Home > World Events > The policy ratchet and US civil liberties (crosspost at CT)

The policy ratchet and US civil liberties (crosspost at CT)

May 23rd, 2010

Apropos of recent proposals to stop giving Miranda warnings to terrorism suspects,

, the reaction is still exactly the same to every Terrorist attack, whether a success or failure, large- or small-scale. Apparently, 8 years of the Bush assault on basic liberties was insufficient; there are still many remaining rights in need of severe abridgment. Even now, every new attempted attack causes the Government to devise a new proposal for increasing its own powers still further and reducing rights even more, while the media cheer it on. It never goes in the other direction.

This kind of policy “ratchet” is quite common, but I haven’t seen a fully satisfactory, or general, analysis of either the metaphor or the phenomenon.

The crucial feature of a ratchet is that, at any time, the mechanism is a locally stable equilibrium, which can be shifted in one direction, with a moderate energy input, but can’t be shifted the other way without breaking the mechanism.

The metaphor hasn’t been used in political discussion as much as I would have expected. The most notable example is that of Huber and Stephens who apply it to social democratic reforms, with the idea that welfare state measures, once implemented are too popular to repeal. Certainly, the welfare state has proved far more resilient, through decades of market liberal dominance, than might have been expected, and the passage of Obama’s health plan suggests the possibility of further movement. But equally, the regular upward movement implied by the metaphor ended some decades ago.

One aspect of the policy ratchet that isn’t quite as clear to me is that, for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement. The success of the social democratic policy ratchet depends on general acceptance of a policy ideal that could be described as the end of poverty.

So, how does all this apply in the case of the erosion of the US constitution? The operation of the ratchet mechanism is clear enough. But what is the end state? And will the process be stopped before it gets there? The constitutional theories put forward by John Yoo and others, along with general conservative criticism of “judicial activism”, provide a pretty clear answer to the first of these questions. That is, the end state is an expansion of police powers in general, sufficient to ensure that anyone who is, in the police view of the matter, definitely guilty, can be convicted with no concern about “legal technicalities”, combined with an essentially unlimited presidential power to override the law in the interests of national security.

The critical test might come when the new rules are applied (or not) to white Christianist terrorists like the Hutaree. [1] . This could happen either because such a group mounts an actual attack, or because the state decides (as it could have done, but hasn’t so far in the Hutaree case) to use its full powers against a group that is planning, or maybe just talking about, something like this. At this point, the number of people potentially affected by the next upward ratchet would suddenly become much larger – the militia movement, for example, and then the more rhetorically bloodthirsty elements of the Tea Party crowd. Or, more plausibly perhaps, a Tea Party government could project its fantasies on to its opponents and use the powers inherited from Obama against Democrats.

That sounds apocalyptic, so presumably the ratchet will stop at some point before this. But where is the political force that will stop it?

fn1. It’s striking, as Greenwald has pointed out quite a few times, that this ratchet effect seems to be confined to the US. Other countries have restricted civil liberties in various ways, but there has been nothing like the continuous pressure seen in the US, and there have been notable steps in the opposite direction (in Australia, for example, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 removes some of the most objectionable features of anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2005, as well as repealing sedition laws that were seen, until recently, as dead letters). By contrast, Obama’s one big announced measure, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, has gone nowhere.

fn2. Assuming for the sake of argument that the government’s case is factually correct, there’s no doubt that their alleged actions constitute terrorism)

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  1. Monkey’s Uncle
    May 23rd, 2010 at 14:28 | #1

    As Benjamin Franklin said, those who willingly trade liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security.

    Much of the population today seems to exist in an almost permanent state of fear, anxiety and resentment, and are pathetically anxious for big brother to protect them from every perceived threat, and willing to sacrifice any rights in the process. These are characteristics ripe for exploitation and likely to lead to totalitarianism.

  2. Freelander
    May 23rd, 2010 at 15:22 | #2

    @Monkey’s Uncle

    I have to agree with that.

  3. May 23rd, 2010 at 15:47 | #3

    Pr Q said:

    The critical test might come when the new rules are applied (or not) to white Christianist terrorists like the Hutaree. [1] … At this point, the number of people potentially affected by the next upward ratchet would suddenly become much larger – the militia movement, for example, and then the more rhetorically bloodthirsty elements of the Tea Party crowd. Or, more plausibly perhaps, a Tea Party government could project its fantasies on to its opponents and use the powers inherited from Obama against Democrats.

    That sounds apocalyptic, so presumably the ratchet will stop at some point before this. But where is the political force that will stop it?

    Ahem…isn’t it a bit late to start speculating about “when the new rules are applied (or not) to white Christianist terrorists”? Pretty clearly the WACO sect would come under Pr Q’s expansive definition of a “white Christian terrorist”. This groups was the first terrorist group to get crunched in the “ratchets” upward crank, way before anyone was getting vexed by Islamist terrorists.

    Of course, like the Hutaree the WACO sect had not actually gone through the formality of blowing anything up before the Federal government cracked down on them. But at least these examples show that the Feds are equal opportunity oppressors when it comes to infringing civil liberties of their subjects.

    FTR I think that the Feds did the right thing by raiding WACO and charging Hutaree. Although they used a little too much force in the first case and I’m guessing the second case is just a bunch of loonies running around the forrest in cam suits, talking big to each other.

  4. Alice
    May 23rd, 2010 at 18:57 | #4

    @Monkey’s Uncle
    Id agree with you as well MU but I cant help think the totalitarianism of some private sector firms is ratcheting up faster (anhd advancing on us all faster) than the totalitarianism of governments (well at least here in Oz anyway) – not that Id want to see any state totalitarianism either. Ill name Rupert Murdoch in media and Goldman Sachs as two of the more obvious to exert totalitarianism. Total intellectual and financial vandals.

  5. May 23rd, 2010 at 19:38 | #5

    I wonder if at least some of the rachet is caused because a large segment of the US male population sees themselves as losing control? For a long time now the effective freedom of women, black people, brown people, and children has been increasing in the US and perhaps a large group of white males are attempting to compenstate by demanding more control over ‘scary foreign outsiders’. But I think and hope that the older white guys’ feeling of loss of control will gradually abate from now on. One of the main reasons I think this might happen is that the stagnation in male white wages in the US should come to an end now that in most fields employers have to pay the same to hire a woman as a man. Although women are better workers than men on average, they aren’t that much better and so male wages should start to increase more or less in step with female wages. Although this won’t restore their former patriarchal dominance, it will hopefully stem their feeling that things are getting worse and they are somehow losing ground.

  6. Donald Oats
    May 23rd, 2010 at 19:53 | #6

    Timely post. In the US a constant battle has bubbled and boiled away since founding, and that is on what to teach the ankle-biters as they grow up. The doctrine of Creation just can’t be put to rest when it comes to the syllabus, and nor can the doctrine of a Christian Democratic Nation – as opposed to the founding fathers doctrine of a secular democracy, for instance.
    Texas curriculum design is an odious example of what can go wrong even when those pushing for continual change in the one direction are technically in the minority.

  7. Michael of Summer Hill
    May 23rd, 2010 at 20:26 | #7

    John, if a Bill such as the proposed ‘Terrorist Expatriation Act’ ever became law then the ramifications will be felt far and wide. It has been reported that ‘the State Department may revoke the citizenship of anyone it deems provided “material support” to terrorist groups who participate in attacks on the United States or its allies’. But imagine if such a law was in place when the IRA were active and how many leading figures would now be behind bars for giving ‘financial support’.

  8. Freelander
    May 23rd, 2010 at 21:48 | #8

    @Alice

    Yes. The danger is hardly only from the state. Large corporations hold totalitarian threats as well, and there are very few safeguards built in against their threats. At least some attempts at creating safeguards have been made to ameliorate the dangers from government. And far more thought has been given to the totalitarian dangers from the state than from similar dangers inherent in the modern corporation.

  9. Freelander
    May 23rd, 2010 at 21:58 | #9

    Given that the US is a power rapidly on the wane, instead of making enemies of even their allies they ought to start thinking about the international repercussions of their actions. If they continue to make blatantly clear that they think it ought to be one rule for native born americans (excluding native americans, of course), and no rules when it comes to constraints on how they treat ‘foreigners’ they will have no friends as they need friends more and more. What is disappointing is that even Obama who is their best and perhaps only hope has not been above foreigner bashing to pander to his domestic audience.

  10. Michael of Summer Hill
    May 23rd, 2010 at 22:44 | #10

    Freelander, many would disagree with you that ‘the US is a power rapidly on the wane’ but you might be able to tell me which current Member of Congress in the 1980s said “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry”. In otherwords, the Congressman was providing material support to the IRA.

  11. Hal9000
    May 23rd, 2010 at 23:08 | #11

    @jack Strocchi
    I’m curious as to why Waco is capitalised, Jack. It’s a place, like BRISBANE, not an acronym. Also, I’m not aware that any special anti-terrorist laws were invoked in the incident concerned – just plain old criminal law. They shot investigating officers, IIRC.

  12. May 24th, 2010 at 10:06 | #12

    Hal9000@#11 said:

    I’m curious as to why Waco is capitalised, Jack. It’s a place, like BRISBANE, not an acronym.

    I just love capitalising place names, a hangover from my brief time as a signaller I guess. There are many other grammatical idiosyncrasies available in on the Internets, so good luck with your quest to chase them down.

    Also, I’m not aware that any special anti-terrorist laws were invoked in the incident concerned – just plain old criminal law. They shot investigating officers, IIRC.

    Well that just goes to show that that liberal trope about the direct relationship between supposedly oppressive penal legislation and the actual and existing civil liberties is overwrought. In fact the relationship may be inverse.

    WACO (!) was most definintely an act of massive over-kill by the state security forces. Yet it occurred well before the ramp up of tougher law and order legislation that swept through US states from the early nineties onwards in response to the last phase of the Crack Wars. And of course it preceded the terorist outrages that led to tougher national security legislation.

    More generally the notion that the US is substantially un-freer since “three strikes and you are out” laws or even the Patriot Act is a bit hard to swallow. Street crime is way down, this is much more oppressive of liberty than state security, as any girl-about-town will tell you.

    Apart from enterprising individuals like Major Hassan there have been no major successful terrorist operations mounted against a civilian target in the US. If the US is a safer place there is less likelihood that it will experience one of its Witchunting-McCarthyite episodes which would definitely make everyone un-freer.

    Its the populist folk rather than the elitist state that would be more inclined to put the thumbscrews on.

  13. James
    May 24th, 2010 at 10:08 | #13

    I think Ronald Brak is on to something; the ratchet effect as a result of capital giving (white male) labour scapegoats at whom to vent their fury (which is ultimately caused by stagnating wages and conditions). At the risk of Godwin, the same sort of mechanism underlay pre-WWII anti-semitism; inequitable results of the market/financial mechanism were blamed on “the Jews” rather than the initial distribution of wealth.

  14. paul walter
    May 24th, 2010 at 10:22 | #14

    Yes, some of you may have noticed the “harmonising” of British and Australian interests and processes. Think of the network of treaty obligations, murky andd expensive wars that seem almost part of an industry, Trade FTA’s, “policy” and “governance” proceduring and information reduced to an absurdity and you have the modern world of the Late American Empire.
    I beleive rumours of its demise are much exaggerated. It is like the late “golden age” of Rome circa the second century AD. Vast numbers of people again seem to be on the outer, as back two millenia ago. But the fortunate ones like ourselves live well also.
    But some where along the line something may yet turn up that again knocks the the civilisation thing off its axis, as occured circa 2000BC and 1100BC and about 550 AD.
    Above comment on the Religious Right as a phenomena is probably fair, a more geriatric demographic. No, its actually a conservative society, grown comfortable with the fullness of life and not willing to risk too much.
    Hence, for example, Abbott stays on the outer, depicted as extreme, an impression which the government will justifiably on the mores of the times, reinforce. The public in places like Australia seek embrace of a small c conservatism that Rudd, in the tradition of centrist leaders like Truman, best typifies what’s looked for, at the given time.

  15. Freelander
    May 24th, 2010 at 10:23 | #15

    @James

    Yes. I agree with you, regardless of Godwin. The same processes are at work. 9/11 was as useful to those who wanted to introduce draconian laws as was the burning of the Reichstag. The UK suffered bombing campaigns by the IRA but at least they never sank to the depths that have been sunk to following 9/11. Bad as 9/11 was, the US loses four times that number every year from guns but where is the frenzy to do even something reasonable about guns?

  16. May 24th, 2010 at 11:02 | #16

    Pr Q said:

    The crucial feature of a ratchet is that, at any time, the mechanism is a locally stable equilibrium, which can be shifted in one direction, with a moderate energy input, but can’t be shifted the other way without breaking the mechanism.

    The ratchet metaphor does not shed much light on the post-Vietnam war history of US civil liberties. There is no reason to resort to some mythical “ratchet” to explain why the post-Cold War trend towards more punitive regimes has stuck. They have stayed in place because they were successful – effective policy and popular politics. Punishment, not abortion, reduces crime – who would have thunk it?

    The evolution of civil liberty-state security is more like a see-saw. The balance between the rights of individual autonomies (liberalism) and the powers of institutional authority (“corporalism”) constantly shifts back and forth, depending on major events and the public’s reaction to political campaigns.

    Obviously the balance shifted in a liberal direction during the mid-fifties through mid-seventies, to allow the civil emancipation of minorities, climaxing in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Also revelations of Cold War excesses drove Congress to reign in the security services, most notably by the Church committee.

    But after about ten years or so of crime and civil disorder, culminating in the Jonestown massacre, the civil liberty-state security balance started to shift backwards in a more “corporal” direction. “Liberal” became a swear word for people tired of fleeing the inner-cities for fear of being mugged. There was a reason why Clint Eastwood movies were so popular.

    Obviously after 911 any politician who did not tighten up state security policies would have lost their job. The escalation from WTC I (1993) to WTC II (2001) was not auspicious. I dont think civil liberty would have improved if a third-time lucky terrorist managed to detonate a WMD under the rubble of WTC.

    Greater authoritative powers and Big Brother can, paradoxically, increase individual liberty. In the US over the past decade tougher legal regimes have reduced crime and have made the inner-cities a much more freer and habitable place. Hence the Sex and the City and Harlem Renaissance phenomenon, unthinkable in the seventies and eighties.

    Pervasive CCTV in London has also reduced crime. Do you think real estate developers and owners are going to sit back and risk all that just to please some bleeding heart liberals?

    Even so, the civil liberty-state security balance is now shifting backwards again, albeit slowly, in a more liberal direction. Some states have placed a moratorium on the death penalty. Even so, calls for more liberal regimes will run-up against civic officials keen to get more people living in city condos.

    More generally the Whiggish interpretation of civil-state history that Pr Q is trying to sell is ideological and contra-evolutionary. History should not necessarily be a story of increasing individual liberty. Individual autonomies may abuse their freedom to indulge in vice, commit crimes, wage civil war or just do their own thing taking a free ride at the expense of the team.

    As a long-time resident of St Kilda and Kings Cross I speak with feeling.

  17. May 24th, 2010 at 11:14 | #17

    Pr Q said:

    It’s striking, as Greenwald has pointed out quite a few times, that this ratchet effect seems to be confined to the US…Obama’s one big announced measure, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, has gone nowhere.

    Obama has reversed a number of state security policies pursued by the Bush admin, not just on Gitmo but also on torture and prisoner abuse. The NYT reports:

    Mr. Obama signed executive orders closing the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year; ending the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons; and requiring all interrogations to follow the noncoercive methods of the Army Field Manual.

    The abuses of Abu Gharib have been largely rectified and the prison itself has been demolished. Khalid’s trial has been moved to a civil jurisdiction so that he can lawyer up and grand-stand to his hearts content.

    More generally one wonders if civil libertarians would countenance any extra-ordinary actions by authorities in response to massive attacks by terrorists. Military action appears to be out, as does mildly repressive legislation.

    Fortunately we live in a democracy where common sense rules.

  18. May 24th, 2010 at 13:06 | #18

    Pr Q said:

    One aspect of the policy ratchet that isn’t quite as clear to me is that, for the ratchet effect to work, it appears to be necessary that there is a consensus, or at least elite majority view, that the desired end state is a long way in the direction of the ratchet movement.

    No, over the past generation or so more punitive legal regimes programs were driven by populist politics, not elitist policy. Richard Nixon’s career is the paradigmatic expression of this tendency.

    Elites have been much more concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Most legal opinion is knee-jerk liberal, as are the social views of most denizens of Washington, White Hall and Canberra.

    The populus just shrugs its shoulders for the most part. If anything the people would be happy with more restrictions, rather than less, going by popular attitudes to border protection.

    More generally, the biggest danger to civil liberty is a populist pogrom against the co-ethnics of self-proclaimed terrorist groups. (Think the US interning alien enemies during WWII.) So authorities are probably being friendly to freedom by erring on the side of state security rather than civil liberty for the time being.

    Another instance of mass-casualty home-grown terrorism would instigate a major xenophobic reaction against foreigners and the like. Current restrictions on civil liberty would pall into insignficance.

    My own view is that the current rash of anti-terrorist legislation will gradually be whittled back or become a dead letter as the US and its allies hopefully disengage from the Middle East. In tandem with this one sees a gradual rejection of the politics of cultural seperatism which allowed and encouraged home-grown terrorist enclaves to fester, as in the re-newed emphasis on Britishness in the UK and national values in AUS.

    But of course civil libertarians don’t want to talk about that since it would expose some major contradictions in their own social philosophy.

  19. Monkey’s Uncle
    May 24th, 2010 at 17:30 | #19

    Jack, I agree that populist opinion tends to be less sympathetic to civil rights than elite opinion. The majority of the population are all too happy to support laws eroding civil liberties so long as they are convinced that these measures will only be targeted towards unpopular minorities or the usual suspects. So long as they are convinced that they themselves will not be affected, they are only too happy to sacrifice the rights of others.

    Mind you, the average punter likes to whinge when the long arm of the law catches up with them personally. Say, when they get a ticket for travelling a few kilometres over the limit or fined for fiddling their tax return or being overpaid on family allowance or some such.

  20. Monkey’s Uncle
    May 24th, 2010 at 18:24 | #20

    Jack, as far as the move against the death penalty in the US, some states like Illinois decided to put a moratorium on executions after it was found that some of the accused on death row were innocent and others had significant doubt over their guilt.

    Of course, one need not be a bleeding heart liberal to have a problem with the state putting innocent people to death.

  21. peterm
    May 24th, 2010 at 18:29 | #21

    Monkey’s Uncle with respect to #19, I agree entirely. But the average punter had better have a good bank balance if they want to whinge. Mike Moore make’s the point in one of his books (cannot remember which) that only a small subset of criminal arrests is even defended in Los Angeles.. (1 in 1000 is the figure that comes to mind.) If some upstart suspect ever has the temerity to defend their innocence in court and refuse to plea bargain, they will come up against full force of police and criminal justice system. They will need long pockets make their case in court.

    With respect to #20. I is easy to see with their broken criminal justice system why appears to be significant proportion of innocent people in US jails and I suspect there are quite a few on death row.

  22. May 24th, 2010 at 19:41 | #22

    @Monkey’s Uncle

    Of course, one need not be a bleeding heart liberal to have a problem with the state putting innocent people to death.

    In the US, that’s nearly the definition of a death penalty opponent.

  23. Alice
    May 24th, 2010 at 22:39 | #23

    @Fran Barlow
    One need not be a bleeding heart liberal to say the legal system is useless when only the rich can afford its protections either (whether its from the police or jail or death row).

  24. paul walter
    May 25th, 2010 at 09:26 | #24

    I notice another exampleof the ratchett (nurse?) effect in Abbott’s further nibbles at the pension age. This builds on a nonsense that Rudd perpetrated on us, a while back.
    Meanwhile, while Abbott and Hockey goof off, Rudd sponsors further behind the scenes mischeif with security oriented asylum seeker and internet moves.
    Of course the legal system favours the “rich”, we know it exists to protect the guilty, so that’s why most of us are probably “safe”.

  25. May 25th, 2010 at 09:52 | #25

    I am not convinced that the civil liberty-state security institutional balance has a authoritarian bias. This is because the balance shifts between liberal and “corporal” directions over longish time periods, depending on how the public reacts to major events or episodes.

    But to the extent there is a “corporal” bias amongst elite policy makers (as opposed to populist politicians) it is beause of humans “hedonic assymetry” between oppressive pain and elusive pleasure. This is part of the human condition: we put more effort into avoiding pain rather than attaining pleasure because pain is the default state, and easily ramps up to unbearable limits.

    This tendency is hugely amplified by human selfishness when the pain of failed security is focused on the official and the pleasure of exercised liberty is diffused amongst several, possibly disreputable, citizens or even non-citizens. Officials are more aversive to pain focused on the state polity rather than attracted to pleasure diffused over civil society.

    This ontological situation is exemplified by the long-standing risk-aversive tendencies of bureaucracies. The official who assiduously practices CYA is rewarded. And if failure occurs it is the official who most firmly shuts the door after the horse has bolted who gets promotion.

    Bureaucratic conservatism is re-inforced by “gotcha” journalism which is always seeing scandals and administrative stuff-ups when in reality it is mostly “sh*t happens”.

  26. May 25th, 2010 at 14:30 | #26

    Jack, when can we read Strocchiverse again?

  27. Alice
    May 25th, 2010 at 19:04 | #27

    @paul walter
    Paul – there is only one “defence” against lawyers…and that is staying out of trouble.

  28. gregh
    May 25th, 2010 at 19:29 | #28

    Alice :
    @paul walter
    Paul – there is only one “defence” against lawyers…and that is staying out of trouble.

    isn’t that an eldridge cleaver quote “the only way to live outside the law is to obey it”

  29. Alice
    May 25th, 2010 at 19:36 | #29

    @gregh
    yep – dont get sick, stay outta trouble, keep your books tidy and make sure you do regular grease and oil changes and check the water and you should be taking care of your expenses just fine.

  30. paul walter
    May 25th, 2010 at 20:05 | #30

    ” they are as wolves in sheep’s clothing”- biblical quote.
    Seems a feature of late capitalist legal system that is for all practical intents and purposes, it is not possible to avoid eventually breaking a law. The notion that one can make ones self exempt from the process remains one of the fondest delusions of ordinary citizens-part of the commodification process which is as much to do with expectations as truncheons

  31. gregh
    May 25th, 2010 at 20:09 | #31

    paul walter :
    ” they are as wolves in sheep’s clothing”- biblical quote.
    Seems a feature of late capitalist legal system that is for all practical intents and purposes, it is not possible to avoid eventually breaking a law. The notion that one can make ones self exempt from the process remains one of the fondest delusions of ordinary citizens-part of the commodification process which is as much to do with expectations as truncheons

    Who would have thought, a few decades ago, that everyone would need a filing cabinet just to maintain compliance?
    Anyone here know the incredibly prescient movie The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook and John Cleese 1970)?

  32. May 25th, 2010 at 21:03 | #32

    Dear JQ, regarding the “ratchet” – Prof. Robert Higgs has written an entire book examining precisely this phenomenon. It’s called Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford University Press).

  33. Alice
    May 25th, 2010 at 21:14 | #33

    @paul walter
    Mayve IM being naive Paul…maybe other have been anive in hsitory…one law change, one weird “enemy within” legislation and you could be in jail before you know it (eg for commenting on this blog)…
    Would I trust Tony Abbott not to be the next lunatic extremist leader ? To make laws to suit his narcissism? To imprison his enemies?

    …no I wouldnt. I think he is nuts.

    He sat around and helped write the “lets go to Iraq legislation”. the anti terrorist laws, helped Brendan make sure no-one in unis was getting grants unless they had “bio security” “terrorism” or “policing” in their research.Helped write workchoices and is now writing “how to rip off retirees by stealing their super”.

    In gfact he has done nothing but help write oppressive laws for oppressors.

    He is D (capital D) isgusting. Some sort of modern day Australian Himmler. Cant stand him and anyone who votes for him is as mad as he is.

  34. Monkey’s Uncle
    May 26th, 2010 at 08:33 | #34

    @Jack Strocchi

    Although the bias does swing back and forth, I think it tends to be more authoritarian than liberal most of the time. There are periods of time, such as the late 60′s and 70′s, where there is a strong shift towards civil liberties. But these periods tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

    The bias has clearly shifted against civil liberties in recent years. I suspect there are a few reasons for this. One is the decline in social trust and interconnectedness. Due to social problems like family breakdown and dysfunction, plus a decline in the role of voluntary organizations and civil society, people are often more disconnected from each other and norms of behaviour are not as clear. This tends to make people more suspicious of others, and therefore more likely to assume the worst and accept the need for coercive measures to combat alleged threats. And those who are alienated and fearful are easy prey for emotive scare campaigns whipped up by populist politicians and media. What’s the old saying about keeping the people in a constant state of fear, so they will be anxious to be led to safety?

    I also think having an aging population contributes marginally to these trends. As people get older they tend to value security and order more, and value liberty less than the young.

    Another factor that contributes towards an authoritarian bias among the general population is the just world theory. That is, people have some psychological need to believe in a just world where people generally get what they deserve. Related to this is that people like to believe that there are at least some authorities you can turn to that will protect the innocent and dispense justice, and that harsh treatment will only be meted to those who deserve it. I suspect the average punter is probably relatively naive when it comes to the extent of things like police corruption or malpractice, wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice.

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