On Freedom and the Nanny State

1 November 2008
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Fashions change within the political institutions and propaganda organs of the regime, but, as the saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same.    A year or two past, the stock political epithet was "politically correct".   Such a term can not withstand close analysis, and while the regime has its ways of obstructing or avoiding serious political analysis, as time passes, like water dripping on to stone, reason tends to prevail over silliness.   The fashion for using "politically correct" as a pejorative term seems now to have passed its peak, and has been replaced by the new taunt of "nanny state".

"Nanny state" is another of those terms which slips easily off the tongue and requires, indeed allows, no serious understanding of the nature and function of state power.   It is derogatory of the state, and therefore may have appeal to some of those who are genuinely, and for the best of reasons, suspicious of state power.  It also disparages older women in a caring, protective role, and therefore has some appeal to those who are emotionally and politically adolescent.

Yet the phrase is most often employed by those who are actually strong supporters of the state in its other persona.   One aspect of the state (benevolent regulation in the interests of  the collective good) is being maligned so that its other aspect (punitive control in the interests of the propertied classes) may be enhanced.    Older New Zealanders will remember the "anti-state" proselytising of Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Peter Dunne and the entire fourth Labour government of 1984-1990 which had the purpose and effect of laying the political groundwork for the transfer of state assets into the hands of a small, privileged and thoroughly corrupt business class.   And most of us are aware that professional politicians like Douglas, Prebble and Dunne spend pretty well their whole lives as clients and financial beneficiaries of the state.  Their criticisms of the state, and of those who work within state institutions, are invariably opportunistic, disingenuous, cynical, and self-seeking.

The politicians of the fourth Labour government attacked state regulation in the name of free markets.   The fifth Labour government, which has tracked back in the direction of a universalist state, is now itself being assaulted in the name of a more generic "freedom".    In the midst of a global financial crisis the cry for "free markets" no longer has the persuasive force that it may have enjoyed in the nineteen eighties.  But in the newspeak of the regime, "freedom" and "free markets" come down to the same thing.   The fourth estate's call for "freedom" is essentially a defence of its  privileges.   It is the spoilt brats of the regime demanding ever greater degrees of  indulgence from "Nanny state".

The case is best illustrated by reference to the writings of New Zealand Herald columnist Garth George.   He is, admittedly, an easy target.   But Garth George's egoism, dogmatism, and mean-spiritedness are typical, if extreme, examples of columnists across the range of APN publications, and by extension of a host of right-wing bloggers and political groupies.    "A vote for Key is a vote for freedom" George headlined in the Herald in the leadup to the 2008 parliamentary election.  "This election is all about freedom - the freedom of the individual to live his or her life with as little interference as possible from the state, its politicians or minions".

A worthy objective to be sure, but the truth is that people do not gain freedom from the power of the state by giving state power to politicians of either the right, the left, or the centre.   Freedom from the power of the state comes as people acquire their own power independently of the state and its institutions.    The freedom to live life according to one's own lights fundamentally depends on individuals who have the courage and strength to resist the encroachments of the state.   In the history of the human race freedom has never been freely and benevolently bestowed by any state institution.   Freedom from the state has always been generated by acts of resistance to the state.  Garth George is simply, and laughably, misleading when he suggests that we  can obtain freedom by voting for John Key.   Freedom cannot be obtained, or even maintained, by the act of voting.   It must be fought and even died for by each generation of humankind anew.

George continues with the argument that the election is "all about freedom from fear - from the anxiety generated by the doom and gloom merchants  ...".    Does Garth George really believe that the state can save him from his fears?  However many millions vote for John Key, or Helen Clark for that matter, will not make a single one of us a whit braver or less fearful in ourselves.    Fear may drive voters, but voting will not drive away our fears.

He then claims "It's all about freedom from guilt.   We want to be able to fill up our cars, turn on our heaters, light our homes, run our taps (and showers), eat our food, smoke a cigarette, have a few drinks, sell land or buy and develop property without being made to feel guilty".   Thus he finally gets to the nub of the matter.   Never mind that George, as a professed born-again Christian, is supposed to have been freed from guilt by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.   In fact it is not the "guilt" that worries him.   It is the fear that at some future time he may be prevented from indulging in his drugs of choice, that he may be prevented from profiting by selling or promoting such drugs to others, that he may be unable to acquire wealth by speculation in land, or to spend that wealth in a life of comfort and dissipation.    This is what the vaunted "freedoms" of the spoilt brats of the regime reduces to; the freedom to do exactly as they please and to hell with the consequences for others.

Freedom is a moral nullity, a blank cheque to be spent according to one's wants.   At the end of the day, it just comes down to people claiming the right to do what they want to do.   Freedom is not what matters most.   What matters most is how you use what freedoms you have.  The ends of freedom may be variously great and glorious, mean and despicable, or petty and  pathetic.

Every prisoner desires to be free.   Having been a prisoner of the regime which Garth George serves,  I know something about the desire for freedom.   All my fellow inmates in Mt Eden prison; those who had been convicted of murder, rape, burglary and fraud as well as those of us who had been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the regime’s military forces, wanted to be free.     In a few cases they simply desired the freedom to rob, rape or maim.   But unlike Garth George, they would not have had the effrontery to say so.

When the denizens of the media call for their freedom to incandescent light bulbs and high flow showers and wail against nanny state, they degrade the whole idea of freedom.  They turn it into the rejection of discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial.   They equate freedom with the indulgence of spoilt brats.   Everyone wants to be free, but in the long run, and in the depth of one's soul, it is better to ponder one’s moral duty than to fret over one’s  freedoms.

When I was a prisoner, an incandescent light shone into my cell twenty four hours of the day.  That did not make me free.   I showered under a high pressure jet once a week.   But that did not make me free.   With only the sun the sun to light my way by day and the moon by night, with a stream to bathe in, and the natural creation about me, I count myself free.   That freedom is conferred by our Creator God.   It is real freedom, with real duties and responsibilities attached.   It owes nothing to the works of man, the institutions of the state, or the machinations of governments.   It is not a license for self-indulgence or privilege.   But it is the only freedom worth having.