I’m not a very controlling person. Or at least I hope I’m not. I’ve never spent much time (or any time at all) lecturing people on how they should live, or getting them to do things they didn’t want to do. I prefer to let things happen, take their own course, rather than try to take control.
So when I began, in the course of developing Idle Theory some years ago, to ask what the purpose of law might be, I did not see law as being centrally concerned with controlling or restricting people, but instead enabling them and liberating them. As I saw it, the purpose of law was, as far as possible, to free people to do more or less whatever they wanted to do.
As I saw it, a society in which people were free to murder each other, rob one another, lie to one another, defame one another, would be one in which there would be very little genuine freedom to do anything at all. And so placing restrictions on such acts, and introducing penalties for them, struck me as an essential prerequisite for freedom and the exercise of free personal choice. A small diminution of one freedom (not being allowed to murder people) resulted in a large increase in other freedoms for everyone in general.
Exactly the same applies with the rules of the road. It is a restriction upon the freedom of drivers to make them keep to one side of the road. But the net effect of this small decrease in freedom is that all drivers can drive at high speeds along roads without fear that they will be impeded by, or collide with, oncoming traffic. This expedites traffic flows, and minimizes the time spent travelling, freeing people to do other things they want to do. In this manner a small decrease in one particular freedom results in a net increase in everyone’s freedom (as measured in idle time in which they can do what they want). The cost of the law (in its diminution of idle time) is greatly offset by its value (the resulting gain in idle time).
As I saw it, good laws increased people’s freedom in much the same way that the rules of the road increased their freedom. And bad laws decreased people’s freedom. And the whole process of lawmaking was essentially one of trying out a new law, and seeing whether it ‘worked’ – i.e. benefited most people -, and amending it or discarding it if it did not. In this respect a new law was essentially no different from a new tool – such as a new kind of can opener – which either did the job efficiently, or proved ineffective.
That, roughly, was the approach I took to law: the purpose of law was to free people.
But, as best I can discern, for many people the law has no such purpose, and it exists solely as a means of controlling people, and restricting their freedom. Such people do not want to free people, but to restrict them. They use the law to take away freedom.
Smoking bans are a prime example of such restrictive laws. In order to gain a tiny degree of freedom (from a premature death from secondhand smoke), a very large amount of freedom (the freedom to sit with friends and drink beer and smoke cigarettes) is foregone. A very great deal is given up in order to gain hardly anything. It’s like betting £100 in order to win a single penny. Worse still, it’s far from clear that you will even win the single penny.
The effect of such laws upon the societies in which they enacted is almost wholly destructive of freedom. One might add that the imposition of light bulbs that hardly work is also destructive of freedom. As also are windmills that hardly produce any electricity. All of these are examples of the use of law to throttle freedom rather than enhance freedom.
These people seem to hate freedom. They seem to want to control absolutely everything. It is as if, for them, for people to be free is for them to be out of control. Free = Out Of Control. And they have a profound terror of things being out of control. I was reminded today of something that I’ve read a number of times:
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”
The passengers were screaming in terror because, once the driver had died at the wheel, the car was no longer under control, and was hurtling towards other traffic, or off a cliff.
It’s a perfectly legitimate terror. I’d have felt the same if I’d been in that car. And I might even have tried to regain control of it.
But these days, a great many people seem to live their entire lives as if they were in that car, and trying to take control of it. They’re terrified of almost everything that’s happening around them. They’re scared that human populations are growing too rapidly, or that we’re pumping too much CO2 into the atmosphere, or smoking too much. It’s all out of control. And they demand that, in these multiple dire emergencies, it’s absolutely imperative that we Take Control, and steer the car to safety, employing if necessary the most draconian laws to take away people’s freedom to smoke cigarettes, or emit CO2, or have children.
And yet the odd thing is that, throughout the entirety of human history, we humans have hardly ever been in control of anything at all.
Consider. We all live on a little spherical rock that is spinning, completely out of control, around a star, which is also completely out of control, and may just swell up or explode any time. And as we go hurtling out of control around that star, we are surrounded by all sorts of other lumps of rock which are also hurtling, completely out of control, around the star, and could collide with us at almost any time, and there’s next to nothing we can do about it.
Add to that the fact that the little rock on which we live is mostly covered by a sea which surges to and fro under the influence of the sun and moon, and by an atmosphere which also surges to and fro, and where both of these huge forces are completely out of control.
And then there are all the earthquakes and volcanoes that are also completely out of control, and which we can do absolutely nothing to prevent.
I could add much more, but basically it all adds up to the fact that we are living in a universe which is completely out of our control, and which we can never ever hope to control in any meaningful way.
In such circumstances, any small control we might manage to exert – through smoking bans, or CO2 emission restriction – is always going to be minuscule by comparison with everything we can’t control – which is more or less everything.
Furthermore, should anyone actually manage to seize the wheel of the car, what is there to say that they won’t simply make matters worse, if they don’t know how to drive?
The attempt to take control is doomed from the outset. It is never possible to take control, perhaps not even of a speeding car in which one happens to be a front seat passenger. Control is an illusion. Nobody is ever in control of anything. It all just happens anyway.
In such circumstances, the correct attitude must be one of hope and faith. Hope that tomorrow the sun doesn’t explode as a supernova, that a volcano doesn’t erupt in your back yard, or that an asteroid doesn’t come crashing down from the sky. For if they do, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. And so there’s no point worrying about it. Or about anything else.
What promotes these modern fears is perhaps a new conviction that we humans are almost omnipotent, and we can take control of everything if we set our minds to it. We’ve come to see ourselves as Masters of the Universe, when in fact we remain almost as completely powerless as we ever were in the face of the colossal forces of nature, which range freely around us, totally out of control. And what’s more, nature always has been out of control. And it always will be. We are always riding in something that is completely out of our control.
The sooner we recognise this, the better. And we should learn to ride the waves like surfers, because we can never hope to tame such waves.