Monday, February 15, 2010

Technology and the state

Technological advances can create threats to human life and health which cannot really be dealt with (or even identified) by individuals, but which must be dealt with by the state (or other high-level regulatory bodies). Obvious examples relate to nuclear hazards: weapons control and the management of waste products from the nuclear power industry. And of course many newer technologies also need to be carefully regulated to minimize risks to human health. The risks are all the greater at a time when terrorist groups are actively seeking new ways to attack Western populations.

These facts have implications for the viability of libertarian approaches to politics. Though some forms of libertarianism countenance a regulatory role for the state, the scope and style of activity involved in the sort of regulation under discussion seem incompatible with any meaningful version of pro-property libertarianism. This is - for those, like me, who are attracted to libertarian ideas - a sad truth, but it seems inescapable. Furthermore - barring catastrophe - the process of technological development is ongoing, thus necessitating yet more regulatory activity.

To accept that government has an increasingly active role to play in regulating and policing various industries and products and protecting against terrorism is not to say, however, that government overall should necessarily be expanded. Decisions need to be made on priorities and, given the current government debt crises in Europe and the US, there are serious constraints on what governments can afford. Even President Obama has started to talk tough on the need to tackle government debt.

So, as ever, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that, in our technologically advanced and advancing world, more and yet more externally imposed constraints on individual and corporate freedoms will be necessary. The good news is that, despite (warranted and unwarranted) encroachments on freedom, a global market is developing - and exerting its discipline on those leaders who wish to ensure that their respective peoples will (continue to) share in the prosperity which global trade and commerce can bring.