In the Times this morning.
Regular readers will note some themes already given an airing here:
Have you got permission to read this?
Permits and licences are the enemy of freedom
There was a time when we inhabitants of this green and pleasant land were subjects of the monarch. Subjects who had to petition the monarch for permission to do whatever it was that we wanted to do. Then we chopped the head off one king, sent another packing and settled on the peculiarly English version of liberty.
We were still subjects but we no longer had to beg for the freedom to do something. As long as we obeyed a fairly simple set of rules (don’t murder, don’t forge the Ace of Spades) we were free by right to do as we wished.
We could devise games that we would become rather bad at after we had taught them to the world: but it was because we did not have to petition for the right to form a club that we could invent football or cricket. Coffee shops could grow into magazines (The Spectator) that are still with us, or insurance markets (Lloyd’s) that now dominate the globe. No one could tell us not to, no one could refuse us the necessary certificate because there was no such document and no one with the power to either offer it or deny it.
There are other forms of liberty, of course. It is undoubtedly liberating not to starve or to receive education as of right. But these do not preclude that earthier, more beef-and-bulldog, form: as long as we were not harming our neighbours, then we were free to do as we wished, to associate and commune as we wished.
From this liberty grew the little platoons that make society work: mutual, friendly and provident societies, sports clubs, the Women’s Institutes and Boy Scouts. Other than the heinous denial of the right to join trade unions we enjoyed near perfect freedom of association. We did not need to ask for permission or even inform the authorities of what we were doing. By contrast, even until the middle of the last century, our confrères across the Channel had to apply to Paris for permission to form a club of more than 25 Frenchmen.
In our ever so much better modern world we are no longer subjects: we are citizens. But now we must ask permission to do trivial things. No one may work with children without official approval. A bonfire cannot be lit without permission and a checklist. For two to sing folk songs in a pub requires a licence. A sports club must obey ’elf’n’safety clipboard wielders: no one but those approved, licensed, checked, granted permission by the State may do anything.
If you seek a reason for the decline of civil society, it is here. The attempt to regulate, to corrall, to approve, deprives us of that oxygen of liberty necessary to build a society. We may no longer be subjects, but we are becoming less free.