have the right to choose between those views and lifestyles of which society approves. But liberty does not mean the freedom to be fashionable, any more than it means the right to be reactionary. Nobody should be allowed to undermine important freedoms simply because they object to what somebody else does with them.

There can be no such thing, for example, as ‘Freedom of expression for everybody except the National Front’. You either have free speech, even for scum, or you do not have it at all (4).

We need to insist upon people’s right to make the wrong choices, not just in the realm of politics with a capital P, but in relation to all of the ‘lifestyle’ issues that are so hotly debated today.

Take the recent discussion about new technologies that might make it possible for parents to select the sex of their baby. It involved a lot of interesting arguments about genetics, demographics, the ‘gender gap’ and differing cultural practices. But the point nobody seemed willing to make was the most important one.

Why is it anybody else’s business to tell people how they should conceive, give birth to or raise a child? In the same vein, what business is it of others to tell a woman in her fifties - or older - that she should not use IVF to get pregnant? The parents are the ones who have to live with the consequences of the choices they make. Instead of being lectured about the need for responsible parenting, they should be allowed to take proper responsibility for their actions.

The same principle applies across the board. If people want to diet until they almost disappear, or smoke cigarettes, or feed their baby on formula milk, or spend every spare minute lying in the blazing sun, that is their prerogative. We should not put up with the army of health and ethics experts who are now trying to police both public debate and private lives.

To be clear on where we stand: spiked has a libertarian ethos, but not of the one-eyed variety. We do not believe in the right to shoot unarmed burglars in the back, or the right of the drunken motorist to speed through a red light. But we do insist upon the right to decide how we live in autonomy from the state.

We are not concerned with some abstract concept of ‘freedom’ as an end in itself. Instead our concern with upholding real liberties relates to a broader ambition to set a new agenda for social and political change.

That agenda will be the stuff of much future discussion on spiked. For now, we want to raise the demand for the right to make the wrong choices. Feel free to disagree, tell us why we are wrong, and put us right. Free speech is still one of the most important freedoms of all.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked

(1) Put liberties first in New Labour’s second term, by Mick Hume

(2) Debating liberties - not, by Bruno Waterfield

(3) See, for example, Bonfire of the liberties, Mary Riddell, Observer 8 July 2001, and A free country, Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph 5 July 2001

(4) Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy, by Brendan O’Neill

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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