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The limits of tolerance.

TOLERANCE is clearly one of the prime virtues and its presence greatly improves the quality of civilised living. Its value is never appreciated more than when it is absent. Unfortunately, since good must for ever struggle with evil and dreams for ever clash with reality, tolerance is not always a virtue. As Edmund Burke once wrote: |There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue'. In almost every human situation there are limits beyond which tolerance becomes an agent of confusion, submission and disintegration. There are situations of indignity and oppression where conscience demands that the individual must either take positive action or get up and leave, while collectively there is nearly always some point beyond which the governed should no longer be prepared to tolerate the abuse, mismanagement or failure of a government.

Naturally it is much easier to oppose the government in a free society than in an unfree society. However, almost every government, whatever the nature of the society, must at some juncture be faced with the dilemma of deciding on the limits of tolerance in relation to some major problem, on how far the problem can be allowed to develop before there is widespread opposition among the governed. The degree to which it is capable of doing so and its firmness in taking the necessary decision are good indications of its quality as a government. In the long run there is nothing more disastrous than weak and indecisive government and nothing more advantageous than firm and decisive government. No matter what its objectives and policies are, no matter what its vision of the ideal society may be, one of the most important attributes of a successful government is the ability to take difficult decisions and to do so at the right time. Of course, the time to take a decision about the limits of tolerance with regard to a particular problem is not when the limits are actually reached, for then it may be too late, but at an appropriate time before the limits are reached. For example, a democratically-elected government faced with a possibly catastrophic issue, say with inflation rising steeply towards 30 per cent, should not allow itself to hesitate unduly. It should take appropriate action to reverse the upward movement of prices long before the limits of tolerance are reached. Whatever the problems confronting it, any responsible government, with the slightest mission to rule, must always be looking ahead, assessing possible developments, and deciding on the likely amount of opposition. Errors of judgement are likely to occur, but no government should ever knowingly permit itself to arrive at a point beyond the limits of tolerance on any major issue, for this could well be a point of no return.

One of the most important tasks of any democratic government is to defend and endeavour to improve the free society. Fortunately, in spite of all the changes it has experienced since World War 11, Britain is still in a better position to undertake this task than most other countries. This is perhaps to be expected, for more than any other country Britain has been responsible for the evolution and defence of democratic institutions. It has had a longer continuous experience of democracy than any other country and has exported its liberal thought and free institutions throughout the world to countries capable of accepting them. It would also appear from the political developments of the past few years that the British people have become increasingly aware of the fundamental link between the market economy and political freedom. Less and less have they been deluded by the soft option of distributing wealth, instead of creating it. More and more they have come to understand the deadening effects, both on enterprise and individual liberty, of a notoriously inefficient and wasteful nationalisation. To what extent there is a growing awareness of the danger of democracy being slowly undermined through the exploitation of its own generous and tolerant institutions it is difficult to say. There is, however, increased concern about the gradual erosion of authority, as well as about the alarming rise in crime, especially crime involving violence. Doubtless the difficulties remain formidable, and by the very nature of individual liberty and human fallibility the struggle to deal with them can never really cease. No matter what party is in power, the government must continue to confront a number of crucial problems, problems which will not go away. Firmness and vision in making the right decisions about such issues as taxation, inflation, unemployment and crime, and a continuing concern for the limits of tolerance wherever applicable, will long remain of vital importance.

Perhaps the best illustration of how the limits of tolerance can be reached and then exceeded to produce a situation of increasing conflict is provided by the predicament a government must face when deciding on very high rates of taxation. Clearly if there was no taxation in theory people would be free to decide between leisure and growing rich on untaxed earnings. In reality they would soon be engulfed by chaos or ravaged by arbitrary government. At the other extreme, if taxes were at a rate of 100 per cent, it would become pointless for people to work for wages and all production in the money economy would come to a halt. At both extremes there would be no government revenues and the outcome would be dire. The actual situation must inevitably lie somewhere in between: government revenues gradually increase as rates of tax move steadily upwards from zero in the direction of 100 per cent. Whenever a government decides to spend more on the armed forces, the police, hospitals, schools, the bureaucratic structure and so on, it needs increased revenues and the rates of tax must be raised accordingly. Yet no matter the good intentions involved, no government can with impunity continue to increase taxes far beyond a certain point, the optimum point for its own particular economy at a particular time. This is the point at which taxpayers go on contentedly producing and government revenues achieve an appropriate maximum in relation to a healthy economy. Any increase in the rates of tax beyond this point begins to discourage the taxpayers and they become less interested in production. If the taxes are then increased even more, far above the critical point, the taxpayers will not only reduce their production even further, but will become distinctly hostile towards the government. Needless to say, the limits of tolerance and a resultant state of conflict will be reached long before the theoretical 100 per cent rates of tax are attained and long before all production has ceased. Indeed, in certain circumstances they could become all too apparent not long after the optimum taxation point has been exceeded.

The best possible level for rates of taxation, where production continues to flourish and where government revenues are entirely adequate, must obviously vary from country to country, depending upon such factors as history, national characteristics and the level of affluence. But for all governments it remains always essential to ensure that rates of tax are never allowed to rise beyond the limits of tolerance. For a government concerned with preserving a free society the area of conflict lying beyond such limits is particularly dangerous, for within it lurks the menace of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. As far as Britain is concerned, the economist Colin Clark generally maintained that the maximum |safe' level of taxation, taking into account the avoidance of inflation, is 25 per cent of the national income. It seems likely that J. M. Keynes also believed that this is more or less the level that can most easily be borne. Of course, events have moved dramatically forward since Colin Clark and Keynes were involved with such estimates. As the welfare state has developed and government spending has considerably increased, the British people have gradually been conditioned, largely in terms of equality and social obligation, to accept much higher levels of taxation than would formerly have appeared tolerable. Nevertheless, the limits of tolerance remain, and when during the nineteen-seventies rentral and local government spending went on steeply rising, many may have felt that they were not too far away. Although there is now perhaps less reason to feel apprehensive, the present levels of taxation remain very high, and there is need for continued vigilance about many forms of government spending, both central and local. It is also essential for any government, present or future, to remember the social and industrial pressures involved in any substantial increase in taxation. It should never be forgotten that it was the parliamentary revolt led by Hampden and Pym over the possibility of Ship Money becoming an annual tax that provided the prelude to the English Civil War. While in the following century it was a protest over what was felt to be unjustified taxation that finally provided the flashpoint for the American War of Independence.

However, the predicament of tax rates exceeding the limits of tolerance is only one of the major problems facing a free society. Inflation beyond a certain level can equally imperil the continuance of democratic institutions. Indeed, inflation can be so destructive to the whole basis of democratic society that it is difficult not to agree with Robert Nisbet when he observes that from the point of view of the social bond, of the sense of community, I believe inflation to be more devastating than depression ... We have learned more or less in the West how to cope with depression, to avert it in its worse forms, but the same cannot be said of inflation'. Although unemployment produced by a depression can certainly have an appalling effect on family and community life, at least when viewed historically it appears that remedies to improve the situation have in the long run been almost invariably successful. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that high inflation, if it is not halted in time, can become increasingly difficult to control, and at its worst can produce the massive Weimar-style hyper-inflation experienced by Germany in 1923. Even when the rise in prices is considerably less spectacular, inflation can still make serious inroads into democratic institutions.

It is interesting to reflect in these days of constant inflation, that apart from the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the value of the pound remained fairly static from the middle of the seventeenth century until a little before the outbreak of World War I. The Victorians always enjoyed a sound currency and would have viewed the inflation of recent decades with a good deal of alarm. They would have found it impossible to accept the view held by many economists and politicians after World War II that a moderate rate of inflation is acceptable in order to stimulate output and demand. As with taxation, the limits of tolerance for inflation must inevitably vary from age to age and from country to country. In Victorian Britain the limits would have been decidedly lower than they would be today. Naturally it is difficult to estimate the present probable limits of tolerance, but certainly a rate of inflation of say 30 per cent per annum, if sustained for two or three years, could wreak havoc in even the most firmly established democracy. In view therefore of the likely devastating effects, governments should always give high priority to keeping inflation as low as possible. And in any event, whatever the circumstances, there must always be the necessary determination to take appropriate action long before the danger-point is reached.

Besides endeavouring to achieve stable prices, it is naturally important, both for society and the individual, to produce reasonably stable employment. Although it is undoubtedly wise to give priority to reducing high inflation, unfortunately some of the measures required are likely to increase the number of people out of work. Such measures as raising interest rates, reducing public expenditure, and making industry more competitive may help to combat inflation, but almost inevitably they will be accompanied by a rise in unemployment. In these circumstances the decision to deal firmly with inflation, knowing that unemployment will increase as a consequence, requires a good deal of resolution. The government soon comes under pressure, both from opposing parties and from many of its own supporters, to slacken the onslaught on inflation, even though this may undermine much that has already been achieved. Only by having an adequate majority and determined leadership can such pressure be successfully resisted. Certainly a coalition government or a government with a very small majority is at a great disadvantage in such circumstances. Needless to say, however, as soon as inflation has been conquered every effort has then to be made to find ways of producing the best possible circumstances for a radical reduction of unemployment.

From the end of World War II until the mid-sixties there was no serious unemployment problem in Britain. Serious unemployment began to appear after 1967, largely as a consequence of the considerable deflation in the previous year by which the Wilson government sought to maintain the overseas value of the pound. This was the first time since the war that unemployment passed the half million mark. From then onwards it continued to rise, reaching one million during 1975 and thereafter rising steeply. Certainly during the nineteen-sixties few people could have envisaged the extent to which traditional British industry was to decline or the effects on future employment that were to be produced by the accelerating technological transformation. Neither could they have foreseen the vast industrial development of so many countries of the world and the ever increasing foreign competition that it has produced. Even when the economy is clearly expanding, in the new technological age the problem of high unemployment is unlikely to be easily banished. Unlike the traditional heavy industries, which were much more labour-intensive, the new technological industries tend to require small highly-skilled work forces, and quite often a part of the production can be more profitably undertaken overseas. As a result, in spite of a considerable increase in service industries such as finance, tourism, entertainment and so on, it seems evident that there is an urgent need for vastly increased investment in industry as a whole. Unless this is forthcoming, it is likely that in the long run unemployment will continue to grow and may prove no less devastating, and perhaps more intractable, than high inflation.

When writing about a disastrous scene she had once witnessed, Freya Stark made the observation that |Tolerance, too, makes the home unfit to live in'. She was not commenting upon an everyday scene of domestic chaos, but a deserted Moghul city she bad visited in her travels. However, the undoubted truth of her words would certainly evoke a particular irony for a great many tolerant and patient British people, who have helplessly watched the gradual undermining of a remarkable, long-established tradition of reasonable behaviour, good manners and nonviolence. Although crimes such as vandalism, robbery, rape and murder have not risen as steeply in Britain as in some parts of the United States, they have already reached completely unacceptable levels and are still steadily rising. Moreover, it is evident that this vast growth in crime is not caused to any appreciable extent by poverty, but is rather the product of the abuse of freedom against a background of growing affluence. While in the past three or four decades changes in education and family life, coupled with increased permissiveness in the media, arts, speech and general behaviour, have doubtless had a liberating effect in one or two directions, they have also unfortunately been accompanied by the gradual erosion of beliefs and values, as well as by increased licence and irresponsibility. Subjectivity has tended to take the place of objectivity and much vaunted rights have rarely been related to obligation. As a result, this process of decline, together with the greed and envy of a largely materialist society, has all too predictably produced a widespread disrespect for the law and rapidly rising levels of crime.

In such disturbing circumstances it is not surprising that during the second half of the twentieth century it has become more and more obvious that unpleasant problems do not necessarily have pleasant solutions. Even among those people who still take a sanguine view of the perfectibility of human nature there has been growing uncertainty about how to deal with the more heinous crimes, especially with murder most foul. This uncertainty has to some extent been reflected over the years in various debates in Parliament, although owing to the intuitively reasonable and patient nature of British parliamentary democracy, as well as the concern of many MPs to preserve a kindly image, little has so far been achieved to prevent the steady increase in crime. It is, however, very much to be hoped that during the next few years solutions will be found not only to halt the crime rate, but very considerably to reduce it. The building of more prisons, shorter sentences for some crimes and longer ones for others, assisted by bland words of encouragement from the Home Office, will no longer suffice. If what remains of the British tradition of non-violence is to continue, if constantly armed police are to be avoided, and if some sections of the population are not to be reduced to a Hobbesian state of nature, there are clearly areas of the law that will need adjustment. Certainly no free society can afford to compromise indefinitely with evil or blindly assume that evil will convert to good. While there can obviously be no accurate way of illustrating the limits of tolerance in relation to human wickedness and folly, there can be no doubt whatsoever that when crime reaches a certain very high level it must inevitably tend to undermine the democratic structure.
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Author:Tong, Raymond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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