Thursday, April 16, 2009

Liberal or Libertarian?

I occasionally dip into the archive, so here is an article of mine previously published elsewhere but not appearing on my blog before. It is dedicated to Sir Clement Freud RIP:

"THE NINE most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'." This quote from Ronald Reagan sums up the thoughts of many of us who might describe ourselves as libertarian. But many people still ask what a libertarian, or what libertarianism, actually is.

Like Christianity, or socialism, there is a wide range of views within libertarian thinking. Debate rages on, and will continue to rage amongst libertarians, about what the philosophy is and how libertarians interpret their philosophy in an ever-changing world. There are those who advocate zero tax, on the basis that tax is theft. Others accept that a certain level of taxation is necessary but that it should be minimal. There are those who advocate that a woman has the right to choose abortion, then those of us who would advocate that abortion is an infringement of the right to life, the fundamental human right.

The most common "strapline" used by many libertarian organisations is "for life, liberty and property". In short, libertarians believe in the maximum freedom for the individual and freedom from state interference in business, property and the markets - whereas most modern political parties believe, to varying degrees, in state regulation of most human activity.

The three old parties in Britain are all authoritarian in nature and increasingly see taxation not as a source of vital income for benign essential government activity, but as an intrusive means of controlling the population. For example, the Tories advocated a so-called "green" tax on parking cars in out-of-town shopping areas, supposedly to save the traditional high street. This would actually be a shopping tax, a source of government income.

Libertarians believe in the right of the individual to act freely and that we should be controlled in our behaviour by the responsibility not to harm others by our actions.Some examples of the government acting in opposition to this principle include the recent ban on smoking in public places and the hunting ban.
Certainly smokers should be considerate to those who do not smoke, but pub landlords, for example, should have the right to choose whether or not to allow smoking in their premises and people can then choose whether to drink in a smoking environment or not. Interestingly, the government does not ban smoking completely, largely because of the huge income it gets from tobacco tax.

On the question of fox hunting, there is no logical reason why the sport should have been banned. The libertarian approach would be to use such persuasive arguments against the activity that people gave up hunting of their own free will, the activity would then fade away. Banning seems to be an acceptance that the argument has been lost, persuasion failed therefore make it illegal. Two examples of what could be considered libertarian behaviour in government were in Paraguay, a country I visited in the 1990s. These examples offer an idea of libertarian policy, but I would not regard the government of Paraguay then, per se, as libertarian.

There were few, if any laws in relation to food hygiene in Paraguay at that time, the principle being that people who own cafes and restaurants tend to want to make a profit and poisoning your customers is not good business practice. We found some of the best food and cleanest restaurants in Latin America in that country. They also had an open border policy at that time. The only control was that if you entered the country but could not find work, you received no state support whatsoever. As a consequence, they had a small but thriving immigrant community that had greatly contributed to the economy.

Libertarianism is rooted in classical liberalism but is often seen as a modern philosophy, largely because it has gained prominence in the last two or three decades as people grow to resent the ever-increasing intrusion of the state into their lives. There has also been renewed interest recently in the work of the philosopher and writer Ayn Rand and her theory of "ethical egoism". But it goes much further back than Ayn Rand to John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and others far earlier. Indeed the Roman senator and philosopher Tacitus stated "the more corrupt the state, the more it legislates", a sentiment shared by many libertarians.

Liberal is now a dirty word to many people, having been hijacked by those who are far from liberal, such as the Liberal Democrats. As "democracy" often appears in the name of countries that are far from democratic, so the word "liberal" often appears in the title of organisations that are far from liberal in the classical sense. Others hear the word liberal and think of do-gooders looking at the bloodied victim of a crime and solemnly declaring that "the person who did that needs help". This is why there needs to be a clear separation between classical liberalism, or libertarianism, and modern liberalism.


Richard said...

You wrote,
"Banning seems to be an acceptance that the argument has been lost, persuasion failed therefore make it illegal"

What an excellent way of putting it!

The same is true of recycling: if its worth recycling, there is no need for a law to enforce it.
[I know there are those who believe in, so-called, "external costs". Such externalities are a result of improper political handling of property rights... creating the classic, "Tragedy of the Commons" —a different discussion.]

I would like to add that the present interest in Ayn Rand is much too superficial to turn America around (to Founders' Principles). Yes, many see the parallels between the present government, and the antagonistic politico-economic policies of the U.S. government in Atlas Shrugged. The proper policies depend on a proper moral and epistemological understanding of Individual Rights, an understanding that must run deeper than that held by the Founders.

Only Ayn Rand offers that depth of understanding, and few Americans today are capable of such integrative and introspective thought (thanks to public education, abundant leftist-relativist university academics & politicians, and mainstream media).

Gregg said...

Thanks Richard.

What you say about the USA also applies here in the UK sadly, but we fight on!