Thursday, September 21, 2006

The strange death of my libertarianism

On Monday the Devil posted up this animation. I first came across it when an angry Irish libertarian friend linked it in an e-mail with the title "THEY SHOULD SHOW THIS IN SCHOOLS". I've been meaning to write about this particular animation for quite some time for a simple reason; it killed my libertarianism.

To be fair my sense of myself as a libertarian had always been precarious. I am of a moderate temperament and could never quite stir myself to the indignation that appears necessary for such a radical philosophy. Libertarianism has to be radical as anyone who calls themselves a libertarian but doesn't verge on anarcho-capitalism is just trying to feel "dangerous" without any real risk; they're listening to gangster rap while stuck in traffic on the M6.

However, for quite some time in my early university years I considered myself a solid libertarian. I was convinced that a lot of the problems people describe as the market's actually came from attempts at state intevention; I remain convinced that this is the case. My credentials were solid: I was a member of the LSESU Hayek Society from within days of entering the university and was one of the first to combine that with activism within wider student politics. It was fun to have a two word answer to almost any political query (privatise X). Finally, in a university full of lefties proud of their socialist-liberal credentials it was great fun to argue social issues at them from the liberal end (legalising heroin for example).

Libertarianism is far better suited than conservatism to university politics as it is encouraged by the libertinism that student life entails. I was always quite good at making use of this advantage to dent the socialist haze in which most student's political understanding operates. Being right wing at the LSE is a lot like being a missionary in that you know you're more civilised but can't appear too smug as you're chronically outnumbered; I had at least one solid conversion to my name and made a good missionary. At one point I even managed to defeat a motion in the Union General Meeting condemning Coca-Cola for murdering trade unionists with a memorable "Lots of murders in Columbia, relatively few in the Coca-Cola company; where do you think the problem is?" defence while carrying a can of that fine Atlantan soft drink.

However, what began to bug at me was the effect that the contradiction at the heart of libertarianism tends to have on its adherents. The contradiction is this: If you believe that the principles in this cartoon are true then you cannot use state power, which always equals slavery and violence, to any end as this would be morally wrong. However, property rights are not rights unless there is some means of enforcement to prevent infringements. That immediately kills the moral simplicity this cartoon is trying to establish. In the society this cartoon seeks to create property rights would not be rights but rather a privilege conferred by popular whim and vulnerable to death by free rider effects.

Most libertarians get over this by the simple device of the night watchman state; property rights violations are okay so long as they are that minimum required to defend property rights. The problem is that in doing so they instantly lose the claim to having an absolute principle and libertarianism loses its moral certainty.

Further, what this logic relies upon is that defending property rights is the kind of duty for the state you can actually fit on the back of a postage stamp. It isn't. The experience for most of humanity both now and historically has tended towards being chronically unsure of their property's security against being lost to the unscrupulous or violent. While the state is often one of the biggest dangers to the security of property and person it tends to be at its most dangerous when a failure to protect its citizens from internal strife or external aggression has endangered its survival. Britain's historical liberalism is not unrelated to its high degree of military security. The European welfare state was built to justify nations following their failure to defend their citizens from invasion and occupation (see A.O. Milward for more on this).

Quite a few libertarians respond to this conundrum by becoming incredibly hawkish on law and order; longer sentencing and even the death penalty are used to create a boiling in oil effect. This is unlikely to prove effective. To create the kind of society where property rights are a reality you need quite a few things: a citizenry sufficiently educated that it can engage in contracts and understand the law, no drug addiction removing the ability to make indepedent decisions in future, the nationalism that makes people willing to sacrifice short term interest for the defence of common rights, the kind of military which can defend against foreign attack.

While libertarians can point to failures in state provision of all these things what they cannot do is get around the possibility of people being ruled out or ruling themselves out of effectively making the free decisions that negative liberty requires. The old question of whether people should have the right to sell themselves into slavery becomes more relevant when you ask the question of whether people should be allowed to fail to educate themselves and their children to such an extent that they cannot understand the law or the market transactions a liberal society relies upon.

All of this implies that the best society to defend property rights in reality may not be the one which most privileges them in the abstract. It was this understanding that was slowly killing my libertarianism; that an abstract of pure liberalism was harmful rather than supportive of the defence of greater freedom in the real world. I still consider liberty to have value beyond its side effects in boosting income etc. I still find most social conservatism off-putting or vaguely comical. However, it was when I saw that cartoon and saw the sheer folly of a utopia where libertarianism leaves the defence of liberalism to ad hoc popular whim that I realised it was no longer a useful term in describing what I thought of the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post on an old page of yours, I'm not very au fait with blog etiquette so I hope you will forgive any transgressions.

I have just watched the video to which you refer, and it seems to be that by allowing your libertarianism to die you are acting against good sense.

You have an irrational fear of being seen as 'libertarian lite' and sem too caught up in the studenty notion that libertarianism has to be an extreme doctrine.

It is not, it is a perfectly rational and reasonable doctrine, and to verge on anarchism is simply to take libertarianism beyond its natural and comfortably human territory.

What you witnessed was not the death of your libertarianism, but the death of your immature (I mean that in the developmental, not the derogatory sense) liberal anarchism.

Individual liberty should always be the starting point for a format of human existence, but libertarianism does not mean we have no laws or government or enforcement agencies, it means we have laws to protect our liberties, rather than to regulate or remove them.

Don't turn your back on liberty through a misinterpetation of its nature, we need it now more than ever.