The Price of Freedom

First of all, apologies for missing my post on Wednesday, and apologies in advance for missing one on Wednesday; I’ve had a lot of stuff to do over the past week and will be away during the next one. Ah well, on with the post…

We in the west set a lot of store by democracy; in America especially you will hardly be hard-pressed to find someone willing to defend their ‘rights’ and freedom to the hilt, regardless of how dumb you think that particular right is. Every time a government attempts to ban or restrict some substance or activity, vast waves of protesters will take to the streets/TV/internet that their right or ability to do X or Y is being restricted in direct contradiction to every document from the Magna Carta to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

However, if we were permitted to be totally free (the ‘Altair’ end of the Order of Assassins/Knights Templar spectrum), with no laws restricting our activity, then we would quickly descend into an anarchic society. Murder, rape and theft would go unpunished as the minority of the evil-minded quickly became the majority by simple need. Various models of a system of anarchy, including mine predict an eventual return to an ordered society of laws and structure, and we can all agree that serious crimes are Bad Things that probably are worth restricting, even if it requires us to restrict our ‘freedom’ to a certain degree. Clearly, freedom is not worth such crimes, and thus we have laws.

In fact, most of our legal system can be counted as a direct result of the law-setter in question asking ‘what is freedom worth?’. If the law is in place to restrict an activity, then freedom is counted as not being worth this activity for either moral, financial or practical reasons (or a combination of the three), whilst other, more unrestricted, activities, freedom is considered worth allowing. And, perhaps more interestingly, a vast majority of political debate can be essentially boiled down to two people’s different opinions concerning what price we are prepared to pay for freedom.

Take, as a simple example, the British government’s recent ‘pastie tax’, levied on hot baked goods. This was partly an attempt to bring in some much-needed cash for the government in their efforts to cut the deficit, but also has some  degree of a health motivation. Such food is frequently sold cheaply from fast food retailers and the like, meaning it is an easy source of hot, tasty food for the poorer or lazier sections of society; but their fat content is not kind to the waistline and an overconsumption of such foods has been linked to ‘the national obesity epidemic’ that everyone gets so worked up about. This obesity problem is a major source of concern to the NHS, and thus the government who pay for it, since in the long term it causes a dramatic upsurge in the number of diabetes cases. This is an expensive problem to combat and presents a major health hazard for the country as a whole, and the government (or at least George Osborne, whose annual statement the tax first appeared in) decided that this dual cost is not worth the freedom to enjoy such a snack so cheaply. This, as with all vaguely new and interesting decisions in a rather dull report concerning how poor the country is, was debated aggressively in the media, with the healthy eating people and economists broadly speaking backing the idea (or complaining that there was not enough done/government is stifling growth/insert predictable complaint about economy here) whilst others criticised the plan as just another example of the Tories targeting the lower rungs of society who most frequently enjoy a cheap meal from these sources. To these people, today’s world is an expensive and difficult one to live in, and the ability to have a hot, greasy, tasty meal for a price that they could easily budget for in the long run is a freedom well worth whatever obesity problems it is causing. Such fundamental differences of opinion, particularly concerning taxation policy, are the irreconcilable forces that mean two political opponents will frequently find it impossible to back down.

In some other cases, the two participants of an argument will agree that freedom isn’t worth cost X, but will disagree on the mechanism for restricting said cost. The debate concerning the legalisation of drugs is one such example, for whilst part of the debate centres around a difference of opinion as to whether the freedom to get stoned is worth the cost of a country full of stoners and the consequences thereof (don’t believe anyone who tells you marijuana is a harmless drug; it isn’t, although the degree of harm it causes is generally the cause behind such debate), another cause of disagreement concerns the problems of the drugs war. Opium is the biggest source of income for the Taliban (and a very large one for Afghanistan as a whole), whilst the gangs and cartels who operate the Latin American drugs trade have been directly linked to human trafficking, prostitution and other atrocities during the ongoing drugs wars with their local government. This is a particular problem in Mexico, where since the government’s announcement of the ‘war on drugs’ there have been over 47,000 drugs-related murders. Everyone agrees that this is a Bad Thing, but a difference of opinion arises when considering which course of action would prove the most successful at combating the problem; the ‘legalise’ faction say that to legalise drugs would be to force the small-time criminals out of business as the well-policed official channels of trade took over, where sourcing and supply is performed by businessmen held accountable for their actions. At the very least, they suggest, it could do us good to lessen the sentencing of drug offenders and try to encourage quitters rather than just clamp people in jail, as this allows us to discourage people more easily and get to know more about the problem. This approach is implemented to an extent in Europe (especially the Netherlands), whilst the more stringent laws of the United States (states such as Colorado excepted) take the opposite line; they say that to relax drug restrictions simply encourages use, gives more trade to the cartels and only increases their power. Whether they are right or not is very much up for debate since the alternative hasn’t really been tried on a large scale, particularly in America; but the growing movement to look for an alternative solution to the problem, combined with the statement from former presidents of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia that ‘the war on drugs has failed’ means that we may soon see how the other approach ends up. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue- the stats from the Netherlands tell me that drug use will increase with decriminalisation, which I don’t especially like the prospect of (that stuff’s not for me, and I’m not entirely sure why it should be for anyone else either), but it strikes me that this approach may reap dividends when it comes to combating the secondary problems caused by the drug wars. A friend who is kind of into this business (and, incidentally, comes firmly down on the ‘legalise’ side) recommends the YouTube film ‘Breaking The Taboo’, which you may want to watch if this kind of thing interests you.

…OK, that one slightly got away from me, but the discussion got kind of interesting. The key message here, really, is one of self-examination. Take a look at your political views, your outlook on life in general, and then ask yourself: to me, what is freedom worth?

Advertisements

…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.

I love bandwagons…

I originally planned to devote this post to something lighthearted and utterly irrelevant, but today is the wrong day for that. Today, anything written online that is not about SOPA and PIPA is only so much pissing in the wind.
For those of you who don’t know what SOPA or PIPA are- *CLAP* *CLAP* *CLAP* WAKE UP AND LOOK AROUND THE WEB A BIT MORE! They are two bills proposed by the US government that set out, basically, to attempt to restrict and regulate the internet. SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA for the Protect IP Act. These, broadly speaking, classify websites into ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ (relative to the US) , and then grants the government, via the attorney-general, the power to censor any site that is found guilty of violating or, more importantly, facilitating the violation of, copyright restrictions as per US law. The idea is to prevent online piracy, such as the streaming of  films that are under copyright.
In theory, nice idea. In practice- an appallingly worded document that, if implemented, has the potential to turn the internet insipid.
Problem One- the level of censorship. When the power is given to censor a website, this MEANS censor. This means search engines have a duty to scrub it,  its financers can no longer back it, domain hosters have to give it up, everything. Seems like a good idea to restrict piracy, but in fact it won’t work. The US government is in fact funding projects enabling people living in repressive political regimes to circumvent these blocks, and by just typing in the IP address of what you’re looking for you will still get to it. What it actually does is make it nigh-on impossible for any site found guilty of violating the act to publicize themselves, which neatly leads me on to…
Problem Two- what is considered a crime is far too vague. “Facilitating the activities [of copyright infringement or counterfeit products ]” can apply to a huge range of subjects, even as simply as telling somebody how something is done. This basically means any site relying on user-generated content can be targeted and the law can be very easily abused by any legal smartarse. This could lead to hundreds of sites becoming censored for activities almost totally unrelated to copyright infringement- the proposal itself even says it is not just targeting sites “dedicated to theft”. The most potentially destructive thing about this however, is…
Problem 3- a person can be targeted simply for sharing a link to a site. This massively restricts the potential for small websites to grow- how would webcomics ever spread if the internet couldn’t share them, for example? The process of sharing things, telling your friends, spreading the word, is how any business or trend grows, and is a wonderful thing. It happens in all walks of life, so why should it be banned on the internet? Why are you not entitled to the same rights to do this online as in the real world? Why is there…
Problem 4- the bill restricts your right to free speech online. Because of the level of censorship allowed by the bill, once a site has been blocked, all future AND PAST references to it will be blacked out entirely- this will not just mean you can’t click on a link in an old blog post, it will mean you won’t even be able to read that blog post. One of the great things about the internet is its potential as a tool for discussion, allowing people who may never meet to talk about what they want, whenever they want- introducing these restrictions could kill that off to a surprising extent. Plus, of course, the right to free speech is a fundamental human right, included in the UN declaration of human rights as something that shouldn’t be inhibited. This is not as serious as the political restrictions imposed in some countries, but because of the potential for abuse of the law it could give the US government the power to silence anyone talking about something they deem as wrong- one could argue a discussion advocating a socialist state, a perfectly valid view to hold, could be banned for advocating state ownership rather than personal ownership and so violating copyright law- a ridiculous argument, but one that could be applied, especially knowing the US’s traditional stance on left-wing politics. Similarly targeted could be anyone making spoof videos or making references to popular culture, leading to…
Problem 5- this bill could render hundreds of the internet’s favourite sites insipid. YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and more could all just become mires of indifference who can’t say anything that would offend the government for fear of being blocked. Thousands upon thousands of pages could become replaced with big banners stating that they have been blocked by the government, ruining the internet’s brilliant potential as a tool for sharing information across the world. And speaking of across the world…
Problem 6- these bills can block almost ANY major site, regardless of origin. The bill has tried to restrict itself to only policing the US by defining sites as ‘foreign’ or domestic’, but the definition of these two categories is so broad, vague and draconian that any site of any size , which will almost certainly have US connections, could be attacked under this law, while all-american sites are just plain old screwed over. This, plus the universal nature of the web, means the US will be enforcing its laws ON OTHER COUNTRIES AS WELL AS ITSELF, which is a violation of democracy if ever I saw one- much of the UN is opposed to these bills for that reason.
In short, therefore SOPA and PIPA are draconian, wrong and should be fought tooth and nail by every internet-lover the world over. As you may have picked up from earlier, I’m British, so you might not think that this really affects me- but much of the content I love on the web is American, and I want to protect it. Across the web today, thousands of sites are blacking out or making protests against the repression of the internet, and there are many links to online petitions or email addresses of senators to try and get this bill opposed. Please, if you’re reading this, do your bit for the web. Oppose SOPA and PIPA. Free the internet.