Of course governments have always to some extent been in the business of social control, but democratic governments have gradually extended that social control to cover almost every aspect of life. Democratic governments are in the business of micro-managing our lives.
The depressing thing is that this happened because public opinion on the whole supported outrageous infringements on people’s freedoms.
It amuses me that social conservatives look back to the 1950s as a golden age of freedom. It wasn’t. It was an era of rigid forced social conformity. Personal freedom was strictly limited.
In fact of course that’s exactly why social conservatives are nostalgic for the 50s. They like the fact that the people of whom they disapproved had no freedoms. For social conservatives freedom means the freedom to conform rigidly to socially conservative norms.
All of these losses of freedom were justified on the grounds that it was for our own good. Things like gambling, prostitution, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, pornography, etc were wicked so they had to be either rigidly controlled by the government or banned by the government.
That’s still the social conservative argument, and the argument of social and moral reformers as well. The problem is that whether these things were desirable or undesirable government attempts to control these social problems always made matters worse. And of course they took away our basic human dignity, our right to decide how to live our own lives.
The results were invariably disastrous. All Prohibition achieved was to allow organised crime to grow to a scale that no-one had ever believed possible, and to allow the police, courts and government to become thoroughly corrupt. In every single case the attempts at government social control failed, organised crime grew more powerful and the police got more corrupt.
In a democratic society most of us accept that the government should treat us the way Nanny would treat naughty five-year-olds. We accept the principle that if we disobey Nanny we should get a belting. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we like the idea of Nanny giving other naughty children a belting but we’re not quite so enthusiastic about it when it’s our turn for a belting. But we still accept the idea that Nanny should be able to punish us if we’re disobedient, for our own good.
Today of course this democratic totalitarian mindset is as strong as ever, but it’s being applied in a manner that horrifies social conservatives who are regularly getting beaten by Nanny for being transphobic or racist.
Social problems will always exist. It’s tempting to think that they can be eliminated if only the government could pass enough laws and if only the courts could impose harsh enough sentences but they can’t be eliminated. But democratic societies are committed to the utopian belief that all social ills can be eliminated by passing laws.
Perhaps we need to realise that you can have freedom or you have democracy, but you cannot have both.