When society comes first
Social offenders increasingly rule our lives while neo-sociologist reformers and money-grabbing legislators promote the trend and undermine the values of the majority
My interest in practical ethics really got going in a McDonald's
Who are strangers? Just about everyone outside your immediate family, apparently. An odd thing to say, considering the statistics on domestic child abuse!
The boys were too busy stuffing themselves with chips to take any notice of the item, but I was shocked and irritated. Why, all of a sudden, were we living in a society in which everyone is untrustworthy? Why are our children being brought up to trust no one, when they ought to be able to trust anyone?
Whatever happened to the age of innocence?
It's surely not true that our streets have suddenly become jam-packed with wily deviants, itching to run off with our kids and force them into situations which, thankfully, the tray cover declined to spell out. Not that it would surprise me if the risks were considerably higher today than, say, thirty or forty years ago, given the greatly increased exposure to behaviour patterns which, back then, most of us would have considered abnormal. But that's not the point.
The point is that, because of the waywardness of an extreme minority, our children are being taught to mistrust everybody.
It's a story that repeats itself over and over again. In large organisations and Government departments, for example, the watchword is accountability. Essentially, accountability means that employees can't initiate anything that involves time or money unless they fill in forms, which are then shuffled up through the administrative hierarchy to obtain approval. In some Queensland Government departments, for instance, you need a signed authorisation to buy sandwiches for visitors. To claim a $2 motorway toll (having mislaid the receipt) you need a special claim form and the signature of a JP. To go to lunch you have to fill in your times of stopping and starting work on an attendance sheet - and so on. So obsessed have some departments become with accountability that an entire industry has evolved to propagate and enforce it. Much of the time and energy of employees at the workface is devoted to answering to this industry instead of to the profession for which they were recruited.
The reason is simple and obvious - the top-level bureaucracy doesn't trust any of its employees to do their job properly, not even the smallest things. It has cultivated a deep-rooted, premeditated mistrust of its entire staff. How do the workers respond to this? Naturally they regard it as an inexcusable insult to their integrity and sense of reponsibility. Whether or not they're fully aware of their situation, the fact is they're being treated like little children or potential criminals. Small wonder if a general melancholy sets in and creative output declines.
The Government's mistrust of its employees is largely of its own making. Firstly it is overreacting to the monumental transgressions of some of its own high-level bureaucrats. Secondly the wherewithal to employ people whom it can trust has been eroded by the implementation of so-called "equal employment opportunity" principles, in consequence of which selection panels aren't allowed to ask character-probing questions any more - the kinds of question that might enable an intuitive interviewer to make some judgment about a person's integrity and likely degree of application to his or her job. Recruitment must be based solely on academic qualifications and overtly relevant experience. Thirdly government departments no longer encourage the kind of personal management that used to exist many years ago (they can't trust the managers either), so nobody really knows what employees are doing most of the time. And fourthly it's become quite difficult to get rid of an employee who misbehaves, because of the red tape involved - again a product of government and union regulators.
In short, the risks associated with a small minority are being managed in a way that constrains and incriminates the majority. Ordinary citizens are assumed guilty unless proven innocent.
Everywhere you look you can find scenarios where the majority are inconvenienced because authorities surrender to the rotten eggs in our society. Here are a few examples, and some of the "solutions" we've been induced to tolerate. (We'll look at alternative solutions, in very general terms, later.) For good measure I've put in a couple you might be able to identify with, and which you had probably not considered to be particularly antisocial.
Intruders - The community spends billions on home and business security to keep intruders at bay, and more billions on home insurance to pay for theft and the damage they do. Why is this necessary? Why can't we go out and leave our doors unlocked?
Compulsive gamblers - They're talking about removing ATMs from hotels and other places where pokies are located so that compulsive gamblers won't be tempted to withdraw cash! In fact, one bank has has now done this (2005). Good grief, why not get rid of all ATMs and banks everywhere, so all those drinkers, junkies and other dodgy spendthrifts can't eat!?
Graffiti artists - Some stores have taken spray paint cans off the shelves to stop juvenile graffiti artists getting hold of it, and now some authorities are talking about removing spray paint from the market altogether. Hmm! Let's stop selling cars too, to stop hooning, road accidents, pollution and car theft. (The latest craze is "egging", and it has already been suggested that eggs should not be sold to juveniles!)
(August 1, 2007 - the Queensland Government has today passed a law banning the sale of spray paint to people under 18, with a maximum fine of $10,000 for retailers who do the wrong thing. Obviously our pitiful socialist government hasn't a clue how to handle the problems of youth. So they pass the responsibility onto shopkeepers, of all people! This is typical socialist rot of the worst kind. Jan 2014 - The Gold Coast Qld Council is now threatening to fine owners of business premises who don't remove graffiti that vandals have sprayed on their walls. Of course, no disparaging remarks aimed at the perpetrators. How unfair, how despicably unAustralian can you get!)
Street muggers - Just heed the warnings and don't go out after dark! Remember you could be the one to end up in gaol if you have a go at one of the mongrels with a capsicum spray.
Speedsters and hoons - To stop thoughtless drivers speeding through housing estates and similar zones, endangering children's safety, the local authorities put "traffic calmers" (speed humps, bends and mini-roundabouts) at intervals along the street. A waste of public money as well as an inconvenience to careful motorists, especially truck and van drivers.
Arsonists - Don't sell matches to kids or cuckoos. When you catch an arsonist who's just wrecked thousands of hectares of prime forest and put hundreds of lives at risk, be sure to tell them not to do it again.
Drunken brawlers - "glassing" or delivering life-threatening "king hits" to their adversaries or, worse, to innocent bystanders. Is their stupefied state of mind an excuse for violence? Responsible citizens surely don't get drunk to start with.
Bag snatchers - I recently heard this amazing snippet of news (May 2005). To reduce the incidence of bag snatching, authorities in Naples are considering banning motor scooters - those ubiquitous, indispensable Neapolitan get-abouters. What a pathetic piece of socialist nonsense! Isn't it the bag snatchers who should be "banned", not the scooters? (2005 - According to Australian police statistics, on average a handbag is snatched every 40 seconds of every day. An agent for handbag sales suggests including a python with every bag sold. A death adder might be a better idea!)
Shop lifters and bowser jumpers - The latest spin on these indescribable wretches is that they've got undesirable genes! So have cane toads, and you know what happens to them! Shop lifting costs Australians more than one billion dollars annually, and is said to be the primary reason for the failure of small stores. It's absolutely incredible that our society is so tolerant of them: why can't we reverse the tables and make them pay us?
Belligerent school chidren - They disrupt classes and may literally attack their teachers. But who gets expelled? The teachers, of course, for handling them too roughly.
Dole bludgers and Family Allowance fraudsters - Well, at last (2013) the authorities have started to track down these scroungers, but sometimes they still get away with it. At best they might have to pay their debts.
School bullies - The attitude of educational authorities to bullying in schools is pathetic. According to a recent TV story, the bullies at one school were allowed to remain at the school and continue their playground terrorism while the victims were asked to leave "for safety reasons". Unbelievable, shameful, astonishing, and one of the clearest examples of the establishment giving in to losers at the expense of the triers (or are they giving in to their hard-nosed parents?). Apparently this situation has arisen largely because those who have the capacity and obligation to deal with the problem have themselves been bullied into cataplexy by the system.
Paedophile photographers - Here's one that almost beats the lot for imbecility (Jan 2006). To deter paedophile photographers, cameras will be banned at school sports grounds, so parents will no longer be able to take photographs of their children's amazing antics (unless they surreptitiously use their mobile phones, I suppose). Will the day soon arrive when private cameras are banned altogether, because they are too invasive? Then there will only be Big Brother's cameras watching over you at every street corner and in every public building - not to mention your own back yard, from satellites that can zoom in with ever-increasing precision.
Bomb hoaxters - Why not take the hoaxter at face value, as if he had in fact set a real bomb. After all, that's obviously what he wanted us to believe. In a rational, trusting society, we should assume that people tell the truth - not, as the judiciary system does, that they are born liars (see below).
Child support defaulters - Don't bother chasing them up, simply let them get away with it. They couldn't care a damn about their own kids, so why should you?! (2013 - the Department of Human Affairs say they are going after this mob. Even so, it seems there are many who refuse to pay up.
Squatters - It's beyond all comprehension how the system lets these bloodsuckers take over other people's property, usually only to destroy it brick by brick. How can we possibly trust a legal system that is so flagrantly foolish?
..... and so the list goes on.
Why can't society send a clear message to these scumbags that their actions won't be tolerated?
Surely if they've got any sense they'll take notice, and if they haven't (which is more likely) - well, why should we worry so much?
The assumption behind the thinking of the social planners is that everybody is likely to run off the rails. Therefore typically they deal with minorities by squashing the rights of the majority. This is exactly how authoritarian governments behave. If we want to remain a free society and build an ethical society based on trust, we must fight to reverse this thinking.
We have to get the bureaucrats to work on the assumption that most people are essentially decent, and that our social systems will be designed accordingly. We don't want the structure of our social environment to be determined by thugs and deadbeats, so that it encloses us in a kind of prison while the miscreants roam around having a ball. We want the authorities to clamp down on the thugs so we can go about our daily business without having to worry about them.
And especially so that our children can go about their daily business without having to worry about being molested, either in the streets or in their own homes. But our children can only be brought up to trust “strangers” if they really can trust them , i.e. if everybody with whom they come into contact is trustworthy. Unfortunately the laws of this country have become so weak that miscreants of all kinds not only get away with their wrong-doings, they practically run our society. They determine the limits of our freedom because they are free - free to abuse our kids, raid our homes, sell their drugs and set fire to our schools.
Nor have the media done anything to remove the burden of such crimes from the public to the perpetrator. First, they invariably isolate extreme cases for special attention, thrashing them to death until their viewers become stupified with all the detail. Secondly they scare everyone into believing that such crimes are commonplace, whereas in fact they may be quite rare. Finally they goad people into taking action to avoid becoming targets of similar criminals.
The Daniel Morcombe case springs to mind. Just about every school kid in Queensland has had it drummed into them what they must do to avoid becoming another Daniel. "Stranger Danger" is the current catchphrase - the same warning that adorned the McDonald's tray covers sometime back in the early 1990's. It seems not to have occurred to the media that it would be much better if the children remained uninvolved and that the police and the law are there to protect their innocence by minimising the possibility of crimes against them and giving them back their freedom. And anyway the whole scenario is completely overshadowed by other causes of harm and death to children. The case should not be dramatised just because an evil person is the culprit, rather than a bug or a bend in the road. How many children come to harm through abductions compared with those who are assaulted in their own homes, involved in road accidents or inflicted with an incurable disease? Of course, given the present state of our society and its laws, the Morecombes' child safety campaign is a creditable venture, as long as it helps children to learn the lifelong skills of distinguishing baddies from goodies. It's the environment that needs to change: children should not have to be forever on guard against strangers.
In general, therefore, I believe the Morcombe's viewpoint is having far too much influence due to their own vigorous campaigning and to media publicity. It's a viewpoint that's easily put, easily supported and highly emotive. But in the long run it will do more harm than good to our society. The danger from child molesters/abductors/drug-pushers/murderers should be treated the same way as we've been advised (quite rightly) to treat the threat from terrorists: carry on as normal but consider ourselves at war with these monsters. Shoot them before they shoot our children. (Also see these "R-rated" comments...Topic 2...paedophile.)
Not everyone who abuses the society is a criminal or a no-hoper. We even treat some of them as heroes. For example, consider the extreme sports fanatics and intrepid adventurers, such as the adrenalin seeking BASE jumpers, the Sir Edmund Hillary copycats and the lonesome buccaneers who circumnavigate the globe in unsuitable craft. If they get into difficulties we launch expensive rescue operations, often putting the lives of rescuers in danger. You'd think they'd either take out insurance to cover these contingencies or else face up to the risks squarely. Well, isn't the risk of death or serious injury part of the thrill? Surely cowards shouldn't be going in for extreme sports. Whatever, there's no reason why society as a whole should wear the cost of their mishaps.
But shouldn't the same philosophy apply to more "normal" activities, like rock fishing and swimming in the surf? While Australia's surf lifesavers do a very fine and important job, I don't believe it's their responsibility or right to force people to swim between the flags. Ideally, those who want to swim in patrolled zones (I would be one of them) should pay for the privilege then and there, while those who want to risk swimming elsewhere (call them mugs if you like) should be free to do so, using their own judgment and accepting the responsibility for themselves. (I can see problems with this in practice, but it will suffice as an example of the model of increased self-responsibility which I'm advocating.)
As for irresponsible dog-owners, I'm tired of hearing about children being mauled by dogs which, in my opinion, have no right to an existence - at least not in open contact with humans. For far too long, local councils have given into the dangerous dog owners lobby. Even dogs that jump up at you, bark through the night or leave their mess on the footpath are infuriating enough, or rather, their owners are infuriating. Dog owners should take full responsibilty for the disturbance, damage or injury caused by their animals. I know this will really get me on the wrong side of lots of decent people, but in my view most dogs are unsuitable pets for city dwellers. Furthermore, I often wonder about the motives of some dog lovers, but that's another story. One thing's certain - the attitude of most Australians to different species of animal is incredibly inconsistent. I'm not impressed by those who claim their moggy or pooch is part of the family, but spend the weekend shooting wild animals.
Talking of families, why do we let those silly sociologists dictate the way we raise our children? Now they're saying we can't smack our children - not even a tap - and the States have started implementing this crazy idea. Yet we are still allowed to stuff them with junk food, which could permanently damage their health. Worse still, we are allowed to stuff them with the lies and nonsense of religious dogma, which could damage their integrity and powers of reasoning for the rest of their lives. The religious indoctrination of young children is surely a crime just as unforgivable as physical (sexual) child abuse, while the evidence that smacking is harmful is practically non-existent (we're not talking about child bashing, which is another matter altogether). In fact, public opinion polls support the view that the kids and teenies of the present generation are thoroughly spoilt.
Then there are the bringers of outlandish lawsuits against organisations or individuals whom they claim have been negligent. Incidents concerning council playgrounds and privately owned playschools come to mind. When I was a kid (in the UK), half the fun of playing was the risk involved - like jumping off high walls, making fireworks, climbing up rotten trees, riding our bikes at top speed down the narrow, twisty village lanes, building a gang-hut half way up the face of a quarry, diving off rocks etc. We still had a sense of right and wrong, though - we rarely resorted to the vandalistic kinds of activity that juveniles tend to pursue today. And if anything went amiss we did not sue God. Anyway, intelligent children soon learn the limits of their capabilities and to assess the risks associated with their choices.
In those days most council swings and roundabouts seemed to be half broken. So what? I think the "She'll be right" attitude of yesterday's Australians - and still of Aussies in the bush - is not too bad (it's one of the captivating qualities of Australians that enticed me to this country in the first place), and individuals residing here would do well to live with the consequences of that attitude. The consequences are that no Australian can guarantee that their house, equipment or business is completely safe. If you want to come into "my" home, use "my" gym equipment, come on "my" tourist boat or put your child in "my" playschool, then that's your risk. Rarely should it be possible to blame a genuine Aussie for negligence. Just don't go around with your eyes shut if you want to avoid tripping over the garden hose.
The sudden surge in the cost of insuring against such claims has brought many well-meaning and much needed organisations to their knees. I can see the way governments are thinking - effectively they're saying we (i.e. you) will help out with the insurance costs. What nonsense! Individuals have to live with certain risks. If unwilling to accept the risks, they should avoid putting themselves or their families in those situations. The community should not have to fork out for their ridiculous claims. Rather, the legislation needs to be changed to make it clear that certain activities are "at your own risk" and to prevent the possibility of unreasonable compensation payouts.
I'm not condoning sloppiness. But sloppiness is something that gets eradicated from society by competition. All I'm saying is that individuals should take more responsibility for their lives and not be encouraged to always lay the blame on others when things go wrong.
Nor am I suggesting that individuals should not guard against risks - by not taking out home insurance, for example. On the contrary, all responsible home owners insure their property. But insurance is their responsibility, no one else's. If they haven't got home insurance and their house burns down, they shouldn't come crying to the government for support.
So it's not just the real scoundrels in our society that gain protection from the medicine dished out by the bureaucrats. The establishment panders to the inhumanity and weakness that lurks in all of us, instead of encouraging the opposite traits.
We're living in a neo-socialist era in which people expect to be spoon-fed by the system, to relinquish self-responsibility and self-respect. There are indeed responsibilities we cannot accept single-handedly and which must be shouldered by the nation as a whole - for example, the defence of our country, the protection of our shared resources and the maintenance of a social infrastructure that prevents all decent individuals being suppressed, exploited or harassed by others. But there comes a point soon after that when maybe the role of government should end - when, because of its warden-like attitude towards the people, the government itself starts to become suppressive, exploitive and harassing.
Instead the government and sub-governments (how many of them have we got, for crying out loud?) have got a finger in every pie (often several fingers attached to different bodies) and can hardly let you do a thing without acting as daddy. The eagerness of these neo-socialist authorities to take over the responsibilities of individuals has produced a number of unwelcome effects.
For the government itself, it has led to an incredible administrative overload. Their solution to this problem has been to exchange their responsibilities for yours. You now get the job of handling much of their red tape. It's usually too hard and time-consuming, so you're forced to employ an agent to do it for you. The human and financial cost of handling this bureaucratic garbage is so high it has resulted in the collapse of businesses and thwarted the establishment of community organisations, such as sporting clubs.
Since they've divested you of your responsibilities, they can no longer trust you, and they assume you can't trust anyone either. The backlash effect is that people not only cease to respect government at all levels but they begin to comply with the will of the authorities by actually trusting each other less. This, along with certain other modern zombifiers such as TV, causes people to withdraw from society more, which only perpetuates their wariness of others. This is a value change that leads them to more readily accept just those kinds of structures that the authorities are putting in place to keep you under. So the wheel goes around, the screw keeps tightening until eventually, I presume, we end up with a Brave New World.
Another consequence of government interference and the increasing socialisation of personal affairs is that more and more people feel the society should compensate them for their own mistakes, carelessness or apathy, so they expect compensation or welfare payments in circumstances where they don't deserve them. Often, the welfare state is only too eager to make hand-outs to these social parasites, while sadly neglecting to support many others with desperate needs.
To recap, the current phase of the game is a system in which the authorities play down to the rotten minority at the expense of the majority - a system that's wasteful of resources and disrespectful of our true values. Surely it would be better to target the crims and scumbags. A diligent gardener wouldn't let the weeds take over in a bed of roses - he'd get rid of them, and cultivate every single rose with lavish care.
Why has our splendid Australian garden been allowed to get to the stage where the weeds have gained such a stranglehold?
The fact is, we've really got two kinds of weeds in our society - on the one hand the lawbreakers, hooligans and parasites, and on the other the smart-arse neo-sociologists, who both nurture and feed off the other weeds. The neo-sociologists comprise a mixture of bleeding heart psychologists, lawyers hell-bent on sustaining their lucrative industry, left-wing politicians and well-meaning but totally disorientated social planners whose revolutionary concepts are drawn from implausible university texts.
If we want to deal effectively with the criminal element and build a trusting society, we've somehow got to persuade these misguided softies, most notably sectors of the judiciary and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - to radically change their ideas and tactics - a task that's going to be extraordinarily difficult.
It is said that prevention is better than cure. But when the sorts of preventive measures taken undermine the freedoms and dignity of all decent people, then they are unacceptable. In these circumstances society comes first - the decent majority must be able to live as free, respected and responsible citizens. This means that social disrupters must be treated much more aggressively. The gurus cannot continue to play into their hands and mould our social systems in a way that sanctions their existence and greatly disadvantages everyone else.
Of course, I have no idea what all the answers are, but here are a few ideas to illustrate the general outline of my pitch.
For a start, I'd suggest the philosophy of zero tolerance, as adopted so successfully in the fight against gangsterism in New York, could be applied to a wide range of criminal activities in Australia. To implement zero tolerance properly would require a considerable strengthening of the police force, not only in numbers but in powers and legal protection. In my opinion anybody (drugged, drunk or just agro) who resists arrest by a police officer should go straight to gaol, anybody who attacks and injures an officer should get a long-term sentence and anybody who murders an officer should be hung (and I don't care if they're drawn and quartered too - well, we treat chickens that way and they've done nothing wrong!). But, admirable though it is, the police force would benefit from a major overhaul.
If the police force needs improvement, the judicial system needs a total revamp. Foremost concerns include the cost and funding of lawsuits and the provision of equal access to justice for everyone. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the system that incurs the wrath of Australian citizens is its weakness in sentencing convicted offenders. The public is becoming completely fed up with the incredible leniency of the courts and their apparent inability to impose fair and fitting penalties. Little could be more unsettling than this loss of confidence in the basic role of the the judiciary.
I'd be putting a lot more emphasis on deterrence by means of much steeper penalties. I don't concur with those softies who claim that the threat of punishment fails to act as a deterrent. Historical evidence points to its effectiveness at every level, from obstreperous school-children fearful of detention to belligerent nations restrained by the risk of nuclear devastation. (See below for my views on fines for traffic offences).
However, a policy of deterrence will not work, nor will it be fair, unless the public is kept fully informed of the Law and the consequences of breaking it. Education is an essential feature of such a system, as is simplification of the Law (otherwise people would never understand their responsibilities).
In many cases the courts are not handing out anything like adequate sentences, either to deter other potential offenders, or to protect and recompense society in general and the victims of crime in particular. Often one might expect the proper sentence would be to get the offender out of the society for good, but this rarely happens.
Why, for example, should we tolerate crime from people who have already committed crimes? Reoffenders are being let off lightly because the philosophy of citizens' rights is misapplied. When returned to the society they are afforded the same rights as everyone else. This seems totally inappropriate. Hardened criminals are not ordinary citizens and do not and should not have equal rights to the rest of the population. In particular they shouldn't have the right to be released back into society unless there is very substantial evidence that they won't reoffend. And if they do, maybe they should be permanently isolated from society, barring any special mitigating circumstances.
The AAT (Administrative Appeals Tribunal) is particularly lenient in dealing with hardened criminals who have migrated here from other countries. It's simply unbelievable that they allow most of these thugs to stay in our country when every ordinary citizen would want them deported.
All right, there are often circumstances in which the blame for a crime cannot be entirely attributed to the offender. For example, if a crime is triggered by personal suffering brought on by inadequacies in the social system, then the system must be held partly responsible. Or again, the court might determine that the offender is mentally disadvantaged or not in charge of his senses. It seems to me, however, that the distinction between "psychopathic" and other crimes is at best very hazy indeed. Few if any criminals are in charge of their senses. And whether or not the offender is a lunatic or a sane person, there's no excuse for letting them back into the community if there's a high risk that they will reoffend. (Click here for some controversial R-rated remarks on the irrelevance of the psychology of the criminal to the ethics of social protection. Please read the whole piece to put these remarks in their proper perspective.)
Just one Anita Cobby case is one too many. But while there are animals roaming our streets there will be more vicious attacks of this kind. It's essential to deal with potential offenders before they do their worst, and to deter those who escape the net by making sure they realise they'll be treated harshly if found guilty of any crime.
Sometimes the law is so crazy it's the victim, not the criminal, who ends up in strife. People who try to defend themselves against intruders in their own home or service station attendants who attempt to fend off armed robbers are asking for trouble - not from the thief but from the Law. It seems that even armed security guards aren't allowed to do their job. What's the point of giving them a gun if the Law prevents them from ever using it?
As for what goes on in our prisons, few of us seem to have any clue. Descriptions range from four-star hotels to dens of iniquity. One thing strikes me as being odd, however, namely the lenient treatment of prison escapees and inmates who take part in violent demonstrations. Surely if you told a prisoner he'd be shot if he escaped, he probably wouldn't bother trying.
And why should society have to bear the cost of the consequences of so-called juvenile delinquency? If the "juveniles" themselves cannot be held to blame, their guardians ought to accept full responsibility - just as dog owners should take full responsibility for the misdeeds of their animals. However, on the whole I do believe that juvenile offenders should be held largely to blame for their actions. Consider, for example, the teenies who deliberately steal cars and start a dangerous police chase. Nobody could argue that they're not old enough to know what they're doing. But look what happens to them! Almost nothing, most of the time. And I don't believe most juveniles that commit other kinds of offences are any less streetwise. On the other hand, there is no doubt that many young offenders come from broken or abusive backgrounds, they can't be held entirely responsible for their actions and they could be amenable to reform (see below). Many youngsters are imprudently thrown into the adult prison system without proper opportunity for rehabilitation.
(And now, just to make things harder for parents, we've got these crazy sociologists advocating that smacking of children by parents should be banned - not thrashing, mind you, just smacking of any kind! Not that I'm an advocate of smacking - there are usually better options - but where do the priorities of these sociologists lie and just who do they think they are? How much responsibility do they want to take away from parents and guardians and how do they expect them to keep control of their offspring? A smack now and again probably never did any child any harm. Not even those occasional unfair smacks delivered through some error of parental judgement. I can think of lots of things in the home that might be harmful to children, and smacking isn't one of them. And some things certainly do cause lasting harm, but nobody ever suggested banning them - for example, religious indoctrination, a diet of sausages and smoking during pregnancy.)
But let's bring some sense of balance into this! Suppose a juvenile firebug deliberately starts a bush fire in dry, windy conditions. It has the potential to destroy vast areas of forest, wildlife and properties and to take human lives. Where should our sympathies lie? The important issue, surely, is not whether some foolish brat is reformable or mentally unstable, but how many decent people's lives have been put at risk by this offence. The welfare of the many must be put ahead of that of a few troublemakers.
My primary "solutions", then, consist of education and steeper penalties. The penalty should match the offence and, in the case of fines, it should also match the pocket of the offender. What's the use of a fine if the offender is not inconvenienced by paying it?
Let's take a fairly trivial and controversial example - the question of driving offences such as exceeding the speed limit on our roads. It's a useful example because just about everybody knows what driving is all about, and there are definite rules which at some time almost everyone has ignored. Of course, we must assume there are foolproof methods of monitoring vehicle speeds etc, which is not the case at present, and that the existing mad confusion of speed zones and signs is replaced by a more acceptable system. We must also assume that people get off the hook if they have a reasonable excuse, which again is often not the case.
Given these conditions, the proper response to speedsters is more driver education and much steeper penalties. Fines should be based on the value of the vehicle (as well as its logged speed) and must be high enough to act as a deterrent. Repeat offenders should have their licence suspended for long periods. Aggressive speedsters, like hoons doing two or three times the speed limit to evade the cops, should lose their licence for life. If they haven't got a licence they should be gaoled. Same applies to other similar motoring offences. Now, everyone should be able to think what this means for themselves. If they're not mature enough to think, they're probably not mature enough to drive.
Australians are notoriously bad at assessing risks (hence their addiction to gambling). As drivers, one risk they often misjudge is the increased risk of killing somebody (including themselves) associated with increased driving speed. (Or is it just that some drivers don't care?) This is possibly an argument for devices like traffic calmers and speed regulators on vehicles. If people are intrinsically poor at assessing risks, the only solution, you might say, is to prevent them taking those risks.
But if this kind of thinking was applied across the board, it's not difficult to imagine what kind of a system we'd be living in. I, for one, would be out of here like a shot. The answer is surely to impose a "punitive risk" which poor judges of risk can assess more easily. If they can't be made to consider the risk of killing a child in a residential street, then maybe if a higher risk of hitting their back pockets was present, they'd slow down a bit. Some people, it seems, have no awareness of, or just don't care about, the risk of running over somebody's child. But the risk of losing a couple of thousand bucks would make them think again. I believe many would think again even if the risk of losing that kind of money was the same as the risk of killing a child! But the idea is to make the risk of losing money much higher than the risk of causing an accident - because high risk situations are much easier to assess than very low risks, and, of course, you're much more likely to try to avoid them.
Contrary to the opinions of many road users, I believe collecting fines from speeding drivers is an excellent way for the government to increase its revenue - provided all those conditions mentioned above are in place. If this doesn't slow down the speedsters, then, obviously, the fines aren't steep enough. Fines have to be kept at a level where almost everybody can be enticed to keep within the speed limit.
You might say this is an impudent, hypocritical affront to individual freedom. Well, the whole point is, we need to better balance the freedom of losers against the freedom and security of the majority. The fact is that today many non-drivers can't drive because they've been injured beyond repair in motoring accidents, or they can't afford the insurance costs - or they're dead. Wouldn't it be better if this burden was transferred to the foolish, and the expense of hospitalisation put to more positive uses?
Wouldn't it be better if there were fewer kids dying in road accidents, fewer kids confined to wheelchairs and fewer parents with shattered lives?
I believe my case is supported by a recent French study of the effects of fines on driver behaviour (reported in New Scientist, 19 June 2004, p. 13). This study, which involved 13,800 people, concluded: "Our interpretation of these findings is that a feeling of impunity has a genuine impact in increasing risk-taking behaviour".
Why should society as a whole pay for expensive preventive measures when offenders could be made to pay and society would reap the benefits, both in terms of funding and, especially, fewer fatalities, less grieving and an all round improvement in security?
If people want to use the systems of advanced society, they should be willing to comply with their rules, because the rules are there for their own protection. They are still free to drop out of many of these systems. That's one of the great benefits of our present socio-political structure. It should, and to some extent does, allow enormous freedom - to live in alternative communities and not to partake in many schemes. What it ought not to allow is the undermining of these systems by a minority of abusers - anarchists and cheaters who want to reap the benefits of modern society but neither accept their share of the responsibility of maintaining it nor respect the rights of other users of the system.
Unfortunately at present the government doesn't distinguish clearly between those who bail out from various systems and those who remain, so they keep rewarding the fugitives with benefits that are only appropriate for the conformists.
For sure, taking this kind of hard line against crime and misconduct would need extra safeguards to ensure fairness and no miscarriage of justice. There is no more important legal principle than "innocent until proven guilty". Too many cases result in convictions based on slim evidence. On the other hand, even in the best of systems we're going to have to continue to live with occasional mistakes. Unfortunately I think we might have to learn to accept them, rather as we accept mistakes in hospitals (and there are thousands of them) and natural disasters. All we can do is exercise the utmost vigilance to keep errors down to a minimum.
It so often happens that someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and often this is the only reason why a person becomes the victim of a crime. By establishing the right safeguards against crime we can greatly reduce these incidents, but it may be at the risk of a few extra cases of misidentification of offenders (i.e. again largely a matter of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time). I don't really see why this should be so, if more safeguards are in place, but, regardless, it's a question of replacing a high risk state of affairs with a much lower risk state. The latter might seem unethical to some only because it moves the burden of error from the street to the halls of justice.
Taking the hard line does indeed come at a human cost - a cost which the "bleeding hearts" brigade presumably considers too high. According to them, the bad have the same rights - if not more rights - as the good. They appear to believe that priority goes to forgiving and reforming individual wrong-doers, and to hell with the rest of us, to hell with the kinds of social reform that in the long run would create a better, more trusting society.
Admittedly there are "reformable" and mentally deficient criminals, and there are now, and always should be, institutions in place for dealing with them. Depending on circumstances, miscreants should be afforded the opportunity for rehabilitation, reform or voluntary absconsion from certain social systems, as appropriate. The opportunity for reform is especially important for young offenders, many of whom are unjustly treated (particularly in the USA, I feel). But if they don't want to go down that path or if there's little hope of that strategy succeeding, then enforced isolation from society is the only safe option left.
The judicial system must make a sharp distinction between the cloudy issue of the mental states of a minority of miscreants and the clearcut responsibility of preserving the security of the majority. I'd suggest that, regardless of anyone's alleged state of mind, priority must go to protecting the majority. It's one of those situations where the rights of individuals might appear to be traded for the "rights" of society. But in fact this is not so. Rather, I'm contending that the rights of the great majority of individuals cannot be jeopardized by giving disproportionate consideration to the obviously lesser rights of a small group of individuals who pose a danger to the rest of us.
We simply cannot afford to surrender to the mugs who play havoc with our society - on the one hand the ratbags, thugs, gangsters, parasites, fraudsters, loonies and outright criminals, and on the other hand the misguided neo-sociologists who pander to their needs.
We cannot continue to accept the increasing amount of legislation being applied to the general public and the potential and actual victims of crime, while hooligans and convicted criminals are feather-bedded by the engineers and keepers of our society. Only by eliminating these destructive elements can we begin to build a society based on trust - a trust that will ensure the genuine freedom of individuals.
And where is this trust most imperative? In the legal profession and above all in the relationship between the public and the judiciary. Lawyers must cast off their money-grabbing image and be perceived by the public as the bastions of truth and rightness. If they cannot regain the confidence of the people our society is doomed.
The trouble is, the philosophy of distrust is deeply entrenched in our judicial system. The system is supposed to assume people are innocent until proven guilty. But the first thing all witnesses must do in court is swear on the Bible (or make an affirmation) that they will tell the truth. Thus, the court assumes that people are prone to lie, it cannot trust them to be truthful. So it subjects them to this most ridiculous of rituals, the swearing of oaths.
Ridiculous because not only is it insulting to one's personal integrity, it's a fool's affront to the very foundations of language and reason. Little could be more obvious than that an affirmation to tell the truth makes no difference to what one tells. If you tell a lie, it is not somehow more false because you swore to tell the truth. The affirmation is totally redundant, because language itself carries, and can only carry, the assumption of truth. Even the Good Book itself implores people to refrain from swearing oaths and to keep their language simple - a rare insight in an otherwise deplorable hotchpotch of nonsense - so swearing on the Bible seems an especially crazy practice.
At a more down-to earth level, politicians and social planners must reduce their interference in the affairs of individuals and give them back some of the responsibility they have stolen from them.
The prime responsibility of the state is to protect its citizens, not only from invaders but from dangerous, disruptive, parasitic, manipulative and monopolising elements within the society. This includes many activities, existing and threatened, of the government itself. We do not want our lives to be controlled by others.
Sometimes the socialist attitudes of many members of the general public propel the bureaucracy to take measures that are easing us ever closer to the Brave New World scenario. Remember how that system "protected" everyone from the natural environment? There are apparently people who seek that kind of protection now. Just the other day there was an outcry - not for the first time - about a council that refused to fence off a pond after a young child had drowned in it. The council was accused of double standards by forcing home owners to fence off their swimming pools while not fencing off their own "dangerous" ponds - in particular this pond, which happened to be next to a childrens' playground.
Well, should we expect councils to erect fences around all ponds and lakes, along all river banks and beaches? Of course not. And of course there are risks associated with living in surroundings where there are ponds, rivers, trees, cliffs etc etc. Apart from their beauty, these natural features are heaven for youngsters. They nurture their sense of adventure and help to build life skills. Surely we'd rather accept the risks involved in maintaining an interesting, healthy environment than put up with the huge risks associated with drugs, smoking and binge drinking. As for toddlers who fall into ponds and pools, surely they are the responsibility of their guardians, not the local council! Our bleak suburban surroundings need more ponds, trees and features for children to explore - and no fences.
Why should we become hemmed in by the spoilt, irresponsible mindset of individuals who want to pass the buck for their negligence onto government authorities?
As for the council's double standards, I entirely agree. Why should councils enforce rules about back-yard swimming pool fences? Why can't home owners be allowed to use their own judgment about the safety of their pools? Erecting fences is only one way of looking after your children.
The social majority thinks far too narrowly on many issues. By our own actions and customs we invite not only the meddling intrusion of the state but the wrathful hand of mother nature herself. We cannot see further ahead than tomorrow, a tomorrow that matters only to ourselves, and do not think of our grown-up children and grandchildren as being part of the society.
For, besides the issues we've discussed, there are many other areas where individual rights sometimes have to be forfeited. With mounting pressure from population growth and economic advancement, our country is increasingly becoming a land of intensely shared resources. There's no way in the world we can let individuals and their enterprises continue to deplete these resources and destroy our environment at the present rate. Indeed the trend must be reversed. Activities such as logging, land-clearing (for farming and real estate), fishing and animal production must without question be slowed or modified, or else every one of us could be in trouble. And if not us, then almost certainly our children. (See Global concerns.)
I'm well aware that I'm talking about (amongst other things) the possibility of ruining the lives of some very fine country people. Yet I believe this lack of care for the future of humanity is one of the most inhuman traits of "civilised" society. Without a doubt, future generations will pay dearly for the rotten habits of their predecessors. As an ex-agriculturalist, I believe one of the worst of these habits (particularly in the USA as well as in Australia) is eating the wrong sort of food, principally too much animal protein. It has led to unprecedented land clearing, depletion and contamination of our water and fishery resources, unbelievably barbaric animal husbandry practices and poor health that's costing people their lives and the country a fortune.
Intensive animal production in particular is objectionable because of its implications for human health and animal welfare, and especially its sheer wastage of food resources. Most farm animals convert only about one third of the food they eat into products suitable (?) for human consumption. The cereals, soybean and many other materials used to feed intensively housed animals could be utilized directly by human beings, resulting in a huge reduction in the area of land needed for agriculture and a wide range of benefits to people and their environment. And an end to cruel “factory farming” methods. Grazing animals fare little better - in fact, recent research suggests that they have a considerably larger "carbon footprint" (per kilo of protein reaching the consumer). But why eat meat at all? The only "good" animals of critical importance to agriculture are the honey bee and the earthworm, and the concern here is not to butcher them, but to sustain their numbers. (Please also see this page on animal production and for the main reason why people are not vegetarian - and why both popular and legal thinking about animal welfare is in a disgraceful mess - please see "The origin of the carnivorous obsession?" in the Central Humanism pages.)
This lack of care for our shared resources is to my mind a criminal offence of the worst order, and one of which we are all guilty in some degree.
One could think of the consequences of this behaviour as something like a combination of ethnic cleansing, asbestos mining, AIDS and our penchant for petrol-driven vehicles, all rolled into one. But James Hardy and the atrocities taking place in Africa are peanuts compared to this. And the trouble is the world will just wait and see, like we've done for lung cancer and mesothelioma, and like the weak-kneed United Nations has done for Biafra and the Sudan.
I'm not all that worried about people's lack of concern for their own health (it's their business), even though poor health is a heavy social burden, and even though the very existence of intensive animal farming poses a serious health threat due to pathogens such as the bird flu virus which could mutate to cause devastating epidemics in the human population. But I am deeply disturbed by the prospect of an appallingly impoverished environment that our children will have to live in. The continuing expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices geared to our lamentable eating habits, together with the Government's obstinate refusal to ratify the Kyoto Treaty (for what it's worth), point to a remarkably obtuse aspect of Australia's mindset.
And that's why I now give McDonald's a miss - burgers, tray covers and all. They tell me vegeburgers have become available in both Maccas and Hungry Jack's, but somehow I feel it would be like eating the parsley off the top of a rump steak. I'll just have to look elsewhere for ingestion and inspiration.