A genuine question

Does granting people the freedom of choice amount to giving them permission to make bad choices?

I ask this because I got involved in a discussion on my sister’s Faceboke page last week. I’d asked her to re-share the video I linked to from here, and it generated a certain amount of discussion.  I’ve got to say, much of that discussion had rather an air of third-form PSE about it, with people pulling assertions out of thin air, and then getting huffy when people questioned them, so it was nice to see national political standards being upheld.

Since this was an Internet discussion – and about politics to boot – it wasn’t long before Nazis came up, although, in this particular instance, the sleek menace of fascism was rather cleverly disguised behind the quaggy jowls of Nick Griffin and the British National Party.

One of my sister’s friends decided that a political system that requires candidate to be elected with a majority would be a boon to the BNP. My sister argued that it wasn’t, and observed that Nick Griffin was himself opposed to electoral reform for just that reason. However, she pointed out, as long as a BNP candidate was elected with a majority vote, at least that would be what most people wanted.

Later on, another of her friends took exception to this, and I ended up trying to argue it out with him. In essence, his argument was that, 1) The BNP are a racist party, and would, if elected, act to remove the rights of minorities. 2) Therefore people should be prohibited from voting for the BNP, in order to protect their democratic rights.

I think I’m doing justice to the guy in my representation of his point above, but just to be sure I’m going to violate Facebook’s copyright to his words and reprint the crux of his argument here:

You really shouldn’t be willing to concede that in a ‘liberal democracy’ the BNP should be allowed to contest and potentially win elections. Is this not like extending sexual freedom to encompass the ability to rape? To say people have the right to vote to strip others of their rights seems to be an inherent inconsistency. It would take some amount of work to justify democracy taking a form where it can destroy itself.

I honestly do not know if it is just me that feels that train of thought makes no sense. I believe that either people are free, or they are not, and that people can either vote as they believe they should, or they cannot. The notion that people should be deprived of the right to vote according to their conscience in order to safeguard their rights is one of those ideas which absolutely will not fit into my head.

We didn’t actually get things sorted out – partly because we got predictably hung up arguing over whether it was fair to say that an act that causes immediate harm on the scale of rape is equal to an act that causes the potential for the potential for harm subject to due parliamentary process (I, uh, think it isn’t, by the way) – so in the end we called a truce.

Practically speaking, of course, we’ve got the latter, but I wondered if other people thought that we should, or if it was just me. Is it possible to have freedom in a digital form, where you can be free to do what you like except make a decision that might impede your freedom? Or is freedom an analogue state, which you either have, with all the potential to enact its own destruction, or have not?

I cling to the hope that it’s the latter, but that could just be gut paranoia of a slippery slope, where one day you can’t vote BNP, and the next you can’t vote UKIP*, and the week after that it turns out we’ve been fighting Eastasia all along.

Still, I thought that would be an interesting question, and would help to take minds off the fact that last week was a moderate let down. Although I notice that nearly a third of the voters went yes, which I don’t account a bad thing, in such a conservative place as Britain (and even less of a bad one in the face of the negative campaigning by the No guys, which at points reached an almost Teabagging level of craziness). And I was pleased to see that Oxford was one of the places that went Yes.

So onward and forward. I’d even stand to Phonebank again, I think, but I’d be grateful if the massed populations of Southwark and Grenwich would take the time to invest in Ansaphones first**, because apparently such things aren’t permitted in the Capital, and waiting for one to kick in when it isn’t there is pretty weird.

* I’d just like to make it clear that, obviously, I wouldn’t vote UKIP even for a new pair of knees. Some principles are worth hurting twenty-seven days each month.

** Excluding, obviously, the people who picked up, and the super-apologetic forgetful guy whose work got interrupted when I chivvied him off to the polling station.

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  1. On May 08, 2011 Statto says:

    Why is the right to vote for a party which will infringe the rights of you or others more sacred than the right to drink and smoke yourself to near-death-and-massive-cost-to-the-NHS without being massively taxed? Is it our fundamental right not to be forced to wear a seatbelt? The government and the law do all kinds of things to protect us from ourselves and each-other. I don’t think it’s crystal-clear one way or the other in the case of voting for nutters.

    You may enjoy this,what I wrote on a similar topic.

  2. On May 09, 2011 Ruth says:

    Hmm; I see what you’re saying, Statto, but I think that the right to vote for our own leaders should mean the right to vote for anyone, so long as the people we vote for aren’t actively breaking the law. We have to trust that our society is smart enough not to make drastically bad calls. It’s not easy for me to have that trust, at the moment, since I’m still reeling from just how badly we did in the referendum, but I still think it’s important. If somebody repugnant gets into power, all we can really do is campaign against them (or emigrate). I think JTA’s right – banning parties you don’t like is a slippery slope.

  3. On May 09, 2011 Statto says:

    Why is voting unique amongst all human activities? I can accept that pragmatically we might not want to regulate it, but why need it be a moral principle that we shouldn’t?

    All morality is a slope, it’s human nature which might cause us to slip.

  4. On May 10, 2011 Dan Q says:

    Ignoring whether or not democracy itself is fair, ethically right, or valuable, and taking the assumption that it is:

    It’s important for the survival of democracy that people are free to stand for whatever policies they want, to express their opinions openly, and to vote for whomever they want. I oppose the discrimination that’s made against the BNP (by the Prison Service, Barclays Bank, etc.), because I believe that it’s important for democracy that the BNP be allowed to express their stupid, racist, bigoted views.

    Democracy has its flaws, but if we’re to have a true democracy then we have to tolerate those flaws. Every time suppress people’s rights to stand for office or to vote for particular policies based on the opinions of the ruling party, we weaken democracy. Almost every historical instance of a democracy becoming an autocracy (and of an autocracy that pretends to be a democracy) began with the imposition of laws that prevented the representation of particular viewpoints or the right to vote for whomever you like.