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Officious: Rise of the Busybody State Kindle Edition
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But it is one thing noticing these instances if a busy-body State and reacting to it in the moment. It is another understanding just how officious and all-encompassing it has become and working out how we might start to respond more constructively. This book is a great start and really needs to be read by anyone who cherishes freedom.
These representatives of the officious state, she argues, represent a new form of political authority: that is detached from all elements of social interest. They don't represent, for example, a particular class interest, but are the third party which ‘rises up over established social forms’. State institutions have become hollowed out of their former legitimacy and meaning and state structures 'float like an oil slick' on top of society. A kind of pointless, self-generating expansion of activity which operates for its own sake. New rules are created, previously unlicensed activities come to require licences and then these rules are enforced by wardens or badge-wielders by issuing fines. The fines then pay for the recruitment of more wardens.
The book offers a convincing and recognisable description of the petty hyper-regulation of public life. It is provokes the reader to continually test real-life examples against its thesis.
We already have laws against harassment and threatening behaviour. But the new officials enforce laws which would once have been seen as intolerant and unnecessary. As Appleton explains, local authorities now have the power to ban all sorts of things via PSPOs, and they contract out the enforcement of these bans to private companies. Their power and lack of accountability diminish our autonomy.
In the past, if someone was sleeping rough on a bench somewhere, you left them alone; and if some kid was misbehaving, the adults around them would tell them off. But today we're increasingly apprehensive about dealing with strangers. Appleton explains how that declining civic sense has created a vacuum which is beIng filled by a new, bureaucracratic form of state. It has no tolerance or 'common sense'; it operates entirely by the rule book. And the implications for our sense of humanity, as well as for democracy, are alarming.
'Community wardens' are there to prevent people doing anything out of the ordinary in a public place. In the process, they usurp part of our role as citizens. Essentially, their role is to replace the public, in any situation where we would once have had to make a moral decision about how to treat a stranger. With the advent of ‘community wardens’ that aspect of civic life is increasingly outsourced to strangers appointed by the state.
Appleton's intelligent critique underpins the work of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns for freedom in everyday life. Their respect for the rights of the individual is a welcome counter to bureacratic intolerance. It’s highlighted by her submission to a recent proposal by Brighton City Council to ban ‘aggressive requests for money within a street or public open space':
"What is meant by ‘aggressive requests for money’? A truly aggressive request for money isn’t begging – it is mugging. That is theft, and already an established criminal offence. Those who are begging are not mugging or threatening people to hand over their money: they are asking for the charitable support of the general public. They are asking for help. It may be that people feel pressured to give their money; it may be that they find it uncomfortable. But homelessness is uncomfortable; in a sense, it should play upon our conscience that there are people without lodgings or income… This PSPO could only be used to target begging that some people may find uncomfortable or annoying, …to target homeless people who are not actually harming anyone or causing a public nuisance. They are merely sitting in a public space, asking for public charity".
This book should be required reading for students of social work and town planning, let alone for city councillors, and anyone concerned about the loss of a sense of community today. Apart from anything else, its democratic viewpoint is a breath of fresh air.