We're accustomed to people justifying restrictions on our personal liberty on the grounds that they need to protect our personal morals, or the morals of society at large. We're even more hardened to politicians restricting our liberty on the pretext that they need to protect our physical health and safety. These justifications are questionable both in the abstract (perhaps the former more clearly than the latter) and often in application to particular facts.
Neither, though, is as pernicious or objectionable as the Orwellian argument that it is necessary to restrict personal liberty in order to protect personal liberty.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently proposed, in a speech to French parliament, that France ban women from wearing the burka.
He expressed his strong distaste for the head-to-toe Islamic veil, calling it not a sign of religion but a sign of subservience.
"It will not be welcome on French soil," he said." We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity."
President Sarkozy's comments have not come out of the blue.
They are in response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France.
They want to see whether such a spread is indicative of a radicalisation of Islam, whether women are being forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily, and whether wearing the burka undermines French secularism.
Mr Gerin believes the burka "amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory".
No doubt Sarkozy is pandering here, raising a controversial issue to divide opponents and divert attention from more complicated matters. That doesn't make the fundamental conflict raised any less important.
People in Western democracies have broad zones of personal liberty, notwithstanding Nanny-statism, drug wars, anti-terror hysteria, and speech policing. That liberty usually includes how to dress, what to read, what to say, when and how to congregate.
But people often ignore the fact that an essential element of our freedom is the ability to refrain from using it — and even to contract it away — without the state second-guessing our basis for doing so. We do so every day. We accept employment in buttoned-down offices, choosing to give up our right to wear flip-flops and clever T-shirts. We marry, dramatically limiting our ability to sleep with whom we wish without expensive legal consequences. We adhere to religious tenets — at least in public, at least on the sabbath — that restrict our liberty. We sign contracts that waive our legal rights in order to engage in dangerous or expensive activities, and to some extent those waivers are honored and we can't sue the skydiving or SCUBA or safari company whose services we chose to use. We join restrictive suburban communities and elect to give our neighbors the power to decide what kind of flags we can fly or bumper stickers we can affix (though this tends to be a matter of controversy even among usually like-minded people).
In each of these cases someone of a philosophical bent could argue that we are not "free" — we are reacting to economic, social, and familial pressures and conditioning. But that's puerile and mastubatory; at that level nothing we do is free. Those "pressures" simply mean that freedoms carry consequences, which is not the same as saying they are not freedoms. If I choose to exercise my right to tell every single person I meet to their face what I think of them, I will be a pariah. If I refuse to dress in anything but flip-flops and rude T-shirts, I may wind up homeless. If I loudly advocate things that are against the tenets of my faith, I may not be welcome among the faithful. That's as it should be, because those consequences all involve other people exercising their freedoms.
Do many women in France and elsewhere wear a burka out of social, familial, and religious pressure? No doubt. But I grew up in a church in which the roles of women — including intelligent, powerful, emancipated women like my mother — were dramatically limited by church doctrine. Nobody but the most outré argued that they were not free to refuse to adhere to the tenets of that church, despite the fact that if they left it they would face social and familial consequences, and some would probably face domestic violence. We don't allow the state to second-guess those women and prevent them from going to that church — and the French should not second-guess Muslim women who wear the burka — because to second-guess them on the pretext of protecting their freedom is to treat them like children and to make it certain (rather than merely a subject of speculation) that what they wear or do is involuntary. By telling Muslim women that they can't chose to wear a burka because we don't believe their choice is free, France is proposing to elevate the concept of false consciousness — long a statist justification for totalitarianism — to a legal principle.
Leaving people free to make choices means that some will make choices we don't like under pressures we deplore. Libertarians tend to advocate making drug use and prostitution legal, but that doesn't mean we like to see women become prostitutes or people engage in heavy drug use — we just think that the alternative, letting the state treat us like children, is unacceptable. Some Muslim women will wear the burka under threat of pariah status at best and physical violence at worst. That ought to be addressed by a legal system that treats physical abuse harshly without accepting different religious norms as a justification or excuse, and by charities that provide escape routes for abused persons. It should not be addressed by creeping totalitarianism that tells us that free people cannot be trusted to give up freedoms.
This issue makes strange bedfellows. Many feminists – hardly fans of the ethos behind the burka — recognize Sarkozy's move as the infantilizing and repressive move that it is. Yet people who we would expect to be in favor of individual autonomy and freedom of thought applaud it. Consider this thread on the subject full of appalling false-consciousness-pimping statism-apologias at Richard Dawkin's site. The temptation to believe that we know better than our peers — whether it's based on morals, or health and safety, or "preserving freedom" — is universal and pervasive. France should avoid it, as should we.
Edited to add: questions about potential cultural bias from Mike at Crime and Federalism.
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