Why do we think we are any more enlightened than Saudi Arabia?


I was watching the BBC’s new drama set in Nazi-occupied London, called SS-GB, when I noticed our protagonist casually commit an act that today would be greeted by shrieks of shock and alarm by the people around him and likely result in swift and brutal retaliation from the authorities. What he did was light up a cigarette in a restaurant. And yet, having committed this abominable act in a city under martial law imposed by a fascist occupying power, no leather-clad soldier whisked him away in an unmarked van. No thuggish policeman dragged him out to be interrogated for his breach of the social contract. No community support officer or social worker (or similar parasite) was given state-sponsored access to the man’s soul to be re-educated out of his antediluvian habits.

I would not be so sure of the same tolerance in the non-fictional British government in the current century. The world depicted in SS-GB is, of course, fictional and we may be thankful. Britain has more going for it than heavy-handed laws on vice. Forged from a tradition of liberty, reason, and an instinctual distrust of radicalism the legislative process of the United Kingdom passes new laws after lengthy consultation, with an implicit understanding of natural justice, and almost always compromise. But why do we think we are so more enlightened than, say, Saudi Arabia where alcohol is banned courtesy of the Sharia? Not regarding the overall rights and liberties of subjects of His Majesty King Salman compared to those of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but regarding the sober, reasoned, evidence-based policy making that is purportedly monopolised by western Enlightenment thinking.

I put it to you that the arguments by which the nation was persuaded to ban public smoking are as absurd and arbitrary as the reasons why Saudi Arabia bans alcohol. Have you heard of James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat? Of course you haven’t. These two scientists were hired by the pressure groups the American Cancer Society and the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program to investigate the effects of smoking on people in close proximity to the smoker. This has now taken on the politically charged terms of “passive smoking” and “second-hand smoke.”

The potential benefits to the anti-tobacco lobby are obvious. If they could prove that second-hand smoke was dangerous then they would be trading on a negative externality. Smoking, so the argument goes, is unlike drinking alcohol, in that you damage not just your health but the health of people passively smoking around you against their will. It must be banned in public places because you indulging in your dirty little habit is bad for everyone in the restaurant.

There was just one problem. Despite being armed with three decades of data on over 100,000 passive smokers, provided by the American Cancer Society no less, Enstrom and Kabat found no link between so-called passive smoking and rates of heart disease or lung cancer. Alarmed by the verboten results the original sponsors starved the study of funds and Enstrom and Kabat, who had set out hoping to sink the tobacco lobby, had to turn to tobacco companies to complete their research. At this point you are freed from the obligation to pay any heed to their results having been partially funded by Big Tobacco. But ask yourself why bona fide representatives of the anti-smoking lobby would drop a study analysing their very own data that would provide them with an argument from negative externalities to add to their arsenal? It can’t have been too expensive because the raw data was already there, being accumulated by the American Cancer Society anyway.

Not to be quelled by anything as petty as mere Actual Science™ the anti-smoking lobby courageously ploughed on and managed to add the fictitious statement “Smoking seriously harms you and others around you” to the pool of compulsory warning messages on cigarette packets.

The attitude of think tanks and campaigning NGOs reminds me of AJP Taylor’s Railroad Timetable Theory for why the First World War began. Taylor pointed to the unique circumstances of high-level military strategic capacity in the early 20th century to argue that, once set in motion, it was physically impossible for a Great Power to stop mobilising regardless of new political developments.

Then as now, the railways crisscrossing Europe had to coordinate train times to prevent collisions, delays, and inefficiencies, let alone ensure that all resources and people get to where they need to be in as quick a time as possible. This is all well and good when railways are primarily used to transport freight, commuters, and tourists across the continent but when the industrial nature of early 20th century armed forces demands almost all supplies, weapons, and soldiers are transported by rail this means meticulous timetables have to be drawn up for the system to cope. One kink in the chain could have devastating ripple effects. The unintended consequence of this phenomenon is that, once the order to mobilise comes through, it is impossible to stop despite the political will of any decision makers, no matter how senior.

Cousins Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II exchanged fascinating telegrams up to the last days before their armies met. Here is a representative communication from Tsar Nicholas II to the Kaiser:

Thanks for your telegram conciliatory and friendly. Whereas official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. Beg you to explain this divergency! It would be right to give over the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship. Your loving Nicky.

This hardly sounds like nations at each other’s throats. I propose a similar theory to which I am indebted to Mr Taylor. I call it the Railroad Lobbying Theory. Whereas in Mr Taylor’s theory his railroads are very much real, in my theory they are metaphorical. Imagine yourself as the head of a campaigning NGO, or pressure group. How exactly do you measure success? You might think this is an obvious question. You achieve a success when, by at least in part the efforts of your lobbying, the government adopts a policy conducive to your overall aim. This is what it may look like from those on the outside of organisation, but this view becomes warped when you are in charge of the thing.

Policy impact is nebulous and, as we saw above, actual laws are always the result of compromise and other considerations. Consultations never involve a single group either, but draw from a variety of contrary sources. As such measuring policy impact is at best difficult and at worst impossible. What is measurable, however, is available funds, events held, column inches filled, membership, mailing lists, etc.

As the head of a NGO your priority is always ultimately going to be growing your assets, and increasing public name recognition. The result is that, perversely, NGOs are incentivised to exaggerate the problems they purport to be attempting to solve. The worse the problem the more heavy-handed, and therefore measurable, policy impact becomes and the more pressing it is that you get the funding over organisations championing rival grievances. Even the cause itself becomes malleable and subservient to the hard assets of the organisation.

This makes more sense if you think of pressure groups and campaigning NGOs as just another corporation. The word “corporation” is derived from the Latin corpororatio which means “combine in one body.” If the etymology of the word counts for something, and it can’t exactly count for nothing, then we are entitled to regard even not-for-profit organisations as corporations out to achieve measurable growth. At the most extreme end the pressure group the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) now don’t bother campaigning for real ale anymore because they’ve effectively won on that issue. Now, they lobby for a variety of pro-pub causes without any clear definable ultimate objective.

The pressure group, NGO model is locomotive, not an automotive model. Not growing etc. would mean derailing. Once this is understood, then we can learn to take their findings with a large pinch of salt. Studies by charities, campaigning NGOs, and pressure groups are really just as potentially biased and agenda-motivated as studies by industry insiders.

To take a smoking example. Plain-packaging for cigarettes comes into force in early March. This was tried in Australia and had no effect, but is nonetheless being implemented in the UK. Australia had to triple the tax on cigarettes soon after its failed experiment with plain-packaging which, of course, did reduce the consumption of cigarettes allowing the anti-tobacco lobby to claim victory for plain-packaging.

The special ire reserved for smokers deserves consideration. No one can deny that the same people who are in favour of anti-smoking, anti-sugar, and anti-fat legislation also have a fetish about legalising cannabis and often other drugs as well. The mental gymnastics required to achieve this stance is astounding. Ultimately though the reasons behind it are as irrational and religiously motivated as Saudi Arabia’s alcohol ban.

Cannabis and cocaine are groovy middle class drugs and therefore deserve to legalise viz. the freedom of the individual. Sugary foods and drink, and cigarettes are what disgusting confused working class people ignorantly consume. They must be protected from themselves by the benevolent hand of sober enlightened NGOs and charities run by sensible middle class people. We have encountered a weird blend of Nietzschean elitism, where only the right-on middle classes are capable of making sensible choices as free individuals, and paternalistic philanthropy where lesser people must be protected from themselves and consumer habits. Could we please have some consistency and awareness, else abandon our claim to enlightenment values?

One thought on “Why do we think we are any more enlightened than Saudi Arabia?

  1. People found smoking in a British pub aren’t put in front of a religious court and given 500 lashes. Case closed.


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