Sunday, 3 August 2008

Making a case for Libertarianism, Part 1

"There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."
-- P.J. O'Rourke

People seem to have some peculiar perceptions about Libertarianism, so I thought I'd offer my personal take on Libertarianism in a series of posts: what it is, how it might work in practice, etc.

What is Libertarianism?

The essence of Libertarianism is that you own your body and all the consequences of your efforts. For example: if you till the soil, then no-one has the right to deprive of the fruits of your labours. It also completely opposes the idea of anybody using force to deprive you thereof.

One of the most fundamental misconceptions is that the philosophy is "do what you will." It's more accurately, "do what you will with yourself" or "do what you will, as long as it harms no-one else." So arguments that Libertarians would be soft on crime are completely wrong: crimes such as mugging, murder, rape, burglary are the very things that I or any Libertarian would be outraged by. "Crimes" such as pensioners not paying council tax or someone being offended by someone else's expression of free speech are somewhat lower down on the list of things that I would worry about.

Are Libertarians just gun nuts and fruit loops?

It is true that the liberties offered by the philosophy do attract people with "interesting perspectives" and it's further true that the ideal of Libertarianism has been debased by ludicrous adoptions of the word, rather than the philosophy. "Libertarian Paternalism" is such an oxymoron, and at the root of many extreme gun nut survivalists' beliefs there is evidence of yet another "New World Order" variation of socialism, where the strong will once again dictate the ways in which the rest of us will live.

Even the arguments in favour of anarchy are not nihilistic, true anarchists do not want an unruly society in a permanent state of turmoil, they just believe that people, left to themselves, will generally muddle along just fine, in the same way they did for millennia before government was invented.

The reality of Libertarianism is this: it is a broad church, with some radical left-wing people espousing key aspects of the philosophy alongside radical right-wing people and people everywhere else along the political spectrum -- it's not something to be derided as just a "right-wing fringe philosophy."

OK, so why should I think about becoming a Libertarian?

We've seen centuries of political interference in society. Governments, whether well-meaning (such as Attlee's post-war government) or not-so-well-meaning (like Stalin or Mao Zedong) have been composed of people who believed that they knew better what people should do, than those people did themselves. The failing is always this: the bigger a problem is, the more difficult it is to solve it. Something with as many variables as an entire nation's economy is never going to be planned successfully, which invariably leads to a failure at some point. The Russians, for instance, had complete and utter control over their economy, with huge resources at their disposal and yet the life of the average Russian was miserable. Although everybody had enough "money" to live on, they had nothing more than a drab existence. They had everything they needed to survive (mostly), but nothing that they needed to live.

People always forget about unintended consequences when they reach for the law books, as well. There is a famous (but probably apocryphal) story about a Russian nail factory being tasked with a target of producing ten tons of nails before the end of the month. Even with the machinery working at full capacity 24 hours a day, with no breakdowns and no problems, the manager of the factory knew that the objective was entirely impossible. So instead of even having a stab at making the requisite number of nails, they made a single ten ton nail. They met their centrally planned objective perfectly, but the value to society was very limited.

So, you might argue, complete central planning doesn't work -- but what about a social democracy, where business is given ancillary objectives which work towards achieving "social benefits" and the state provides more of the same. Well, for me, the problems are:
  1. Your social benefits and mine may differ. I, for instance, believe that the state should provide good roads; frequent rubbish collection; a strong, independent police force; a strong, independent military and little else. You, on the other hand, may feel that the state should provide a "safety net" for people who become unemployed through no fault of their own, and a nationalised health service, and and and ... So which one of us has chosen the right level of social benefits? And why should people who do not believe in a higher level of social benefits pay for those who do?
  2. The state is an inefficient means of providing anything. For ample evidence of this, see here. The problem is that the state is inherently inefficient because of the size of the "problem" it's trying to "solve". The other thing is that because it's all "funny money" to the state, and there are no real negative consequences of doing things wrong, people just don't take things as seriously as they might. There are certainly any number of individuals in the state who take their jobs seriously and try to provide a good, value-for-money service, but there are many more who don't. Just ask any civil servant -- they will either rant about the incompetence or bad attitude of their colleagues, or they will prove to be part of the problem themselves.
So, given that the state is a poor choice of service provider, why should we rely on the state to provide services for us? Historically, there would have been hundreds of local "friendly societies" providing social benefits to their members on the basis of their contributions and their needs. They got driven out of business by the welfare state, because they could not compete with an organisation that was not dependent on its own nous and capabilities for survival -- no-one can. If the government decided to get into the grocery business, Tesco, ASDA and Sainsbury would be stone dead within a decade, because they could never hope to compete with an organisation that didn't need to make a profit, that could give their groceries away without appearing to charge their customers at all. Never mind that in reality those groceries might be costing ten times what Tesco charged. You could never make a direct comparison, because of all the other "services" the state provides.

The other side of government is that it, like many organisations, is populated by people of a political inclination. "Politics," as P.J. O' Rourke famously said, "is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty - their power and privilege - to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by ... politicians."

So they're always trying to make something. And when they start, they may be making something good. But once they've accomplished that something good, they don't just walk away. They have to justify their existence and the continued growth of their "empire". And this is inevitably where it all goes wrong. Because even if they've got a perfect whatever-they-were-trying-to-do, they now have to make it better. So they fiddle, and they add stuff, and they monitor and set targets and ... just look at the consequences of a decade of New Labour: insane amounts of money ploughed into schools, hospitals and every other aspect of our lives and all we have is more micromanagement of everything, nothing is actually any better.

And the other side of it is something we're all familiar with: why be in power if you can't make people behave in a way that you think is better for society? "You believe in recycling? Fine, you recycle." "But I'm the Secretary of State for the Environment, and therefore because I believe in recycling, everybody will recycle." Etc.

I believe that the state should focus on doing only things that no-one else wants to do, but are necessary for the common good, like roads; or in very exceptional cases where independence from financial incentives are essential, such as the judiciary or the military. These things should be done well, and professionally and with an absolute minimum of intervention.

Everything else should take the form of transactions between informed, consenting and responsible adults. For example: if you want to provide for the possibility of being out of work, there will be a variety of organisations ranging from the commercial insurer to the more egalitarian friendly society who will take your money and help you provide for a rainy day. The state will butt out of this completely. Don't want to make the provision? Fine ... but it's your arse in a sling if you lose your job! Because providers will be competing for your money, they will either be cheaper than the portion of your tax that currently funds this Ponzi scheme, or they will provide better benefits, or both.

What's wrong with other forms of government?

Nothing, other than their inefficiency and their need to grow. I've spent a lot of time in Islamic monarchies, fascist one-party states, social democracies and African kleptocracies. They all had individual aspects to commend to them, but every single one of them was astonishingly wasteful, and they all tended to grow out of the "providing social goods for the common good" mindset into the "how can I screw up your life today" mindset. As an aside, I can quite honestly say that from South Africa in the 80's to Kuwait in the 90's to Zimbabwe in the 00's, I have never seen a government as keen to stick their nose into every aspect of my life; as keen to tell me what to do and how to do it; to monitor everything I say, think or do, everywhere I go and to just plain be in my face, as Britain under New Labour. This government is more invasive, more nosey, more nannying, more hectoring and more irritating than the government of any other country I've ever spent any time in.

One of the key tenets of Libertarianism is that the state should interfere with your life as little as possible, that you're big and ugly enough to know what the consequences of your actions are and you should enjoy the freedom to live your life as you choose, provided you do no harm to others. This, above all else, was the aspect of Libertarianism that converted me from being a sheep herded by the Tory party into really thinking about my politics for the first time. Because we already know that when the Tories sweep to power some time between now and 2010, there will be relief that the Gorgon is gone and that a decade of vacuous New Labour blathering without any action will finally be over, but nothing will really change.

Differences between Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative do not fundamentally exist, if Labour can steal policies from both their rivals and dress the same policy up in different words and claim them as their own. All three parties believe that the state is the machine that delivers better social goods, all three parties are beholden to the EU, all three parties are squabbling over the same tiny patch of worn-out, fallow ground.

The broad thrust of all their policies are the same: "give us your money and some of your liberty, and we will give you some things back." The overlap between how much money they want to take, the number of liberties they want to take and what they're going to give back is enormous. Tories claim they will take a bit less and give back a bit less, Labour say they will take a bit more and give back a bit more, Lib-Dems say they will mix and match and take a bit more here and a bit less there and give back a bit more here and a bit less there. If you put them in a dark room, you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart.

Only a completely different type of politics can change the landscape. Politics that defines the individual as the most important political entity, and the state as a necessary evil that needs to be kept in check and needs to do as few things as possible, only do them well.

You may not agree with the approach, but you can't deny that it's a truly revolutionary political ideal, vastly different from the various versions of "tax and spend" that have achieved so little result for so very much money.

More will follow

I'll be diving into these and other aspects of Libertarianism in more detail in future. If you're interested in Libertarianism in the UK, there is a Libertarian Party UK forum where you can ask questions here.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I look forward to the next instalment.

IanPJ said...

One of the best posts I have read for a long time.

There would be a good case for you to syndicate this in full to all Libertarian Party bloggers to co-ordinate and effectively spread such a well written word.

Anonymous said...

Well Obnoxio,

You would have my vote, even though you are too much of a coward to use your public identity in ownership of your writings, which is a shame because you write such perfect sense.

Could I make a proposal to 'enhance' your manifesto a little further.

When the New Order decides that a new law is needed, it first must review existing laws and remove any that conflict or are replaced by the new law, then the order must have the responsibility of ensuring that everyone knows about the law BEFORE it is passed.

The old position of 'Ignorance of the law is no defence' is only valid if there has not been extensive effort to pass that law by stealth.


Obnoxio The Clown said...

@DerekSmith: My employer would not appreciate some of the things I say on this blog, hence my anonymity.

As to new laws, I think (hope!) that a Libertarian government would probably spend its first term in government just getting rid of old laws.

@ianpj, knock yourself out! :o)

BritBloke said...

Good stuff and needless to say, I agree with almost all of it.

Let me play Devils Advocate for a second though.

Here are the biggest arguments I get against Libertarianism.

1) It doesn't provide for the weak in society. The people who can't get jobs, because they are too sick or because they are just no good at anything. Saying that isn't my problem is fair enough, but most people don't want to see others suffer. I always suggest that they make sure they don't then, but they want to make sure everyone carries the burden.

2) It doesn't take into account the lowest common denominator. I.E. there are people too stupid or not capable of being trusted with the freedoms to carry a gun for example, or be given access to legal drugs. I don't personally buy that, but you try convincing the majority of people on that.

I fear most people are authoritarian. They simply want their own way and are happy to use the tyranny of a majority to get it.

How do we ever break that mentality?

Sackerson said...

The threat to liberty is not just from the State. The supermarkets also overcharge and bully - did you see the article about Asda demanding free advertising from a raft of magazines? Any accretion of power is a threat to the individual.

Perhaps large surpluses in economic production will always give rise to classes of bossy-bootses, in which case maybe freedom depends on a degree of poverty, as well as a degree of wealth.

And there is also the internal threat: the unconscious (the existence of which Sartre denied); delusions (often externally fostered); ignorance and misunderstanding; various addictive tendencies and ground-in behavioural patterns.

As a thought experiment, can you describe a day in the life of a free person in a free society?

P.S. Never mind children, *I* find your clown frightening. Is this your final choice of avatar?

Obnoxio The Clown said...

@Matt Davies: My rebuttal to your first argument is this: with the government out of the way people will have far more money in their own pockets and can choose to use that money to provide for possible shortcomings in their own futures; they will have more money at their disposal to use for charity; and there will be far lower barriers to entry in job markets, et al. The argument that "they" will want "everybody" to carry the burden is not a Libertarian one. You may appeal to my good nature, but you cannot compel me to carry a burden I don't want to carry.

As to your second argument, it's just contrary to reason. If someone is known to have mental disorder or has a criminal record, then they shouldn't have access to firearms. Otherwise, who am I to say someone else is too stupid?

@Sackerson: If ASDA are abusing their financial capacity, then you are free not to buy from them. Much of the power that ASDA has stems from the massive regulation of the retail sector, which makes it extremely difficult for new players, especially small ones, to compete -- they simply do not have the resources. By reducing the regulatory burden, it is quite possible that ASDA would find their market share eroded and be compelled to become more equitable. But one of the root causes of their excess of power in the market is, once again, due to excess government intervention.

And I'm not changing my avatar, even though it scares me, too. It doesn't scare me as much as the other avatar I use.

Sackerson said...

@Obnoxio: Nicely argued. And it's not just regulation of the supermarkets - our local greengrocer was chased away by extra parking restrictions, business rates - as well as, of course, regulation (elf'n'safety and the rest).

And the point about internal blocks, esp. those that are exploited (e.g. alcohol addiction)?

Obnoxio The Clown said...

@Sackerson, I'm not really sure I understand the internal threats issue? Could you clarify, please?

As to what a day would be like in a Libertarian society, I would imagine that it would be much like any other day in any other society, but with far fewer petty authoritarian irritations, far fewer newspaper headlines that make you crumple up the paper in disgust and fewer programs on the BBC which make you reach for your firearm to damage your television.

I expect less stress, not Nirvana. :o)

Sackerson said...

@Obnoxio: I think there are external constraints to freedom, but also some that lie within one's own character, and these can be exploited or subverted. For example, the easier alcohol is to obtain, and the cheaper it is, the more likely people are to drink far too much, and become "alcohol-dependent". I expect the libertarian answer is, that's up to them, but isn't there a point beyond which you'd say that the individual may have little rational choice? I'm not arguing for coercion, but could it be that some gentle restriction (e.g. opening hours, limiting numbers of outlets, maybe withdrawing liquor licences from supermarkets) could make it easier for people to maintain their ability to choose freely? Or would you take the absolutist line against even such minor, well-intentioned attempts at "nudging"? If so, do you absolutely deny the existence of addiction and other forms of, what can I call it, imprisonment of the will?

Anonymous said...

As a follower of Stirner, the argument I would make against this flavour of libertarianism is basically that you're saying "I'm not bothered about what you do, as long as it doesn't piss me off." How is that different from any other political philosophy? All ideologies just have different definitions of what does, and does not, constitute a crime. For me, the defining factor of "libertarianism" is that it has a smaller number of crimes than any other ideology; not that the crimes libertarians choose are intrinsically wrong. For evidence of this, see the disagreements that occur around the issues of abortion, IP rights, land rights, etc.

Does the mother's "right to privacy" supercede the fetus' "right to life"? Does the fact that a person's idea is "the product of his labour" grant him the right to prevent others from reproducing his idea using their own property? Does tilling the soil once grant you that exclusive right to till that soil in perpetuity, even though the land itself is not the product of your labour? Arguments that are perfectly consistent with libertarian "principle" can be made on both sides of these issues. I shy away from treating libertarianism as a magic wand that can solve any policy dispute by the application of an indisputible axiom for these reasons.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

@Sackerson: I don't generally agree with your assertions about alcohol -- demand for alcohol is generally pretty inelastic to price. Making it cheaper may cause a temporary spike in demand, but people will generally fall back to their normal patterns soon enough. If you are an alcoholic, nothing the state does is going to stop you. I don't really think that regulation, opening hours, restricting access, etc., will achieve anything to help alcoholics.

I don't believe in paternalism because the people you're patronising never appreciate it.

@Richard Allan: My flavour of Libertarianism is more like "I'm not bothered about what you do, as long as you leave me alone."

And that differs quite significantly from what mainstream and most other non-mainstream parties offer.

The realities of politics are that we will never achieve anything like a truly Libertarian society, not one to the level where we can start worrying about getting into debates about how pure our personal flavour of Libertarianism is.

I don't see Libertarianism as a magic wand, I see it more as a journey that will never end.

Anonymous said...

"The realities of politics are that we will never achieve anything like a truly Libertarian society, not one to the level where we can start worrying about getting into debates about how pure our personal flavour of Libertarianism is.

I don't see Libertarianism as a magic wand, I see it more as a journey that will never end."

Fair play - I wasn't really accusing you of being a dogmatist, just pointing out the flaws I see in the "axiomatic" version of libertarianism that you seemed to be focussing on.

I too am not bothered about how "pure" people's libertarianism is as long as they leave me the hell alone!