10.11.2008

Financial Crisis and Terrorism

This past week, on October 8th to be precise, British Prime minister Gordon Brown used the British version of the Patriot Act, the "2001 Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Crime Act" to freeze Icelandic assets in British banks. This legislation, enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, was proposed to protect the British Public from terrorism and crime by granting to the state special powers. These powers include the seizure of assets - supposedly to mitigate a terrorist's or criminal's means of practicing their trades. 

The backdrop of Gordon Brown's action is the historic financial collapse Iceland has now suffered. In its wake, the Icelandic state has made financial guarantees which simple arithmetic suggests are far from the realm of possibility. But this is only backdrop. The key feature of the British action against Icelandic assets is the use of legislation that in no way was intended to be so used.

Granting new powers to the state in times of fear and crisis almost always have unintended and negative side effects. Those who have contested both the British anti-terrorism and U.S. "Patriot" acts and the extended powers they grant have been accused of un-patriotic or even disloyal sentiments. But Gordon Brown's unprecedented actions underscore the threat where powers are granted under the guise of "safety and security," and consequently used for the convenience of the state. While the British government will no doubt defend its actions with explanations of the criticality of the threat to British assets - this will sidestep the fundamental issue.  The use of anti-terrorist law for purposes decidedly unrelated to terrorism is a different kind of threat - the latter perhaps equal to the former.

If the lines between controlling terrorists and friendly economic partners can be eradicated by no less than the Prime Minister of one of the leading democratic western powers in a time of crisis - what can we expect from governments with histories less democratic in nature?

Key to the principle of limited government is the recognition that government can't do/fix/be everything that is wrong in our lives. And yet, increasingly it appears, we look to our government as the solution, even if of last resort - despite the erosion of liberty that inevitably results. Whether the "Patriot Act," or new legislation intended stem the flood of financial failure - we might ask why we think rapid and sweeping legislative action in the absence of broad, open, and deliberate debate will achieve what prior legislation has failed to do?  I'd like to think we'd resist the temptation to accept at face value "solutions" proffered  with the attendant risk that it may cost us more than they are intended to save. 

We are faced with an unprecedented financial crisis, and one of global proportions. Its repercussions will take many months, if not years, to be realized. The impact on our day-to-day lives will be significant. We will witness the emergence of geo-political alignments that were previously unthinkable. And yet, live our lives we will, and by God's grace, well.

Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. -C.S. Lewis

~r

4 comments:

that thing over there said...

[...]powers are granted under the guise of "safety and security," and consequently used for the convenience of the state.

In this particular case, the convenience of the state pertains mainly to the security and stability of finances. While making use of an anti-terrorist law to freeze assets unarguably pushes the limits of what this law was originally intended to do, it was still being used, at least in some respect, for security - what it was written for.

Though Iceland and terrorists may not exactly be the same thing, and use of this law was a bit of a stretch, it was used, at least in part, for security.

It is a rather worrying perversion of intended use, though.

the Ronosphere said...

Security is an ambiguous and over broad term that appeals to the emotions, but offers poor guidance as to the propriety of particular acts.

If security were sufficient as a legal device, the act on which Gordon Brown based his decisions and committed those of the British government would have been unnecessary.

While I don't question the British government feeling the need to act as it did in response to the Icelandic action affecting British interests - using this act as justification underscores the concerns of the acts opponents and those of the US Patriot act - that it would be used as a cover for state action otherwise considered undesirable or even illegal.

Craig Heath said...

It's difficult to know where to start commenting on this one!

I think the first thing is, it seems possible that the banking crisis has caused significantly more aggregate damage (financial, sociological and psychological) than terrorism anyway, so perhaps it's a better use of the law than its stated purpose!

However, if we take the debating position that this was a bad law because its purpose is being abused, I suppose we can consider the question of whether its scope was made too broad deliberately or accidentally. Accidentally is of course possible, and I've always found "never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence" to be a useful maxim :-)

Nevertheless, to continue the debate let's assume it was broadened deliberately. Why might that be? Likely hypothesis: because the legislators wanted to extend their power. That seems plausible, and we might find evidence of security and/or safety as an excuse for sweeping executive powers going back throughout history. I'm put in mind of the French "Committee for Public Safety" in the 1790s - was this really motivated by concern for public safety, or was it set up to promote the political ideology and/or personal advancement of its members? Historians may choose to comment, I'm not one (although I have sometimes thought I might have preferred that career choice!)

Still, if we assume a present-day hidden agenda for the purposes of debate, there is one remaining interesting question - is it the agenda of the elected politicians, or the unelected civil servants? (Yes, Minister :-)).

Many questions, no answers ;-)

the Ronosphere said...

Thanx Craig!

I appreciate your quote re: malice and incompetence - spot on I think.

That said - somewhere I suspect, and perhaps deliberately, the authors of our respective anti-terrorist legislation left for themselves back-doors such as what Mr. Brown used. I know people very close to me who have done so in code, so why not similar in legislation?

As to whether the elected or non-elect elect - touche!

~r