Monday, August 11, 2008

Guido and Libertarianism

The excitable Guido posted a few days ago on libertarianism. I think he agrees with me that the new cult of 'Nudge' is a sophisticated evasion. It doesn't sound as nasty as ordering people about nor as frightening as letting the free market rip, but, in reality, it doesn't evade either possibility. Who is nudging whom and why will remain at the centre of political discourse in a democracy. But, as ever, I am puzzled by the word 'libertarian'. Guido says 'libertarians care about family values' - but why should they? Surely they must be free not to care. Yet he has a point when he notes the absence of the word 'freedom' from British political rhetoric - in America it is everywhere. I suppose we take it for granted and that, combined with a national inclination to believe that the government ought to do something about everything, means freedom has become an easily ignorable abstraction. Guido wants the Conservatives to talk more about freedom, but that would probably lose them the next election as people don't really know what it means or, if they do, they're afraid. Perhaps the only freedom they currently desire is freedom from the depressing spectacle of Gordon Brown eking out his tenure. Libertarianism remains a puzzle for me; it's a question rather than an answer. More freedom? Possibly. But how much? That is the question not answered by the 'L' word. But I guess people like the sound of it.


  1. Problems arise when you think of 'libertarian', 'liberal' 'conservative' etc as nouns rather than adjectives.

    So although I take a 'libertarian' (adj) view on many issues, I wouldn't want to refer to myself as a 'libertarian' (n) because living up to that requires you to take a consistent approach to everything, which can land you in all sorts of trouble.

    But yes, we do like to simultaneously complain about the nanny state and also the Government's inability to solve every problem. But that's just how the game is played.

  2. If libertarianism is to be distinguished from anarchism, then the libertarian must believe in some form of government, but presumably some minimalistic form of government.

    One can then identify two potentially independent strands of libertarian thought: economic libertarianism and social libertarianism. Economic libertarianism advocates minimal government interference in economic arrangements, whilst social libertarianism advocates minimal government interference in social arrangements. One could be socially libertarian without being economically libertarian, or one could be economically libertarian without being socially libertarian.

    Within economic libertarianism, the best modern example of the doctrine is perhaps Robert Nozick's 1974 Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick argues that a minimalistic state should exist to the extent that the rule of law protects people against violence and theft of property. So, in Nozick's ideal state, there would be a police force, a judiciary, and a penal system. The state would have the power to raise taxes to pay for this system, but no more. Nozick argues that the state should not be able to raise taxes to pay for a welfare state, a national health service, or public services, and that doing so is a violation of individual economic liberty.

    That seems to be a pretty good template for economic libertarianism. For Nozick and fellow libertarians, personal liberty is the starting point of their reasoning. For egalitarians, equality in the distribution of wealth is the starting point of their reasoning.

  3. Yes, Gordon, but economic distortions could enhance the liberty of some at the expense of others - hence an egalitarian could be a libertarian. Nozik assumes freedom trumps so many other considerations that he cannot be credible. Why should not justice trump freedom? I'm not advancing a position, I just think the argument is posited in ill-defined terms.

  4. I don't know why Guido holds out on the Tories turning libertarian. I kind of respect Cameron and almost get taken in by him until i glance at the rest of them with their stupid, boozed up, golf club faces- you know their isn't a hope in hell of them turning libertarian.

  5. It's a moral question related to the notion of sovereignty and the right ordering of society.
    It is only in reaction to excessive state control that people feel justified in ignoring their obligations to one another. Left to their own devices (given liberty to do so) people would create a natural moral equilibrium. It is not the case that the strong would prey on the weak. The weak would collectively require the strong to shoulder their responsibility towards them.
    This is only a tiny part of libertarianism, but it is certainly not an apologia for Hobbesian bestiality or a desire to create a society where the strong come out on top by crushing the weak, as socialism creates.

  6. Agreed, Bryan. Which is basically why, in the UK, we have a pragmatic compromise between liberty and equality.

  7. You know I do try to squeeze in a bit of Nozick between the gossip and the totty on the blog. The inmates don't like it one little bit.

    I don't think the Conservatives will turn libertarian, I don't even think liberty will triumph in a democracy.

    My attitude is dual-track, I vigorously defend my property against the state and the looters - self-liberation. I take a micro-incrementalist approach to politics, better to have the blue team in than the red team.

  8. Libertarianism is a modern teflon dogma, and worrisome for it. Being anti-state, libertarians see themselves as immune from twentieth century statist horrors and tend to be oblivious to the fact that they are still in the thrall of "The Idea" and prone to decide their positions on this or that by reference to offical dogma rather than what their lyin' eyes tell them. Free markets are great and proven, but this constant, often angry golden-age yearning for a society where the state runs courts and armies and does nothing more is just bizarre. And they can be just as willing to run roughshod over their opponents as all utopians.