Friday, 16 November 2007

Freedom of Blah (II)

I have a hard time getting worked up about civil liberties. They're the talk of the town at the moment in British public life, mainly because of two things: the government is planning to issue ID cards to all legal UK residents; and there are calls for extending the time limit for detention of terror suspects without charge from 28 days to 56.

What's wrong with me? On the face of it, these are the exact things that somebody with my political views and background should be campaigning stridently against. But I just can't, no matter how hard I try, see what the fuss is all about.

I think it all stems from the peculiar way that human rights in the West are conceptualised. In the visions of Locke, Rousseau, Paine and Hobbes that our societies are based on, the State is seen as the great danger in society - the monolithic institution that will crush individual autonomy and deny our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This leads to a vision of 'human rights' as fundamentally about protecting individual liberties - especially freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the right to be innocent until proven guilty.

In Japan, people just don't have that view about human rights. There, rights are about the good of the community - they are conceptualised as the framework by which society's safety is ensured. In other words, the majority of people have the right not to be put in danger from terrorists, to be the victims of crime, or to be denied work because of illegal immigrants, and it is worth sacrificing the individual liberties of terrorism suspects or other criminals in order to protect those rights. Things like ID cards and detention for 28 days without charge are staples of the Japanese legal system, because society as a whole places more importance on the rights of the majority to live in safety than on the rights of the minority (criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants) to have their civil liberties protected.

During my time in Japan I, like all legal foreign residents, had to carry around an ID card and inform the government about my place of residence. At no point did I find it irksome, and I certainly didn't view it as an infringement of my rights. I barely gave it any thought, in fact. That's just the way Japan has chosen to run its affairs - individual freedoms are less well protected by law in that country, but the trade-off is that it's a very safe and secure place. I don't think the Japanese have the balance perfectly right, but as it stands it's better than the one that pertains in the UK, the US or France - unless of course you plan to commit crimes or plan terror attacks.

I, for one, won't be singing and dancing on the rooftops if I have to carry around an ID card in Britain. But at the same time I hardly see it as a step towards coming under the thumb of Big Brother as many of my compatriots do. In any case if that's what people were really worried about they'd be campaigning against the CCTV camera systems that are slowly kneedling their way into every corner of urban Britain - but oddly, they rarely do.


zero_zero_one said...

I don't object to carrying an ID card: but I do object to having to pay for it. Wasn't there some minor controversy a while ago when the cost of the proposed plan was supposed to be £300 per card?

I'm not sure how I feel about holding people for great lengths of time without allowing them certain rights or charging them... I think it sets us on a potentially dangerous path.

PS - don't forget to send me an email to my googlemail account when you find out about your results!!!

noisms said...

I'm not sure how I feel about holding people for great lengths of time without allowing them certain rights or charging them... I think it sets us on a potentially dangerous path.

But we have a system in place to prevent us going too far down that path - i.e. an independent judiciary, an active media, and opposition parties.

Kelly Mahoney said...

Right now, there's a dustup in Washington, D.C., because the department of motor vehicles is putting a chip in driver's licenses that allows you to pre-pay subway fares. It seems convenient, but people say it's an invasion of privacy because it monitors your movements.

However, I hear people in London are the most photographed in the world because of all the government monitoring going on.

zero_zero_one said...

an active media

What, ITN?

Bilbo said...

I, too, have no problem with carrying an ID card. I think that many civil libertarians are getting wrapped around an unfortunate axle of complaining about the wrong things. What's wrong with being able to prove who you are? Like zero_zero_one, I'm not sure about increasingly lengthy periods for holding people without charge. I believe that if there's enough evidence to arrest them in the first place, there should be enough to either formally charge them or develop a better case in a short time. An independent judiciary is a key protector of our liberties, but when judges can be appointed on the basis of political reliability, I have to wonder whether or not that judiciary is (and will remain) truly independent.