A New Constitution

12th Dec 1999

Now the Lords are gone we have an historic opportunity to give this country a proper constitution. If we allow the current practice of government-granted peerages to continue, we risk concentrating even more power in the Commons and in the hands of its majority leader. This trend towards dictatorship must be reversed, or we will find ourselves returning to a pre-Parliamentary system of privileges and favours, making our ascent towards a free society a failure. In addition, if we want to prosper in the next millennium, we must find answers to the broader questions of the purpose of the state and of European integration. Then we shall have a firm base on which to construct the country we want.

As a start to defining a better constitution, it is useful to determine what is wrong with the current one. It seems to me that the overriding problem in British society today is a lack of freedom. Through cumulative taxation of 50% we are not free to spend most of our own money. Through increasing regulation, we are not free to live as we see fit. To choose just two examples: on a minor level of interference, we have allowed the government to tell us when to eat meat; on a major scale by controlling who gets what medicine, we have let them choose who lives and dies.

As individual citizens we are fairly powerless. Hence the rising influence of pressure groups. Under the current political system, a group, albeit a tiny minority of the whole population, has the ability to pressure the government into adding a rule that serves their group's aim. Common examples are the anti-gun lobby which succeeded in interfering with the innocent collector and sportsman, and the anti-road lobby which has succeeded in preventing car tax from being spent on more roads. Parliament's main work every day is to appease similar but less well-known organisations.

Groups might get what they want, and thus obtain the desires of their members, but it is usually at the expense of others. Over time, different groups gain power inevitably resulting in contradictory policies. For example: police powers are increasing but IRA murderers are walking free; trains are privatised but the track they run on is under rigid government control; income tax is reduced but pension tax is raised; businesses are acknowledged as the source of employment but are hindered from providing it by new legislation. Such a state of disarray and unpredictability makes it impossible to plan a life or business long-range, and so we limit our hopes and expectations.

If we want to do something about this, we must scrutinise the premises that make our government work this way and replace them with better ones. The major premise to challenge is that the government may exercise unlimited power. Currently, as the voice of the people, it can make the body of the people do anything: from sending them into battle to restricting their diet, to putting them collectively in debt. The government clearly needs some unique power within the land, otherwise there would be competing systems of justice and consequentially chaos. But how far this power should extend into the everyday life of the citizen depends on which political theory the government is trying to implement.

Today there are two dominant theories: socialism and nationalism, represented by the Labour Party and the Conservative Party respectfully. Socialism aims to bring about 'social justice' through the redistribution of wealth and ownership from the rich to the poor. Nationalism aims to achieve a 'strong country' through regimenting our minds with a National Curriculum and state television. Both parties borrow from each other's theory but still maintain differences which they think will make us vote for them rather than the other.

However, both socialism and nationalism share an overriding feature which makes their differences irrelevant: they rely on the same ethical theory of altruism. This theory states that concern for others is the highest principle of action; that morally we are at our best when we sacrifice our own interests to those of others. Socialism demands we make sacrifices to help the disadvantaged, and nationalism demands we make sacrifices to help the country. Both agree that sacrifice is necessary and noble.

Both also, grudgingly, agree that each of us must be a little selfish in order to live and make our sacrifices possible, and so they allow us some freedom while surrounded by controls. This conflict between what is necessary to live and what altruists think is moral arises from a conflict between altruism's view of human nature and reality. To an altruist, each of us is essentially an irrational animal, driven by emotion, who would exploit and damage both others and himself if left to his own devices. Hence they say, the government must intervene: to save society and the citizen. But there is a fundamental contradiction in this view: if people are by nature irrational, how can a group of such people - the government and their favoured group - know better how to make life possible than an individual? Altruists answer this by falling back on one of two theories of knowledge.

The first is subjectivism and is used by socialists. This states that knowledge arises primarily from the mind. Any thought or emotion is thus equally valid. The problem comes when two people have conflicting ideas on an issue. Subjectivism's answer is to take the majority view on the premise that the more people think it, the more it must be true.

The second theory of knowledge used by altruists is intrinsicism, which is often upheld by nationalists. This states that knowledge is transmitted straight into one's mind from an external authority. Typical authorities are 'tradition', God, competition, and 'nature'. Again, a problem arises when two people claim inspiration from different authorities or disagree about what the same authority told them. Intrinsicists deal with this by excommunicating the minority view-holder, again falling back on subjectivism.

And so these theories all add up to give us the system of government we have today, in which groups use their subjective arguments and sheer weight of numbers to make society sacrifice anything they feel will bring it closer to the ideal state. If we want an improved social existence, we need a better set of epistemological, ethical, and political theories.

I suggest that such a set has already been developed by the philosopher Ayn Rand into a philosophical system she calls Objectivism. I think that if we adopt her ideas, Britain will become a truly free state in which each of us could live our lives productively, safely and without sacrifice. Below, I briefly describe her ideas as rational alternatives to current thinking, starting with epistemology and working down to politics.

As theories of knowledge, subjectivism and intrinsicism are both flawed because they place reality in a subordinate position when it comes to determining the truth. Objectivism puts reality first and relegates the human mind to identifying that reality. Objectivism states that knowledge comes only from reasoning about the material provided by one's senses. Therefore human thoughts are validated by reducing them to aspects of reality that we can all perceive. This provides a basis for discussion and agreement. Any concept or theory that resides only in people's minds, such as the threat of sportsmen to society, is to be considered irrelevant in a political context. While subjectivism and unlimited democracy accept the will of the greatest number as the ultimate gauge of truth, Objectivism states that fifty million Frenchman can be wrong and one can be right. We all have access to the same source of knowledge - reality - and we all have the ability to use reason.

As for exercising that ability, since is no such thing as a collective mind, each of us must choose individually to reason, and to accept the consequences of our own thinking. Subjectivists want protection from their own errors and so they cling to the opinions of others, and siphon off the good results of others' accurate thinking. The trouble is, without thinking for themselves, subjectivists don't really know which advice to take, and so end up in a state of chronic intellectual dependency, leading to personal doubt and a sense of inefficacy. Their only way out of that is to live for others, forget themselves, and convince those of us who do think to do the same. Hence the theory of altruism. In reality, each of us must be free to act on our own ideas or we will not survive. The death of an individual comes when he can no longer think or act to sustain his life. The death of a culture comes when new ideas are prevented from actualisation through the use of political force. Then we all become like dead robots, following the orders thought out for us in advance by authority.

Since it is individuals who think, so it is individuals who deserve to benefit from the product of their thinking. Altruists insist on everyone giving away that product because they treat individuals as interchangable parts of the group, or servants of the God, who generates the ideas. Objectivism insists that each human being can prosper from his own ideas and so should be left alone to do so.

At this point comes a major difference concerning the political concept of rights. Socialism and nationalism ascribe rights to some group or other. Objectivism ascribes them to each individual, on the basis that we each need freedom from coercion to live - physical force being the only human thing that prevents us from acting as we think is right, and thought being our primary means of survival. The only fundamental right is the right to life, which entails the right to property since we all must live by physical means. Individual rights apply to all individuals, and so there is no question of one person's rights having precedence over another's. Rights are thus primarily a means of keeping us apart - they define the limits of our autonomous action beyond which mutual agreement is necessary. The poor have no right to the property of the rich nor do the moral have a right to limit the actions of the immoral. Within his own sphere of action, each human being is sovereign.

Under Objectivism, the role of government becomes solely to protect the rights of individuals. Any other government activity is merely disguised coercion by some group and so is an abuse of rights. For a social system, Objectivism insists on laissez-faire capitalism, not because it produces the most benefits for mankind, nor because it would be best for the country, but because it is the only social system which treats each individual with equal respect, and leaves him free to make his own choices and pursue his own ambitions. No one has a duty to fulfil someone else's dreams of national prosperity or social equality, only their own.

In order to create such a society, much of our constitution would have to change. Below is a summary of the chief principles behind such a new constitution.

1. The government will exist only to preserve and uphold the individual rights of its citizens. It will particularly uphold the rights to life, property and freedom of expression. It will not redistribute wealth between members of society, nor dismiss the rights of one for the advantage of any other.

2. Its activities will not extend beyond law-making, law-enforcement and national defence. It will particularly not attempt to educate, nurse, bank for, insure or transport its citizens, nor undertake any activity that can be rightfully pursued by a private organisation.

3. The government will act only in a reactionary way - defending and seeking retribution for actual attacks or threats to citizens rights. It will not regulate the private sector in any way including the provision of franchises, licenses or permits, but merely define the different types of property and keep records of property and life as are necessary for it to fulfil its role.

4. It will not tax any one of its citizens without their personal consent. The resources to fund the government will be raised by a voluntary percentage levy on all contracts, without payment of which, a breach of contract suit may not be brought before the law. The percentage should be calculated to cover the administration of both criminal and civil justice.

5. The government will be neither in debt nor credit beyond 5% of one year of its income. Its debt instruments will have a maximum life of five years.

6. All roads, like other land, will be held privately. The government should merely ensure that each property has clearly defined access rights. The government will create no building regulations, nor conservation areas. No property holder will have any rights over another's property including a view over it.

7. The number of MPs should be drastically cut to reflect the far more limited role of government. They should not be paid at all from the public purse. People should not be made to pay for the promoters of ideas with which they disagree. Being an MP or a Lord should not be a career but a way to defend what one has created through a career. This measure will substantially reduce their tendency to sit all day in Parliament and impose controls on us.

8. The Lords should be entirely elected by the populace. It should have the power to veto any legislation by a simple majority.

9. A presidency should be created and voted for by the people. Such office should be able to veto any legislation, and will replace the office of Prime Minister and monarch. It will not be held twice by the same person. By creating three legislative institutions, each with a veto, the people should be able to elect a combination of politicians who will stop each other exercising too much power.

10. The government will levy no import or export duties of any kind nor favour any particular business or region either at home or abroad.

11. It will engage in no trade sanctions against another nation unless that nation has declared itself a military threat to this country. Economic threats will be left to private companies to deal with since it is their choice what countries they trade with. Citizens' property abroad will be defended by this country in the event of inadequate local protection and sufficient means without incurring more government debt.

12. In time of war, the government will assume no more powers than to become in debt up to 10% of its yearly income. If the people will not volunteer to save their country either they or it are not worth fighting for.

13. Immigration shall be allowed to all comers. Like the existing citizens, they will receive nothing from the state except justice. Newcomers are not a threat to a free society because we all benefit from the productive activity of others.

14. The government will hold the ultimate legal authority within its geographic boundaries. Treaties with other countries will only provide for strengthening the rights of individuals who trade or travel there. No political power should be devolved to another country until that country has proved itself to be a staunch defender of individual rights. Being 'at the heart' of a set of socialist or nationalist countries is not the right place for a country of individualists.

If we as individuals, want to free ourselves from the legacy of socialism and nationalism embodied in our political system, we must reshape our government in the image of that desire. We must make it leave us alone. Or else, by leaving our constitution to current trends, or foreign powers, we will be crossing the sea of constitutional upheaval, blind-folded, careless, and deserving to be drowned.

- Henry Afton