My bicycle is not a cherished object. It gets me to work and is used for shopping trips, so I don’t give it the attention it deserves. Luckily, there’s a fellow called Austin who has a cycle workshop in an old stable yard not far from Queen’s university who knows his stuff and is a hell of a nice guy to talk with.
He is interested in some of the philosophical stuff I trot out and it helps to clarify my thinking if I have to explain Rousseau, Descartes, Derrida, Michel de Montaigne and so on to a small audience. Yesterday evening I was banging on about Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative freedom and a young fellow in the workshop put forward various examples where the nanny state thinks it knows best in curtailing the actions of its citizens.
Berlin’s trust in humanity led him to the conclusion that a greater measure of liberty is created if individuals are encouraged to constrain their own excesses, or antisocial behaviour; becoming the masters of themselves and not slaves to their passions. If the state imposes restrictions and places obstacles in the way of what it considers to be against the interests of the wider community, there is the risk of the state becoming totalitarian in its approach towards political leadership.
The Spanish Inquisition as an example of state endorsed violence and torture was inspired by the desire to save the immortal souls of those it considered needed saving. The police tactic of ‘kettling’ at a protest in Central London was a draconian measure that deprived lawful protesters from marching, and herded the crowd into a tight knot where men, women and children were temporarily robbed of their freedom.
Debates can be taken to absurd lengths about what people should or should not be allowed to do in their own bedrooms. For instance sadomasochistic practices might include injury to a consenting adult. Should the state have any say in those activities and how would they police them? What about lifestyle choices? If someone decides to ignore health advice and smokes, eats fatty foods or uses legal drugs to excess, does the state have any right to treat them differently? For instance, should their place on a hospital waiting list be ranked any lower because their lifestyle created their health problems?
What about minority rights? How much tolerance is too much? Is it acceptable to insult the religious beliefs of others in a comedy setting or a political cartoon?
Hopefully I will get a chance to debate some of these issues with Austin and others over a bottle of ale one Friday evening gathered around his beautiful cast iron Spanish stove.