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