Monday, May 07, 2007

Travellers and the Millian Sphere

Dave has written two posts alleging racism recently but both appear to be tilting at racist windmills. I'll deal with the more substantial allegation against the US government for wanting to end the visa waiver for Britons of Pakistani descent in another post. First, he attacks Nadine Dorries for arguing that the traveller lifestyle is not suitable for life in Britain:

"Oh, really? Firstly, the illiberalism of it. What if I want to home-school my kids? What if I want to live in a yurt? British culture is not the monolith Dorries pretends it to be. Secondly, this is frankly racist. It is picking on a definable ethnic group (the Romany) and insisting that they conform to a particular vision of what it is to be British. The Romany arrived in Britain in the 1500s - before the Huguenots and before the Jewish resettlement - making Dorries' argument even sillier if you even accept the premise that you can't move somewhere and live your own lifestyle."

The problem with relying upon liberalism in this case is that you can't establish the necessary Millian sphere. There are two clear harms to others that come with maintaining a nomadic lifestyle in a settled, post-industrial country:

Firstly, an advanced industrial society has a density of population which makes upkeep of your surroundings a serious challenge. Not littering, respecting communal spaces and other behaviours which make living together in a densely populated country like the United Kingdom possible are absolutely necessary. There has been a decline in the understanding that we are all responsible for doing these things which is a part of the reason for urban decline.

However, travellers who aren't going to have to face the consequences of an environmental degradation have no incentive to take care of the area they temporarily live in. They have a reputation for making an utter mess of the area around where they set up camp and this is a key reason their arrival is often greeted with resentment by the locals (of course, this creates a vicious cycle as the travellers feel even less rooted in a community they live with).

One of the major disincentives to crime is the resulting social sanction. Without this social sanction to support it the criminal justice system will struggle to cope. If the approval of your local community is relatively unimportant to you as you expect to leave pretty soon then you are more likely to take the risk of undertaking criminal behaviour. Another reason that traveller sites are resented by local communities is the association with criminality.

The other thing to note is that the travellers aren't just asking for equal treatment under the law. This is one of Dorries' key complaints: "we know that at many of these sites the children don't go to school, the cars aren't insured, and people don't pay business rates as everyone else has to." Surely a racist would want some, more active, discrimination rather than simply applying the same law enforced upon others?

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