Sunday, January 14, 2007

ASBOS demonstrate everything that is wrong with British society

I remember vividly my politics professor at graduate school, and an expert on Belgium and Holland once asking my class, "has anyone ever wondered why the Dutch are so fucking liberal?" His answer was that they are so self controlled that they do not need anyone telling them not to do drugs, only foreigners do drugs in Holland and Dutch people would probably resent the state telling them what to do with their lives. The point is that the state only really needs to step in to stop behavior that is deemed damaging to society when society cannot do the job itself. The ASBO in the UK is not only a response to specific social problems, but also reveals a worrying inability of British society to deal with them.

In order to function as human beings we all need to live within societies. As Aristotle said, man is by nature a political animal. Society and the community provide us with a means of interaction that allow for a functioning economy and a division of labour. Anti-social behaviour is so dangerous because it threatens the core of our prosperity, the ability to live in communities free of conflict.

Building these societies that preserve individual liberty whilst eliminating conflict has been a constant preoccupation of liberal philosophers. John Stuart Mill's answer was to say that the state should only be able to intervene in cases where peoples actions were affecting others. The ASBO fits perfectly well into this thinking, but the problem with this formulation is that in todays world this covers practically everything. On the other hand Rousseau believed that the ideal solution was to find a way to make people want to choose, out of their own free will, the best option for society, for this one has to build consensus.

Central to doing this are communities. Communities have themselves certain patterns of behavior, certain practices and norms that are common to them, such as religion, custom and culture. In living together communities have to develop some kinds of standard practices in order to interact with each other and in order for this to function properly communities need to have some standards of good behavior that allow people to live together in peace.

These standards and behavior are reinforced by the very many overlapping social institutions that exist in communities. These can include the workplace, the post office, the local pub, schools etc. When everyone knows everyone else's business and come into constant contact with each other it becomes very hard to break out of the norms that your community has set as acceptable. If you misbehave, soon enough everyone will know about it and the prospect of this makes you want to behave in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Doing so, frees you from the worry of being frowned on by the rest of society.

In Britain this system seems to be breaking down. Increasingly we are living separate lives, unaware of the consequences of our behavior on other people. This is a phenomena that has been examined in the US by Putnam in his excellent book "Bowling Alone" and his findings useful for the Western World as a whole. In it he paints a world where the associations that bind us together, political organisations, sports clubs and so on are dissappearing and our attachments to others loosening.

British people it would seem increasingly need to be told how to behave in society by the state. I was struck by this when I returned to the UK through Stanstead airport after being away for almost a year. A sign at passport control tells people waiting in line that immigration officials will not accept drunkenness or violent and aggressive behavior. I thought to myself do people really need to be told this? is it not obvious that drunkenness and violent or aggressive behavior is unacceptable? But if you live in a world where you never see the result of your violent or drunken behaviour, then it is possible that it isnt obvious.

If the state is becoming the only means by which to enforce good behaviour, the ASBO is its means of enforcement. However, apart from the moral and philosophical problems with the state being the sole guardian of what is deemed to be acceptable behaviour, regulating society in this way is also terribly inefficient. It is far more efficient if nobody commits a crime than to have the police find and catch a criminal and in the same way it is far better for someone not to be drunk and disorderly than for the state to come in and tell them not to do it again. For one thing the offense has already been committed, moreover it might not stop them from doing it again. Thirdly the police and the state cannot be there all the time to prevent bad behavior, they have more important crimes to attend to and no amount of resources would allow them to be present the whole time anyway, nor would this be desireable.

In the end, the most effective way to stop antisocial behaviour is to help people live socially, to invest in our communities, and stop the removal of institutions that serve as centers as of community interacton, or at least try to create new ones. The government therefore, would do well to take a closer look at trying to fix the social decay that leads to anti social behavior, rather than trying to impose social behaviour by decree.

1 comment:

Jo Christie-Smith said...

I was struck by your comments on Dutch society and freedoms.

My best friend is an Englishwoman living in small town Holland and she tells me that one of the reasons that the Dutch don't tend to use net curtains, so nosy people like me can see right into their livings rooms, is that it is frowned upon. Apparently, there is a strong Calvinist view that if what you're doing can't be looked upon by your neighbours, you shouldn't be doing it.

And there you have it, the slightly more irritating side of a self regulating community!

I chair one of the Residents Panels for the Met Police's Safer Neighbourhood Team (modelled on the Chicago model of community policing, incidentally) and I would say that schemes such as Community Payback are great for actually changing people's behaviour. All of a sudden petty criminals are being obliged to put back into the community and they end up feeling part of it.