Walking to work last week, I saw a Scottish government poster on a bus stop that stopped me in my tracks. Not because it had a naked woman on it, but because it was the human face of an emerging totalitarianism.
The poster had a smart phone with a picture on its screen of a naked woman, whose modesty is covered by yellow police tape with the words “crime scene” on it. The poster’s copy reads: ‘share intimate images without consent and you could get five years in prison’.
It turns out that this is a campaign to raise awareness of the new Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Act, which outlaws sharing or even threatening to share intimate images without consent in an attempt to tackle so-called revenge porn.
If, as I suspect is or will be the case, a person can be prosecuted under this law even if the intimate image they shared was created by themselves using their own property and with the consent of the other person at the time, then this is an unjust law. One with a highly disproportionate punishment that could ruin a person’s life and dislocate them from society.
If we wish to fully respect property rights, which are human rights and the essential foundation of our prosperous and progressive society, then we cannot criminalize acting upon one’s own property in ways that we might consider vindictive or unscrupulous but which don’t violate anyone’s rights.
That is, distributing your own property according to your own will in a way that doesn’t restrict anyone’s freedom of person or property cannot be defined as a criminal act. Even if you did so after informally saying you wouldn’t, breaking a promise which doesn’t form the conditions of an exchange is not a crime. Just as it’s not a crime to promise to gift someone £100 in a year’s time and then not do so.
Sharing an intimate image of someone, which you created and which is your property, is not sexual abuse. Such a definition is nonsensical. Boiled down, it is nothing more than revealing evidence of a person’s behaviour, which they didn’t want anyone else to see because they wanted to avoid the negative consequences this would have on their relationships, their work and their life in general.
It is not the purpose of the law to protect people from suffering humiliation as a result of their own behaviours. Nor is it the purpose of the law to allow people whose lives are ruined by the shame of their own actions to imprison the person who revealed the evidence of those actions. These are perversions of the proper purpose of the law.
The bottom line is this: we can’t have our cake and eat it. We can’t have property rights (and enjoy the many benefits of this) and have the right to use legal force to prevent others from or punish them for revealing evidence (which we allowed them to create) of our own embarrassing or shameful behaviour to people we hoped would never see it.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution to the problem of people vindictively sharing or threatening to share intimate images and videos of former partners. There is, but we need to have a little patient and some faith in freedom. Two things, which today’s law-loving campaign groups never have.
The solution is for people to learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. The Digital Age is still in its infancy and people are still learning what are wise choices and what are unwise choices in this age of easy recording of and easy sharing of our activities.
In time, the problem of so-called revenge porn will fade to almost nothing when most people stop allowing partners to make intimate images or videos of them. Or else they find better ways to do it, such as using apps that automatically delete content after a short period.
It struck me that this Public Service Announcement by the Scottish government was like something out of the Middle Ages, a time when Authority and subjects enjoyed public humiliations and executions of those condemned as criminals. Clearly, the poster was designed to get people’s attention, but it makes light of the idea of locking people up. It has a sadistic undertone to it. It’s like a mafia guy laughing as he describes what he’ll do to you if you don’t pay up.
How can it be that I can live in such a prosperous city full of peaceful people and yet see a public message from its authority joking about the power it has to lock people up for behaving in ways it finds morally disagreeable? How can a society that appears to be so free and peaceful be governed be such illiberal and draconian laws and punishments by its authority?
It’s because there are two forces at work in the world today. One is capitalism, which is what we call the spontaneous system of order that emerges from a society founded on the institution of property rights. This economic system is why our standard of living is so much higher than our ancestors of a few centuries ago and why we live in a world of abundance.
The other is the expanding of the use of coercive state power into the economy and people’s lives, executed by the political class in cahoots with big business, intellectuals and special interest groups. This destructive force is why the UK’s economy is stagnating and it’s the cause of every major social problem facing the UK today. Youth unemployment, education, healthcare, housing – you name it.
The logical conclusion of unobstructed capitalism is maximum wealth creation in society. The logical conclusion of unobstructed state-ism is totalitarianism. The government poster I see on my way to work is the slowly emerging human face of the latter.
State power to imprison people for sharing images, intended to protect decent people from unscrupulous people, will almost certainly be used in the future as a way for unscrupulous people, such as government officials and their corporate accomplices, to protect themselves by stopping decent people from revealing the truth about their criminal actions.
As the famed roman orator, Cicero, once observed, “the more laws, the less justice.”