Privatise the Mind

25th March 2001

Today there exists a large number of regulations. If you have a job, house, business, or simply go shopping, you are affected by them. They serve different purposes but their immediate effect is always the same: to control your actions. The question is, to what extent are these regulations justified? As domestic and European government continue to produce rules, the answer will make a significant difference to our future.

For the purposes of this article, regulation is defined as the control of private property by the state through law. It differs from other law by pertaining to an individual's or company's actions on his own person or property rather than to his actions on those of another. For example, regulation requires a restaurant to clean its kitchens, but common law prohibits the poisoning of its customers.

This article examines the use and effect of regulation in two areas: building and "health and safety". It then describes how licensing is used as a form of regulation in several other areas. Finally conclusions are drawn about the implications of regulation for freedom and morality.

The rules governing domestic building vary from place to place, but the examples below from the current Wandsworth Borough Development Plan are fairly representative.

The type of control with the biggest scope is the quota. Central government sets overall targets for certain types of building in certain areas. These targets are then implemented by local government in terms of allowing or refusing planning permission.

The most significant factor influencing quotas today is environmentalism, as this quote shows: "[regulation is] the most effective way of reconciling the demand for development and the protection of the environment". This means that demand for housing where people want it is to be thwarted by the Green policy of leaving nature unchanged. Such ideas are also given force in the requirements that "development must be sustainable" and "reduce travel" and take part in "urban regeneration".

On a smaller scale, control is also driven by local government's aesthetic opinions. Wandsworth wants "to see not a collection of private properties but ... a duty to preserve the townscape." This desire leads them to control the material and design of your property. For example, regarding a roof extension, you are led to bear in mind that "other people will have to look at it" and to consider whether it might be "ugly". Somehow the Borough planners know that to avoid ugliness it's always safe to "reflect the materials and details of the existing building", and to copy what's nearby. That this amounts to the censorship of architecture does not seem to bother them.

This reveals another of today's leading forces of control: conservation or traditionalism: in other words 'the old is the good simply by virtue of its age'. Despite standing against all progress this theory is highly influential. While we are all made to bow as servants of the 'townscape' woe betide anyone whose house is in an officially designated 'conservation area'. There you will be subject to regulations demanding two windows where it would be cheaper to have one, no extra floors when there is a housing shortage and the protection of "archaeological heritage as a source of the European collective memory". The Victorians whose craftsmanship we are so assiduously preserving, would have laughed heartily at all this. If they had not pulled down old buildings and replaced them with mansions and factories, not built terraces over green fields, there would have been nowhere for the begetters of the Industrial Age to live and work, and today's prosperity would never have existed.

More absurd than conserving building is conserving trees. Never mind that you want more light in your property or more space in your garden, permission may well be refused should you decide to chop one down. The reasons given are that trees filter pollution (which you find unnecessary) ... "improve air quality" (but not yours) and provide "visual amenity" (except to you). To this end planning aims at "preventing the unnecessary loss of trees on private land and encouraging the proper care and maintenance of trees by private owners". Even if you secretly poison your tree you may not have the last laugh since "dead trees and wood will be left as a habitat for wildlife".

Wandsworth's policy, following that of central government, includes the following statement: "the planning system regulates the development and use of land in the public interest". This reveals why the state has no qualms about restricting your freedom to build: it thinks it owns the entire ground of England and thus can control how it is used. This audacious claim stems from the idea that the state always acts for the sake of the 'public'; unfortunately 'the public' often excludes you.

The effects of all these regulations are numerous. At a personal level your freedom to alter or create property as you decide is considerably eroded. On an economic level, by preserving small old buildings they prevent market demand operating and cause exorbitant pricing. In addition the rules deter intelligent people with high aspirations from becoming architects since they would not suffer being prevented from building as they saw fit. Consequently we all suffer the loss of the new ideas and techniques they would have created.

Looking further afield, all these regulations and more apply to commercial property. To the extent that companies are prevented from building and improving their premises, we all suffer from lost jobs and trade.

But businesses have many far worse regulations controlling them.

The most wide ranging of these are the ones imposed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The range comes from the HSE's remit: to ensure health and safety in the workplace. This means that the tools, hours, temperature, lighting, physical strain, weather, radiation, chemicals and microbes involved in a job, must all be taken into account. These qualities vary so much from occupation to occupation that no simple rules can be set to cover all circumstances. Thus a building site worker cannot reasonably expect as safe an environment as an office worker, a nuclear scientist risks radiation poisoning, and a painter risks falling off a ladder. Health and safety can even vary widely between different locations in the same industry, such as the danger of a ferry sinking off the Hebrides versus one in the Solent. To have a health and safety rule for every circumstance in every occupation would be impossible and dictatorial. But instead to have only a few general rules would be no better since it would leave companies uncertain of their legality. In a struggle to achieve the former but often leaving us with the latter, the HSE draws up as many rules as it can to cover as many circumstances as possible.

For example the HSE has a set of rules regarding office chairs and computer screens. These describe the proper posture which an operator should adopt and the specifications of chairs, tables, and screens which will allow that posture to be maintained whilst working. Employers do their best by giving out leaflets to their chair bound workers advising them how to sit, but the only ones who really know whether they are in pain or not are the workers themselves. They alone can control and monitor their own posture and detect signs of its bad effect on themselves. Not only is pain invisible but different people have different tolerances to it and ways to avoid it due to different body shapes and the amount of exercise they do. In addition, it's important to change one's position slightly now and again to improve circulation. All this makes it impossible to have hard and fast rules about posture. The HSE rules in reality boil down to 'make sure your employees are sitting comfortably' which is as suitable for a piece of legislation as the introduction to 'Listen with Mother'. A law, to be a law, must be specific and applicable to everyone. If it cannot meet these criteria then it is a recipe for arbitrary judgement and so should not exist.

In reality, very few companies find their employees so worthless that they would rather sack them than buy them a better chair if they complain of backache. The government disagrees and thinks that employers grind their uncomplaining employees to the bone until they drop. But businesses don't work like that for several reasons. Firstly employees can just leave. There is no lord-serf relationship these days which used to provide the basis for real exploitation. (Ironically the nearest equivalent is today's state-citizen relationship.) Secondly, the law of personal injury exists to deter the worst employers from providing negligently inadequate working facilities. Thirdly, some employees are happy to trade extra risk for extra pay and take out extra insurance for themselves, as in the case of divers. In essence the HSE stands in the way of employers and employees coming to their own arrangements.

The HSE also has special powers for controlling big and complex installations or operations such as railway companies. However the very size and difficulty of managing such businesses actually makes regulation impossible: it is too static, generalised and dismissive of commercial reality. To work properly, the rules would have to be tailored to each individual company and regularly updated. But that would not be law - it would be governing nationalised industries.

To sum up, HSE regulations are unnecessary, unworkable, interfering and the reverse of privatisation.

Add to this list the wasted effort that goes into complying with these rules, and it is no wonder that the government tries to appear less imposing in its leaflets. The "Employer's Guide to HSE" attempts to placate executives in this way: "Guidance and Approved Codes of Practice give advice, but employers are free to take other measures provided they do what is reasonably practicable" . This sounds like an excuse for business to ignore such 'guidance', but there is an implicit warning against such an attitude further on: "... if they do follow guidance they will normally be doing enough to comply with the law". What business will run the risk of ignoring 'guidance' when it is taken as a legal standard? It is much safer and less costly to obey the 'guidance' than risk having to argue in court that one's own measures are better. If the government publishes advice it has special authority, because the government can use force: one can afford to ignore mere 'guidance' from the government as much as 'hints' to leave town from Al Capone.

Another strategy used by the state to appear less overbearing is the appointment of 'independent' regulators. But the notion of a regulator chosen by politicians in a politically created post who is independent of the state is a double contradiction in terms. In fact the most independent regulators are individual customers and shareholders, who can withdraw their financial support from a business at any time.

HSE regulations exert a lot of direct control over business but they also have significant side effects.

For instance, in practice companies often only pay lip-service to the HSE, particularly in manufacturing. They will follow the government recommended procedure when the inspector comes round, then ignore it as soon as he's gone because they know that with care, an employee can turn out much more work without it. They also know that the government cannot enforce its regulations twenty four hours a day. The side effects of this go beyond instilling contempt for the law.

While they ignore the regulations, companies operate in fear of being found out and then fined or closed. While they obey the regulations against their better judgement, their desire and ability to work effectively is frustrated. If the fear or frustration become too much, they bail out, taking the jobs and goods they provide out of the market. Ask how many people have ended their business or retired early due to the burden of complying with regulation. Then ask how many have found that starting a business was made easier by government regulation. Then consider how many businesses were never even started due to regulation.

The paragraphs above looked at some of the regulations pertaining to building and business. But there is a special type of regulation which is much more powerful and can apply to any activity: licensing. Its power comes from its ability to stop a person or firm dead in its tracks, rather than just fine it.

One example is the licensing of banks. The idea is to 'protect' customers from bad practices such as having too low a ratio of deposits to loans. The state decides what practices constitute proper banking and also forces each licensee to maintain a certain level of funds at the Bank of England. Despite its recently found freedom, this central bank is ultimately run by politicians: it owes its position to special charters and not to the market; it is forced to guarantee government stock; and its main goal, the inflation target, is defined and set by the Treasury. Through the manipulation of exchange rates and the limits it places on banks, the state maintains strong control over the whole economy.

So far, and at great cost, banks are keeping up with the detailed reporting and other regulations that their license requires, but soon this will become much harder. The recently passed "Financial Services and Markets Bill" is an attempt to gain even tighter control for the state. Its 425 clauses incorporate so much detail that over 1200 amendments were tabled against it. Two of the main purposes of the Bill are to "improve market confidence" and "protect consumers". But as with all regulation, the state is setting itself up as superior in trustworthiness and knowledge to anyone else. It ignores the fact that repeatedly over many centuries the City of London has created institutions of its own that people trust with their money. Among the results of this Act will be the curtailing of financial innovation and an increase in the costs of running a financial institution. In addition it will forcibly prevent competition between industry regulators by making them subservient to the FSA. And it will also undermine, not improve, the confidence of consumers, since no one knows what the government is going to do next.

The Bill could enable any populist political idea to end up influencing banking and therefore controlling trade. Suppose a pressure group wanted to stop a civil war in another country, it could make the government investigate the customer accounts of any bank and revoke its licence if it was found to have supported the 'wrong' side. Or suppose that the 'politically correct' policies of the Co-operative Bank were made mandatory for all banks. Then every industry would be able to plan ahead just about five minutes, until the next change in political favouritism. In the face of such unpredictability, the economy would collapse.

There are state licenses for hundreds of activities besides banking, including car driving, taxi running, paper making, chemical manufacture, fishing, forestry, food and electronics. In sum, licensing is a widespread and powerful form of regulation.

Unfortunately it is such a part of everyday life that people don't complain. Given this disinterest, the precedent is set for further damaging applications. For example, the green idea of "sustainability" is so vague and widely held it could lead to the licensing of any industry to ensure it re-produces its own raw materials. While this is clearly absurd in a primary industry such as coal mining, it is less obviously so higher up the economy. "Sustainability" could be used to justify the licensing of builders and architects based on their ability to produce buildings that are "energy efficient". Naturally such regulation would raise the cost of building, driving up the already high prices, and lead to more unregulated cramped conversions rather than new purpose built dwellings. At a stroke, the little freedom remaining to builders and architects would be squeezed away, and many would have their careers destroyed and leave their profession. However beautiful and purposeful a building is, if it is not "energy efficient" it would not be built.

The above examples drawn from building and business represent a tiny proportion of the total amount of government regulation. Those areas neglected here include employment, competition, and agriculture, and in a general way, education, health and unemployment insurance since these government monopolies represent almost 100% regulation. Yet we have enough examples from which to draw some conclusions.

The most obvious one is this: that the state believes it has the right to control your property to any extent, limited only by its ability to pass a law. This includes an explicit aim of legislating to supersede your own ideas even when they are 'legal', as this extract from the HSE shows:

"What the law requires here is what good management and common sense would lead employers to do anyway: that is to look at what the risks are and take sensible measures to tackle them".

In other words we are witnessing the nationalisation of common sense.

While many would say, 'well I agree with common sense so that's alright', exactly the opposite is true. If the state imposes its thoughts and actions on our everyday lives, we cannot think for ourselves. One does not need Orwellian projections of thought police to identify the deep problem we have in this country. We are our own thought police. And the crucial thought we automatically suppress is this: 'I have a right to use my property as I decide'. We suppress it every time we read a deducted payslip, a government 'initiative' , or a new regulation. We dare not challenge such usurpation. We are content instead to assume the status of an idiot, incapable of making his own decisions to sustain his own existence.

It is obscene to treat ourselves and other people as morons, our minds only fit to take orders from the state. And it is ludicrous that we expect the government to think for us properly since it is totally unqualified for the job. Knowing almost nothing about what they regulate and living in fear of being unpopular, politicians always err on the side of caution and simply ban things when their safety or efficacy is doubted by the public e.g. beef, GM crops, asbestos and self-regulating banks. They think that at least they can't be blamed for any injury or damage that might happen. But a corollary of this ignorance-based and centrally spread fear is the destruction of the industry and science they are criminalising.

However, that is not the worst. By making up our minds for us in so many areas, the government has become our moral agent. This leads to a profound problem. Every conscious act in life involves a moral issue. Each of us is always following some moral principle, in an attempt to bring about the good. Human life contains so many choices, we need a moral code to act as a guide. In submitting to regulation we have given the state the power to be that guide, and this implies the saddest fact of all: to the extent that the state makes choices for us, we ourselves act amorally, and hence deprive ourselves of our humanity and the moral pride of our actions. An action done under compulsion has no moral reward because it is not chosen, and worse, if that action contradicts one's moral code, it becomes a moral punishment. The more a person is told what to do, even if it is 'in his own interest', the more his mind is made irrelevant, the more amoral he becomes, and the more his soul is crushed. Such is the psychological state of those in a communist dictatorship, and to the degree we are regulated, so it is too with us.

So how can we stop regulation? As defined above, it is the control of private property by the state through law. Over the centuries it has always been with us, and only the authority has changed: first it was the church, then the monarch and now the majority in Parliament. The premise behind all of their rules is that private property and private thoughts need to be controlled. The premise behind that need for control is that men are not able to control themselves properly: that their minds are incapable of discovering and following the right course of action. Therefore they must be told what to think and do by an authority that knows better: God, the King or democratic society. It is this disdain for the individual mind which has led to contemporary governments' remit: to save the citizens from their own mistakes; to run their lives for them; to make them good. It is this premise that must be routed out.

While it will take decades to undo its effects, this "doctrine of irrationality" can quickly be invalidated. Firstly there is the fact of capitalism's victory over communism in providing a world worth living in. Communism tries to regulate everything, leaving no opportunity at all for individuals to reason. Capitalism, to the extent we have it, allows people freedom to choose what to do, how much to pay, where to work and so on. It is these individual acts of reason that lead to productivity, advances in science and technology, and so to an improving way of life and the crucial self-esteem that goes with it.

Secondly there is no valid argument for a higher authority upon reality than the individual reasoning mind. We no longer allow priests and monarchs to supply our ideas, but we do submit to the will of the majority and pressure groups as channelled through Parliament, or Europe. Now, if all men are irrational, how is it that a group of irrational minds can find the truth? When they gather together does some special power to interpret reality emerge? Or is it that one of them has an idea which they each then decide using their own minds to accept or discard? If each MP can make up his own mind, why not his constituents? On what basis do MPs claim the right to dictate to their constituents the instructions for running their daily lives and securing their long term futures? Can each constituent not decide for himself what kind of house, bank account and business he wants, or what education, insurance and healthcare he should invest in? When he needs specialised knowledge can he not decide for himself who to consult? As a reasoning human being, of course he can do all these things.

Just as the voice of each individual is granted respect in determining his religion, so it must also be granted in all other matters of life: education, business, transport, food, shelter and the rest. Within the boundary of his own person and property, each individual must be granted the freedom to act according to his own conscious convictions. Such a turn around in our philosophy is the only way to avoid the extending intrusion of the law and to escape further dictatorship.

The only way to live in any age is to use your head. The only way to do that in today's world is to re-obtain your control over it. To that end we must one day elect a government that will roll back regulation, one whose goal it is to "Privatise the mind".

- Henry Afton