Eventually, we will come to our senses and legalize drugs.
Decriminalise supply, I mean. I don’t want to coat Jelly Babies in cocaine, any more than I want school dinners to be served with Bells Whisky.
I assume that we will not legalize everything over night and without a warning. I assume that we will try to educate people first. I suppose there will be an extensive campaign of public information films, telling people honestly and straight-forwardly what the long and short term effects of various substances are; and precautions that sensible users ought to take. I assume that driving and operating machinery under the influence of drugs would be subject to the same kinds of criminal penalties and — more importantly — social approbation that apply to drinking and driving right now.
Something similar happened around the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. I don’t think that having Bad Sex was ever against the law, although Mrs Thatcher did try to make it an offence to give realistic relationship counselling to teenagers. After some initial hysteria there was realistic information about what the disease was an how you could get it, and we very largely changed our behaviour accordingly.
There is a huge problem around political figures like Dominic Cummings. They are, basically, too important to fail. He has never been elected, so he can’t resign: it is hard to see how we can tell a Prime Minister “you aren’t allowed to take that man’s advise any more.” I assume he is paid a salary: I don’t know if that salary is paid by the government, the Conservative party, or Boris Johnson himself. The fall of Cummings — just as much as the fall of Alistair Campbell or Peter Mandelson — would amount to a change of government. Tony Blair and Boris Johnson hardly exist apart from their political strategists. I don’t think it is a particularly bad or shocking thing that clever political wonks use charismatic actors and political performers as their front men. I don’t think it particularly bad or shocking that people capable of getting themselves elected hire clever people to do the actual thinking on their behalf. I do think it is a problem that political power is wielded by people who have not been democratically elected and therefore can’t be democratically sacked.
We all currently have to navigate two matrices simultaneously, and three dimensional chess is not a skill that many of us are actually very good at.
There is science. How dangerous is this VIRUS? How do I avoid catching it? How do I avoid giving it to anyone else? Some of those questions have pretty clear answers: stay indoors; wash your hands; don’t form crowds; wash your hands, stay a couple of meters away from other people; wash your hands, wash your hands. Some of them are a little less clear — do I really need to bleach my shopping? should I quarantine the post for 72 hours? But we understand what kinds of answer we are looking for when we ask the question.
Usual disclaimers apply. It is not possible to eliminate all risk from the world. The VIRUS is not the only thing you might die of. Some people will die of staying at home and not taking exercise. There was violence before there were violent television shows. Some people will kill themselves due to isolation and loneliness. Some kids may never get over the trauma of not being sent to school. But these are still definite questions. Informed people may honestly disagree about the answers but they understand what kinds of answers they are looking for. It’s like one of those computer game where you have to position a slider on a continuum between “strong” and “fast”. Anyone can have a point of view about how much weight you attach to “some people dying” as opposed to “some people becoming poorer”. Between “billions of bodies stacked up in the street” and “money becoming worthless and toilet rolls becoming the only valid currency” is a fairly extensive grey area. You can’t go from is to ought and what could be done is not necessarily the same as what should be done. You could augment an earwig to the point where it understood nuclear physics but it would still be a very silly thing to do.
But we are simultaneously navigating a set of rules which the government have invented. Rules are always invented by someone and are never a perfect fit to reality. A lot of us are still struggling with the idea that “male” and “female” are categories that humans invented, and that they describe the biological world a lot better than they describe the social world. We all know that a year has three hundred and sixty five days and kind of ignore the fact that February has twenty eight days clear and twenty nine in each leap year. We all know that one year in four is a leap year and rarely think about the fact that one leap year in twenty five isn’t, but that every four hundred years it is. We all agree that you shouldn’t take things from shops; but few of us could define the precise legal definition of “taking” which may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I believe that if I slip a Mars bar into my pocket, then as long as I am in the store the British law thinks I may have simply been absent minded: but once I have left the shop the same law assumes that I intended to keep it without paying. I believe that this applies even if I have already eaten the Mars Bar: I am perfectly entitled to put the wrapper in my basket and pay for it when I leave. Good luck explaining that to a store detective.
We don’t, on the whole, expect science to be just: if someone says that it would be unfair for this particular child to have cancer and therefore the specialist must be wrong they are making a category mistake. People do occasionally say that if the facts lead to a particular conclusion then the facts are racist, but we generally regard this as a comically weak argument. But we do expect rules to be just. We have a slippery concept of “natural justice” and we think that laws are good laws only in so far as they achieve the same result that our in-built right-and-wrong detector would have arrived at.
Some years ago a very left-wing Labour Party MP was found to have sent their child to a private school: that is, paid a very large amount of money to get a very much better standard of education than their party was providing to the generality of taxpayers. Furthermore they had frequently spoken about the unfairness of rich people being able to buy this competitive advantage. Having been caught in this clear breach of integrity, they argued that it was unfair to bring politics into family life; and that everyone would naturally go against their principals in order to do the best for their own children; and they were only doing what any good parent would do; and should indeed be applauded for their commitment to their cubs. I am prepared to have an argument about whether the availability of state funded education logically implies that the state should have a monopoly on providing education. But the idea that “private schools are a social evil, but it is okay for me to send my children to one” is a nonsense, on a level with “capital punishment is a moral evil, but that obviously doesn’t mean we should never kill criminals” or “I am against all war, except to resolve disputes between sovereign nations.”
As soon as THE RULES existed the discourse around THE VIRUS necessarily shifted to the perceived fairness or unfairness; the logicality or illogicality of the rules. A RULE that says that the existence of THE VIRUS does not suspend the buying of real estate is sensible if you don’t want the economy to grind to a halt. A rule which says you cannot visit another citizen in their own home, not even a member of your family, makes sense if you want to stop THE VIRUS from spreading. But as long as we are looking at the rule-matrix and asking about fairness and justice, it begs the very reasonable question “So why can’t I put my house on the market, invite my aging parents round for a viewing, an offer them refreshments during the visit.”
When someone breaks or breaches or disregards the rules, they are blamed within the science matrix. How many stop-offs did you have during your car journey, and how many people did you potentially infect each time? If you had worked at the same hospital as my sister and seen older people suffering with the disease, you might be more careful about visiting your aged parents when you have a bad cough. Someone abroad went to a funeral and gave everyone in the church and loads of people in the area around the church the disease.
But when someone breaks or breaches or disregards THE RULES, they try to justify themselves within the fairness-matrix. It just seems to unfair and onerous that I can’t see Mum and Dad because they happen to live a long way away from me; whereas if they lived next door I could talk to them over the garden fence. I know we are not supposed to travel a long way, but I really really wanted to see them. It was their birthday; we make a big deal out of birthdays on my planet. I know I broke the rules but I did it for Granny. You aren’t saying that your rules are more important than my Granny, are you?
One solution to this would be to have clearer rules. Another solution would be to have politicians who have some sense of leading by example; who understand that an officer can’t expect his men to do something he wouldn’t be prepared to do himself; that Ceasar’s wife should be above suspicion. You can’t put me in detention for smoking if there is a major atmospheric biohazard every time I open the staffroom door.
But the other solution would be public education. Tell us exactly how dangerous THE VIRUS is. Drum it into us the kinds of things which could spread THE VIRUS and the kinds of things which probably won’t. Make us bored with pictures of VIRUS-harbouring surfaces in the way we were bored with exhortations to use a condom in the 80s and not to smuggle pets in the 70s. And force us to stay within the science matrix. We don’t ever want to be asking the question “did I stick to the rules?” or “in this particular case was there a special natural-justice related reason why sticking to the rules wasn’t the right thing to do?” We only ever want to be answering the question “was this safe? could I have caught it? could I have given it to someone else?”
Many people have made the droll observation that there is an unspoken code of conduct in men’s public conveniences. No-one teaches you what to do; but everyone does basically the same thing. The rules aren’t enforceable. No-one says “so does it follow that if the Gents is very crowded and it is only five minutes before curtain-up I have to wet myself?” But they basically work because everyone shares basically the same standards of modesty and hygiene.
There was a teacher at my primary school who used to smoke a pipe in the classroom. That wouldn’t be allowed nowadays and no-one would do it even if it was.
Dominic Cummings is obviously a prick, but there isn’t a great deal that can be done about that at this stage.
Alternatively, you could buy me a virtual cup of coffee, which is the only kind available at present.