Birdwatching / 2018-12-28 / Nick Sallnow-Smith

No Xmas theme this time dear reader; and no New Year’s message either. Rather, I want to contribute some musings prompted by my recent attendance of an update on global accounting and compliance issues. For me, this is close to a visit to the dentist as a form of torture. (But it’s CPE points of course.)

Now what has this to do with birdwatching, those who are still awake are asking. Let me explain.

As a boy I rather enjoyed bird watching, my “Book of British Birds” in hand. While this can be pleasurable, it is an entirely passive activity. No interaction with the birds is required (indeed it is usually prevented, via “hides” etc.). Nor is it necessary to contemplate why birds exist, or their evolutionary history. You simply, well, watch them.

The audience on accounting and compliance updates were, I am sure, predominantly in the same frame of mind. They were spectators in the world of global rules and compliance in the financial sector. No questions were in their minds about why such rules were being enforced, by a tiny elite of compliance regulators, on pain of fine or jail. No thought of why the jurisdiction of such an elite should prevail over so many, in so many countries, who had never agreed to its jurisdiction nor had had any input into these rules. As I looked around the hall I saw no reflection on the wisdom or indeed the morality of these ever mutating standards of “compliance”.

The audience simply passively “bird watched”. Some made notes on the new species to be aware of. Some took down the descriptions of their plumage, so as to be able to spot them in the future and avoid arrest for “non-compliance” with the new bird watching code. No doubt for most the rationalisation of their acceptance was that these regulators “keep us safe” from “bad people”, from the financial chaos and other unnamed horrors that would accompany of lack of Governmental intervention is all matters that carry any “risk”. But just as the “keep you safe” meme is used to justify a range of legal restrictions on our personal freedoms today, so do financial regulations damage freedom in that sphere.

Throughout my life, I have noticed many audiences where passive imbibing of mind numbing details of imposed regulations was a way of professional life. The European Union rules I saw being discussed in London in the late 1970s were an example (the EEC as it was then). Many civil servants prided themselves on knowing every detail of these codes. Most never questioned their purpose or morality. They were simply accepted as part of the bird watching landscape. It was enough to know them, never to question them. Any debate was about whether the rule applied, not whether it should exist.

I have written before about the increasing reach of the global regulatory super state. Those 1970’s EU codes were limited to the type of carrots a farmer could grow etc.; an infringement on liberty for sure, but scarcely an attack on life as we know it. Today, as I noted in my piece on “Conduct”, the regulatory reach affects not only what you can do but how you can do it; how you “conduct” yourself. Not only is this more intrusive but it is much more subjective and hence it is harder to anticipate whether you could be deemed to have breached the regulations. Anti-money laundering regulations reflect a similar approach. Suspicious transactions which must be reported are defined subjectively. If the regulator thinks you should have been suspicious when you were not, then too bad for you, you pay the fine anyway, usually with no appeal being possible.

The very terminology used in this area should be frightening us here. “Compliance” carries a concerning connotation of subservience to the taskmasters. Comply, or else! And in many cases, the “or else” consists of arbitrarily large fines, which cannot be appealed. The sorts of due process which apply in criminal courts, are rarely seen in regulatory fora.

As I was listening to the expose of the latest ways in which the compliance super state was extending its reach, I could not understand why no-one in the audience seemed concerned. The passive acceptance of remote elites applying standards of behaviour to millions, on pain of arrest, with poor due process, ought to be the case of active debate and questioning. Yet it is not. Almost the entire financial sector simply passively buys the latest bird watching catalogue and moves on.

I used to laugh when folks talked decades ago about the “New World Order” as a threat. I no longer laugh. The impact of global “regulation” of behaviour is growing daily. And like a dystopian novel, no one is resisting.

Just as controlling “conduct” is an extension of state (or super state) intrusion, compared with controlling only actions, now we are seeing an additional extension of state control to our very thoughts. In Europe today “hate crime” is increasingly being criminalised. Just as with “conduct” in the financial industry, this is inevitably subjective in definition. And, just like in finance, the “authorities” are now actively searching on the internet for such “crimes”, which they, the authorities, can then subjectively define as a case to be prosecuted. No complaint from a “victim” is necessary.  Step by step, with little resistance (any who disagree are typically regarded as dangerous cranks), every aspect of how we live is becoming regulated by the state. Hong Kong has traditionally been much more free in these respects and has a population much more inclined not to be “compliant”. But it seems to be more and more passive these days.

As we move into 2019, please think about this. Are you a birdwatcher? Or might you come out of your “hide” and begin questioning the right of anonymous global elites to govern our “conduct”.

Nick Sallnow-Smith


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