Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 155
26th October 2006
14th June 2006
On Opposing the DNA Database
by Sean Gabb
(Update by blogmeister: this subject is topical and we spoke on this blog about it earlier today, at this link. )
Last Monday evening—the 23rd October 2006—I was called into the London studio of Sky News to put a case against constructing a database of DNA samples from the whole British population. Tony Blair had been on his hind legs again, braying for the final abolition of freedom in this country. Watched by about a million people, I am told I did rather well in opposing him and his kind. So now, revising an article I wrote back in 2000, I will put my case in writing.
The main problem whenever this sort of proposal is made, is that debate is constructed in terms of either consenting to exactly whatever is proposed, or doing nothing at all about crime. Within this structure of argument, opponents can be presented as indifferent to crime, or even as more interested in the rights of criminals than of their victims.
The secret of winning such debates lies in persuading enough people to reject the assumptions that underlie the structure of debate.
Let us briefly examine these assumptions.
First, it is assumed that a DNA database is essential if crime is to be reduced. This is not so. It would be better to legalise drugs. Millions of consenting acts that are presently illegal would then drop out of the crime figures. At the same time, competition from legitimate suppliers would bankrupt the criminal gangs that have turned parts of London and Manchester into low-intensity war zones; and lowered prices would reduce the vast number of burglaries and street crimes now committed by drug users.
For those acts still criminal we could have much stronger punishments. The notion that serious threats to lock criminals away for very long periods, or to flog or mutilate them, or to hang them, will have no deterrent effect is so laughable, that only someone with a Sociology degree could propose it; and only a fool could really believe it.
Then the laws regarding self-defence could be changed. It is a scandal that respectable people in this country are not allowed to use whatever force they think necessary to defend their lives and property. Tony Martin was put in prison for the bizarre crime of “murdering” a burglar. If he was to blame for anything, it was for his moderation in not going after the other two thieves who broke into his house, and executing them as well.
Each by itself, these reforms would take us back to the crime figures of about 1970. Combined, we might find ourselves back in the 1950s. Of course, the authorities affect horror and even incredulity at the thought of doing these things. They would rather have their DNA database.
Second, it is assumed that a DNA database would reduce crime. Undoubtedly, it would have some effect, but this would be mostly against those criminals likely to be caught and punished in any event. There might at best be a small drop in the cost of policing. But anyone aware of the optimistic claims made when finger printing was first introduced must know that the more intelligent criminals will simply take more care to hide their identity. That will need more this time than wearing gloves. But I doubt if it will need anything very hard or expensive.
It is, of course, true that some crimes would be solved by having a DNA database. In his comments the other day, Mr Blair mentioned various rapes and murders that were only solved decades afterwards by accidental matches of DNA samples. But something still more effective in the fight against crime would be making everyone in the country go about with a bar code tattooed on his forehead. This would reduce any number of petty frauds. Given the right sort of scanning machines in public, it would allow lost children to be found in minutes, and allow the authorities to keep an eye on known criminals. I can easily multiply the number of alleged benefits a salesman for the big computer companies might make to the Home Office. But I ask instead—would you willingly present your face for the tattooist’s needle?
This brings us to the third assumption of the debate—that a DNA database would be used only for crime control. Even granting that our present rulers are entirely to be trusted—at the very least a dubious assumption—we cannot be sure what they will be like a generation from now. But we can be sure that a database set up now to cover those who are arrested will, without any positive extension, soon cover most of the population. It would a useful tool for any government wanting to exercise the tyrannical powers it now has only in theory.
As Albert J. Nock once observed, every time we give a government power to do things for us, we also give it the power to do things to us. I cannot think of a better illustration of this truth than a DNA database.
You may huff and puff and insist you have nothing to fear from a database of your DNA. After all, the authorities keep promising how much safer it will make you. But do you want your children to go on that database? Can you be sure that some demented government scientist two decades from now will not decide that the surest way to heaven on earth is to stop certain people from breeding? Can you be sure that your children will not show up negative on a DNA database that will have enabled an old authoritarian fantasy to be made into bureaucratic reality?
Are there no criminal tendencies somewhere in your family background? No racial or sexual characteristics that may one day be again be as unfashionable as they have been in other times and places? No bad eyes or flat feet? No predisposition to obesity or illnesses that it will for the foreseeable future be expensive to treat on the National Health Service?
Bear in mind that, with a certainty not known since the 1940s, the relevant scientists are proclaiming that your destiny is in your genes. This may be true. Whatever the case, it is and will remain the consensus. Can you believe it will never be attractive to politicians ignorant of the science, but struggling with the problems of crime control and ballooning health budgets?
Do you want grandchildren? Or do you want to risk seeing your genes scientifically combed from the general pool?
Or do you want your DNA samples handed over to foreign governments? I imagine data will soon be shared between the various governments of the European Union, which will certainly include Rumania and Bulgaria and possibly Turkey as well.
Or do you want your DNA samples at risk of theft from thieves? I cannot imagine what use it might be to them. But who can say what things will be useful in the future?
Or do you want the police to use your DNA samples to get you falsely convicted of a criminal offence? This has been happening with fingerprinting as long as it has been around. With finger prints, it is a matter of using sellotape to copy prints from one object to another. I imagine the police will soon find ways to do this with DNA samples. And the courts will be just as willing as with finger prints to take DNA evidence as effectively conclusive proof of guilt.
If your answer is what it ought to be, let us turn back to an investigation of what other measures may be available for the fight against crime.
This is the framework within which debate on the DNA database should proceed So long as the present framework of assumptions continues unchallenged, there can be no effective opposition.
I am pleased with how well I put my case last Monday evening. But I am sure that others can and will do better.