Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.
The Institute of Economic Affairs has just published my monograph Foundations of a Free Society. It was designed to describe the basic working principles of a free society – specifically, for people who had never experienced a free society. So I mapped it all out, bullet-pointing things like freedom, property, trade, justice, toleration, moral rules, incentives, rights and why government should be limited in size and scope. I aimed to explain all these things in very simple language that could be understood by people who did not take for granted the culture of the Anglosphere, and who might not understand how it was possible to have a well-functioning social order – a market economy, for instance – without people in authority trying to plan and organise everything, but just by trusting the wisdom of individuals as they go about their daily business.
Then I hit a snag. Immediately I started outlining these core principles, it struck me that none of us have actually experienced a free society. Our politicians certainly tell us, over and over, how free we are, and how our constitution, our rule of law, and our parliamentary democracy keep us free. But when you look at what our politicians actually do, it becomes clear that they have not the foggiest idea of what a free society is, how it works and how easily it can be undermined and destroyed by politicians just trying to please the masses. Nor, obviously, do the masses who egg them on – demanding more spending, more regulation, more central control – understand how fragile a free society is.
Look, for example, how our politicians – particularly Tony Blair and more recently the Liberal Democrat coalition partners – have played fast and loose with the constitution. House of Lords reform was driven through on a simple majority in Parliament. Our lawmakers seriously believed that they had a perfect right to decide how they themselves would be chosen, and what powers they should have, without ever consulting the public. Indeed, they believed that these rules, by which the whole UK would be governed, could legitimately be decided not even by two-thirds of their own number but by just 51 per cent.
At least with devolution, the countries affected (though not England) were consulted in a referendum. But here again, the decision required just a simple majority, and in Wales it hinged on the last constituency to be counted. That is hardly a fair way to decide how counties should be governed. It is like two wolves and a sheep deciding democratically what to have for supper. Maastricht, Lisbon…I could go on.
We and our politicians do not even understand democracy. We all think it is a good thing, and so our politicians say we should have more of it. Rather than taking our own decisions about what we smoke, eat, drink and even say, these things are decided by “democratic” assemblies. But one of the key foundations of a free society is that its democracy should be limited to where there is really no alternative. The bigger government gets, the more people abuse its power.
Luckily, I wrote Foundations of a Free Society in such simple language that, I hope, even politicians can understand it. Perhaps then they might just see how far down the road to serfdom they have unwittingly taken us. And maybe we too might come to realise how far our plundering of political power has destroyed our freedoms too.