Petty Liberties

In October 2010 the Parliament of Queensland entertained a petition from one of its citizens regarding the pressing issue of the presence of dogs in cafes. Dogs, in Queensland, are banned from cafes, restaurants, and similar establishments, for fear of the health of the public.

The petition, which myself and two thousand, one hundred and forty six Queenslanders signed, proposed loosening the restriction on dogs on cafes, making it a matter of discretion of the owner and of the local council.

We aren’t currently pet owners, though we have been in the past. I’ve seen dogs behave themselves in European cafes and Australian caravan parks. So long as the dog is well behaved, nowhere near food preparation areas, and the cafe owner is fine with it, it seems something people can work out amongst themselves, without the state parliament and police force being involved. It’s not a grand secular humanist right, exactly, though you can construct it from those if you wish. It’s just a petty liberty, the everyday business of civic society amongst free people, and their dogs.

Societies without petty liberties are almost certain to be unfree ones – prisons, or Pyongyang, or a feudal serfdom – lives unequal by default. Yet the loss of any one petty liberty does not a tyranny make. Dogs tied to the footpath lamp-posts of cafes do not foreshadow a canine Krystallnacht. It’s like a political sorites paradox, where these rules take on a different nature when piled in a heap. Different places also have different ideas of everyday freedom. Try smoking at random places in New York and Ho Chi Minh City, or strolling around the local park in the nude in London versus Berlin. There’s also a kind of paradox of the liberal localist – local democracy, as in a city council, may be the most accessible, but it’s also more prone to petty tyrannies like banning outside washing or saying what colour your house can be.

If you look at the very real and beautiful liberalization that has happened across Asia in my lifetime, it has mostly been a matter of returning petty liberties. India threw off the license raj. In China, grand liberties such as free speech or national elections are not a reality, but a whole host of petty tyrannies have nevertheless been relaxed since 1978. That’s what microeconomic reform usually is – the abolition of cobwebs of pettifogging price regulations governing everyday life.

For the last few decades, governments all over the world have had success growing their economies and making their people’s lives better without giving much ground on grand liberties. It’s been the right to free speech unless you insult the powerful, or the right to property unless you’re inconvienent.

When we were in China my wife plowed most of a day into setting up a new blog to keep contact with people back home. Logins setup, content written and uploaded, tweaked, tooled around with. Once she had a fair first cut she tried to view it as a normal reader would. Except she’d tried it out on blogger, and that year, or month, or whatever, the Great Firewall had been configured to block access to blogger blogs. Not the admin interface, mind. You could still create all the posts. You just couldn’t see them. Every page would just hang, loading, until eventually timing out, like an aged uncle who might be deaf or might just be ignoring you.

My wife turned to me with a cry of frustration and asked “Why? Why would they do that?”

I paused. “Because they’re communists,” I replied. A technical reason didn’t seem adequate. The platform she had posted her travel diaries on happened to be the same platform some concerned individuals had used to write about politics or history in a way the CCP didn’t like. Sooner or later, petty liberties become intertwined with grand ones.

To return to pettiness: the dog petition I mention above did, by the way, get a timely reply, in late November last year. The then Minister for Health, Paul Lucas, advised that as it was a matter covered by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, the state supports that standard, and any change would be carried out through that. For a dog to sit on its owners feet under a cafe table in Mackay, an international committee of politicians and bureaucrats must agree it’s ok.

I think this is a tiny taste of what drives a certain kind of European crazy about the EU. The EU acts always in the name of, and I think for its officers the genuine intent to follow, grand liberties. Its faults show at the edges between those grand ideas and the patchwork liberties of everyday life in a particular place. So the European Arrest Warrant can cause horrible miscarriages of justice because justice systems across Europe vary in approach and quality. More often, though, it’s like being slowly covered in sticky tape. The local community loses its ability to reflect changed attitudes and adapt to new circumstances over time. All bureaucracies expand by their nature. Laws written with good intent become a simple catalogue of petty tyrannies.

It’s a shame to see the British left-wing establishment respond with kneejerk cynicism to the introduction of online feedback mechanisms there, most recently a mechanism for online petitions becoming a trigger for debate in the Commons. Even the usually excellent LRB unimaginatively got into it; rather depressing.

The e-petition itself, though, works rather well as a mechanism – it raises concrete issues that are relevant in people’s day to day lives, and links them to the machinery of government in a timely way. It puts pressure on politicians to trim back the thicket of cruft that inevitably accumulates in any system, or to add services in a particular place, by linking support to thousands of voters. It intertwines people and politicians in specific and transparent ways. It is elegantly democratic.

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