The Road to Serfdom held some attraction for many university students in my time. It looked at what George Orwell called Big Brother and what Ken Kesey called the Combine. Hayek said that we were just heading for the status of serfs. But, with time, the book sounded too doctrinaire for people not given to dogma, and it was preached by people whose company we may not have enjoyed – Andrew Bolt territory.
The following note that I sent my daughters while travelling in Scotland – on a round the world trip – will show just how far down that road to serfdom we have travelled.
It was a good short flight on time from Cardiff to Glasgow. I got clobbered with 40 pounds for each bag which a very capable agent assured me had been covered, but I know how predatory these small airlines are.
I finally made my way to the Avis desk to pick up my car. I had corresponded with them about the booking – at some length. All I wanted was a good clear way for me to get on the A82 to the highlands. I was getting on with Ann like a house on fire – comparing accents and so on. She is finally about to hand over the keys, and then says, dead-pan: ‘Mr Gibson. I’m sorry but I cannot let you have this car. You have been banned’ – or words to that effect.
I don’t know that I have felt anything like this before. Among other things, I had just travelled around Wales for two days in an Avis car. There was no reason. Just a sign on the computer. I saw her pointing to it with colleagues. I suggested she call for a manager – but I instinctively felt that no one in a yellow jacket would override the computer. While waiting for the manager, I shopped around. Hertz said they had no car available. Thrifty said they answered to the same computer.
Finally, I got a very nice people at Europcar and their system did not disqualify me. They were very efficient and capable and their manager, a fine lady of Glasgow, felt empowered to authorise my hire. She was a genuinely decent lady; the young man on the desk, Roddy, plays loch in rugby. He was terrific. My first credit card bounced – probably because Avis had not taken off the Cardiff deposit. Thank God, the computer allowed the second. In the name of God, I had spent time the night before in Cardiff to make sure ample funds were available on each credit card.
Well, I have a very adequate VW Polo that has got me here in comfort, and I will restructure my trip to take the car back to Glasgow. That inconvenience is relatively slight. Could I have been banged up in a Glasgow boozer for days?
But I cannot even begin to tell you how unsettling this has been.
I think we are going to the dogs – as my old man used to say.
It is very unsettling.
What Orwell and Kesey described was the sense of powerlessness of the victims of the State entities that they described. Orwell’s hero is crushed into total submission. Kesey’s hero is despatched to eternity as an act of kindness. One word for the result is ‘unmanned.’
That is how you feel when you deal with someone employed by a big corporation that rules its own like a very firm government. If you are into labels, try fascist. And it all gets so much worse when the whole corporation has handed over the keys to what might have been called its soul to a machine in the sky – a deus ex machina – called a computer. And no one – no one – is authorised to query, challenge much less override the computer. The hand-over of power – the surrender – is complete. And so is the victory of Big Brother and the Combine. And we are left unmanned.
But the powerlessness of Ann was only part of the story. Indeed, in at least one sense, Ann and I shared a powerlessness. One of the primary aims of a vicious ruler is to make the subjects complicit in the viciousness. That way, the minions get locked in. Just look at how Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco went about stitching up their underlings (and reflect on the obsession of Donald Trump with personal loyalty of the kind that Hitler extracted, even from previously decent officers of the army).
Ann is, I fear, becoming complicit. Possibly the most frightening part of this episode came when I was sitting down in something resembling shock, and Ann was standing and looking down at me, and then Ann – yes, that nice, kind Ann with the Glaswegian accent – gave me a look of suspicion. For a moment, I could have been looking at an East German guard on Checkpoint Charlie. ‘Are you sure there is nothing in your past with Avis, Geoffrey?’ Or words to that effect – words that Robespierre could have drooled over at the height of the Terror. Suspicion is a primary tool of trade of the terrorist. Robespierre said ‘Feel my fear’ and ‘Who among us is beyond suspicion?’ And Ann is being reduced to that level.
What the gods of the machine want to do with us is to strip us of our humanity. And we are all now becoming complicit by handing the keys to ourselves to our mobile phones. I was appalled in both Manhattan and Wales to see nearly everyone on the street looking at their phones. People at the Frick could not put them down. (What about a selfie with my old mate Rembers, Digger?) The plague has even reached us here in the Highlands. At Ballaculish, I ran into a very handsome couple from Vancouver who looked like they might be on a honeymoon – if people still do those things. Then I saw them in the bar – each immersed in his or her own phone.
In the name of God, what kind of world is this? This device does not just murder minds and manners – it annihilates any sense of grace altogether. All that bull about bringing people together from super brats like Zuckerberg is all just part of one grand lie.
The medical profession has astonished me with the care and professional attention with which it is treating a cancer that a few years ago would certainly have killed me. I have just experienced another instance of professional care and plain human kindness deep in the Highlands. What I must now do is to respond by fighting another form of cancer that does not terminate life but certainly terminates decency.
To return to Avis. They promised to lend me a car in return for my promise to pay them. That is a called a contract in our law – and the law of the US. I travelled and made arrangements in reliance on that contract. I am travelling around the world, and the visit to the Highlands was the principal reason for the whole trip. Then Avis said ‘We made that promise, but we reserve the right to renege on any basis at all – including the colour of your skin or the way you wear a head scarf.’ What do we care if you are degraded and humiliated in public and if the last visit to the land of your ancestors is ruined? Our only God is Mammon. You – poor fellow – just fall under the heading of collateral damage. Just look at the business model of our President.
Then there is the problem of a cartel operating to interfere with contractual relations. At heart we are dealing with a wrong that our law does not distinctly recognise as one of outrage. But, as Sir Frederick Pollock pointed out many years ago, our law has long permitted juries to deal with the arrogance of the haughty by the measure of the damages that they, on behalf of their country, award to the victim. Putting to one side my personal circumstances, I find it hard to imagine a better case to test the limits of this wrong at law.
I do not know why Avis reneged. They could not or would not tell me. That inflames the wrong. These people are like Richard III – they murder while they smile. As the lady from Europe Car said, it may have been a parking ticket from ten years ago.
I have a recollection of hiring a car in Oxford about ten years ago for a fly fishing lesson. I cannot recall the hirer, but I have a kind of recollection of correspondence that was (1) false (2) insulting and (3) extortionate – criminally so. If it was that kind of thing on the mind of the computer, Avis is adding infamy to criminality. Whatever incident the computer had in mind – it may just be wrong – it must look to be as mean and petty and spiteful as you could imagine. But it does not matter – whatever it was, it cannot justify this frightful breach of promise. We made our laws to shield the innocent, not the arrogant.
About forty years ago, Aunty (our ABC) made rude remarks about a very important Royal Commission team. These wronged lawyers then sued for libel. And in cold blood they entered judgment by default. When I moved to set aside the judgment, the late Neil McPhee, QC sought to hold on to the judgment by saying that we – the ABC – had no defence. I well remember the relish with which Neil looked at me across the bar table and said ‘The only possible defence is truth and if Mr Gibson does make that plea, this court room would not be big enough to hold the damages.’
I think it may be time to offer that option to Mr Avis and his imperative computer.