20 April

People who enforce rules for a living start to believe that the rules matter. School teachers think that running down the corridor is a grave moral offence. Waiters think that correctly used fish-knives are the only thing which separate us from the animals. Clergyman come to believe that God cares deeply about us using the right hymnbook.

In England, everything is permissible except those things which are specifically banned by law. (In Germany, everything is forbidden except those things which are specifically permitted by law. In France, everything is allowed, even those things which are forbidden by law; and in Russia… well, you get the general idea.)

That’s why we have always resisted things like ID cards: if I am an ordinary member of the public going about my business then I shouldn’t have to interact with the police at all, except possibly to ask them the time. There is a general feeling that it shouldn’t be against the law to give your own child a glass of wine with his dinner in your own home, even though he is too young to buy alcohol or be served it in a restaurant. Laws like that can’t be enforced: the police can’t check up on what you are doing in your own house. There may be guidelines; and there are social workers who can get involved if there is reason to believe that a child is being harmed. But we tend to regard social services as a necessary evil. (The Daily Mail tends to omit the “necessary” part.)

Police officers very often don’t see it like that. If you are walking down the road wearing a gold watch, then there are only two possibilities: it is legit or it isn’t. If it is legit, you have nothing to fear from PC Plod stopping you and saying “Hello hello hello where did you nick that then?” And if someone stole your gold watch, you would be very pleased if a policeman spotted the tea-leaf wearing it. So everyone is happy, except the villains.

On the whole it is The Right who most strongly believe that people should be allowed to do whatever they like unless and until there is a very good reason why they shouldn’t. It is The Right who come up with expressions like Health and Safety Gone Mad and Political Correctness when someone makes a rule or a law which they don’t like. On the whole it is The Left who are happy to give the state more power over people’s lives if it contributes to the common good. (Liberals-in-the-British sense believe that the whole point of the state is to make laws which increase people’s freedom: but there aren’t very many Liberals, even in the Liberal party.) The Right accuse the Left of wanting the State to clothe and feed them and tuck them up at night; The Left think that the Right believe a man has a perfect right to beat his own wife in his own house without nanny telling him he mustn’t.

Pacifists tell us that wars are silly quarrels between governments and that we should stop having them; that wars never do any good; that the evil caused by a war is always much worse than the evil which would have been caused by not having the war. This position is extremely difficult to maintain in a timeline which includes the Second World War: Hitler and the Nazis could have been created specifically as a thought experiment to demonstrate that even a very terrible war is sometimes preferable to an even more terrible peace.

Conservatives believe that there is no such thing as society: there are only individuals and their families. This is not what the Conservative Party believes; but that is because the Conservative party is no longer 100% conservative, any more than the Labour Party is 100% socialist. Or even 1%. My money should go on educating my children and your money should go on educating your children and if you can’t afford to educate your own children then you should have thought of that before becoming poor. We are not all in this together: we are very much all in this against each other.

I was interested to read on an American conservative website that there was general consensus that anti-malerial drugs would stop the Virus dead in its tracks; but that the Liberal Elite are denying people this common-sense remedy, and instead putting their hopes in questionable ideas like “vaccination” because they are in thrall to the global pharmaceutical conspiracy.

Or something. By no means all conservatives are anti-Vaxxers, but most anti-Vaxxers are Conservatives.

A global pandemic could have been created as a thought experiment to show that that kind of conservatism doesn’t work. It isn’t enough for me to take steps to stop myself from catching the disease; I need you to take steps to stop yourself from giving the disease to me; so it follows that I have to take steps to stop me from giving the disease to you. Some conservatives have always pretended that vaccines and global warming and smoking-induced cancer doesn’t exist: if reality starts to look socialist then reality must have got it wrong. But it is hard even for Donald Trump and Kathy Hopkins to deny that Coronavirus is happening.

There are always a small number of pacifists who say that killing people is wrong in the same way that working on the Sabbath or using the wrong fish knife is wrong; and that Jews in concentration camps in Essex would have been a lesser evil than English boys in uniforms in Normandy. Similarly, there are a small number of highly principled conservatives who continue to say that it would be better for everyone to die in a plague than for our civil liberties to be curtailed, even a little tiny bit.

Nearly everyone agrees that some kind of lockdown is the best way of dealing with the present situation, and nearly everyone agrees that the rules we are trying to live by are quite sensible and only somewhat onerous. Stay indoors; don’t interact with anyone outside your immediate household; only go out once a day for a walk or a run; only go to the shops if you need to; stay two meters away from other people when you do go out. Wash your hands.

The difficulty kicks in when we try to apply Talmudic interpretations to how exactly the new Law is to be interpreted. If I am allowed to go for a run in the park; am I allowed to drive to the park in my car? If I am allowed to drive to the park, can I drive to the countryside? Can I stop for a rest at the half way point? Is there a difference between “walking to a bench in order to sit on it” and “sitting on a bench half way through my walk?”

I think that the police think that everything is currently banned except those things which have been permitted. No-one is allowed to be outside of their house under any circumstances whatsoever. Anyone on the streets is in the same position as the black man in the smart car: we should assume he is doing something wrong until he can prove he isn’t. Each citizen can be required to provide an excuse for leaving his house at any time: and “I had run out of olives” or “I wanted to look at the pretty flowers” are not good excuses. I think that the rest of us are trying to interpret the law in a much more English style. The law says that I am allowed to go to the shops, so I am exercising my right to go to the shops. The law says that I have a right to go to work, so I am exercising my right to go to work. I shouldn’t have contact with a policeman until I do something obviously stupid. The question is not “have you complied with the letter of the law?” The question is “have you put yourself or anyone else at risk?”

The best thing would be for everyone to use their common sense; for us all individually to do the thing which is least bad for everyone else. It is okay for me to take a very long walk because I live in the countryside and will hardly see another soul all due it is not okay for you to go to the park because the park is crowded and you won’t be able to maintain social distancing for even five minutes. But that is like expecting a primary school teacher to say that it is sometimes okay to run in the corridors and sometimes a bad idea and that we all need to make our own judgements. The best thing would be for everyone to agree to play nicely. But if everyone could agree to play nicely we wouldn’t need any rules in the first place.

I think St Paul wrote something about this.


Richard Worth said...

Out of curiosity, how much evidence (other than from grumbling liberal newspapers like the 'Daily Mail') is there that the police are actually enforcing the lockdown in a way that involves constantly stopping people in the street to ask why they are out and about? From my experience, albeit suburban, there seem to be a lot of police cars on the streets but mostly not stopping. This seems to apply even to the Gates of Hull https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/coronavirus-fantastic-police-wave-at-social-distancing-revellers-as-they-allow-street-party-to-continue/ar-BB12B8uu

Tom R said...

> "that wars never do any good"

I see your CS Lewis reference. Mind you, he was referring there to WW1 which was much less obviously one of Bart Simpson's "good wars"

> "but most anti-Vaxxers are Conservatives"

Not here in Australia. They tend to be well-off "hippies" which, to be fair, annoys the more orthodox lefties: https://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/byron-mum-worried-this-coronavirus-might-result-in-another-deadly-vaccine/ (Byron Bay is a very nice seaside resort; its hinterland is a sort of Australian mini-Oregon, populated by Frank Herbert-like left-libertarians who live in communes and grow their own).

> Is there a difference between “walking to a bench in order to sit on it”

That was a "But, Father O'Leary..." question I remember from the Seventies: "Can you smoke while praying?" (No, of course not: disrespectful). "But can you pray while smoking?" (It sounds like Dave Allen but I never heard the source). This was viewed as a gotcha against the priests and their pharisaical rules, but there seems a big difference in timing, just like "Han shot first". If I am seated on the toilet and suddenly remember I need to ring you right away, and whip out my phone (using anti-bacterial wipes and so forth), that's quite different from me phoning you first and then wandering off to lay some track in mid-call. Ditto re Christian missionaries who convince new converts to abandon polygamy. A man can keep his existing multiple wives after he converts (indeed, mustn’t cast any away), but can't take new ones. Or Eastern Orthodox priests, who can be married before they are ordained, but not after. Timing sometimes (often?) matters, because it reveals what was your primary goal or intention, vs what was added-on ad hoc.

Mike Taylor said...

This is a fascinating post which I merits posting on your main blog (where I think it would get more exposure and discussion.) I hope you are reading David Allen Green on this present legal situation: he is not as amusing as you, but very informative and precise. https://davidallengreen.com/

Tom R said...

Dave Allen _and_ David Allen Green hommaged jointly!