There’s been fuss in the US, which I alluded to before, about whether Libertarians should seek some kind of working relationship with “liberals”, meaning the mainstream centre-left.
To me, this article sums up the possibilities there – there’s no possible basis for libertarians to work on the basis of “good things the state does”
Does that mean the libertarian movement should continue as it has been – as a de facto ally and “mad cousin” of the mainstream right wing? Not necessarily.
The fact is, even if most of us fractionally prefer the mainstream centre-right to the mainstream centre-left, that’s hardly defining of our politics. Most of the key aims of libertarians are opposed equally by both halves of the ruling political class.
A lot depends on our aims. If we want to maximise our chance of having some beneficial short-term political effect, at whatever cost in terms of compromise, we have to work directly with mainstream parties. That is the path taken in Britain by the ASI and the IEA. Even then, it is a mistake to assume that any compromise must be with the Conservative party. Apart from anything else, it would strengthen the bargaining position to be able to credibly threaten aligning with Labour.
Either way, the weakness is the one identified by Giles Bowkett (and many others, I’m sure, but I was particularly impressed by the way he put it). There are many marginal changes to policy we would like to make as libertarians. Some of them directly enhance the freedom of ordinary people. Some of them cut down the corruption and waste of government, and beneficially affect almost everyone in a very small way. Some of them improve the bargaining position of consumers in the market. Some of them improve the profitability of businesses.
They are all good policies, but to have an effect, the good people in the ASI and IEA need to recruit heavyweight support to advance some of the policies. Guess which one of the groups of policies I mentioned is the one which has a powerful constituency that can be recruited?
The pro-business policies are good policies, in principle, and are justified by sound theory. Very often they’re good in practice too. Occasionally, because politics is not easy, we screw up, and they turn out to be bad policies (see: PFI). The result, judged not by the state of government policy, but by the advance of the movement, is catastrophic. We are seen as nothing more than a tool of big business. We deny it, and point to all the things we oppose that big business wants – all the protections and subsidies. But our opponents simply say that everything we actually achieve is pro-business, and they’re generally right.
Indeed, it’s worse than that. It’s not only our opponents who see us as automatic allies of business. Libertarians are humans (occasional evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) and a particular malfunction that occurs in humans is that people they cooperate with on a regular basis get labelled as “friends”, and attitudes to what they say and do, and also attitudes to those who criticise what they say and do, are shaped by this labelling.
(Of course, I’m being slightly obtuse calling this a “malfunction” – I have explained here why there’s more to it than that).
What to do? We could split into two movements. One continues to work with the right, and tries to cut bureaucracy, and trade restrictions, and damaging interference in markets. The other tries to work with the left to oppose corporate welfare, and to protect basic freedoms of ordinary people against the police state.
Very little is actually accomplished by any of this. The “big achievement” of the libertarian movement was the economic liberalisation of the 1980s, but I am now of the view that the major reforms were so obviously necessary that they would have happened anyway. The movement to end drug prohibition is growing, but it is growing mostly from centrists gradually falling under the influence of reality, in the same way as reality impinged on economic policy in the 1980s, and if the anti-prohibition movement succeeds it will not be because of us. Our influence on the debate has been very minor.
Is there a way of advancing ideas that’s better than hanging out with a bunch of scumbag MPs? LPUK plans to run its own candidates and get in the public eye that way. It’s worth a try – at least it gives us a chance to put forward a platform which truly represents our views, not one sanitized sufficiently to be tolerable to the Conservative Party.
An aside: the right doesn’t object to its tame libertarians advocating policies that the mainstream would never support – for example, ending the state issue of currency. But it’s hard for a right-oriented libertarian grouping to advocate policies that appear distinctly left-wing.
But if we are to align ourselves effectively, we need to recognise what the key axis of modern politics is. I’ve said my piece on that: the ruling class in our society is not landowners, or merchants – it’s politicians. Most of the worst things coming out of our governments are directly advancing the interests of politicians as against non-politicians.
We are against politicians. So who are our allies on this most important issue?
The only other people who are against politicians are the anarchist left. But we’ve always known about them, enough to be polite, and in any case they’re too insignificant a force in their own right to be even talking about.
Anarchists are few, because anarchism has difficulties. We have people “on our side” who call themselves anarchists, and while we recognise that we want the same benefits of freedom as them, the majority of us advocate, on practical grounds, some kind of minimal state. The anarchist movement also has “near neighbours” who they argue with about practical details. Who are those neighbours? They are the whole of the revolutionary left.
We are not of the revolutionary left because we advocate private property. Is that really the vital issue, compared to being for or against the political class? I claim not. I think that when I am with the revolutionary left I am among people I need to persuade, not people I need to defeat.
I’m not saying that private property isn’t important. It’s utterly necessary. But many things are necessary – politics is really difficult, and one mistake can wreck it. My argument here is that being against the ruling (politician) class and in favour of private property makes us propertarian leftists, not libertarian rightists. We will struggle to work with anti-propertarian leftists, because of our disagreement, but we disagree with conservatives about more central issues, and yet have still managed to work with them from time to time.
One great advantage in working with the revolutionary left is that a lot of them are, at this point in history, genuinely open to new ideas. Anarchism has never had much practical success. Soviet communism ruled a chunk of the world, but has now failed utterly, and most of the left now claim, with varying degrees of honesty, to have opposed it long before its demise. All sorts of concepts are now up for grabs when leftists debate each other openly. Private property generally isn’t one of them, but is that because leftists don’t consider it admissible, or because those who advocate it don’t consider themselves leftists?
This programme is perhaps a non-starter for some libertarians – particularly those for whom private property is a fundamental philosophical principle rather than the most effective basis for efficien
t large-scale cooperation. Good luck to them. I welcome that such people support good policies, but I have no more common basis on which to discuss issues with them than I have with other religious fundamentalists.
The sticking point when it comes to working with the left is not concrete politics, it is the friend/enemy attitude. Here is my programme:
1. Humility. We are aware that the revolutionary left doesn’t have much of a track record of actually improving anything in the last century. But is our record any better? In as much as we separate ourselves from the mainstream, I would say not. (That is to say, mixed-economy capitalism has produced economic growth and better lives for most where it has been employed, but that is not our system, and we cannot claim the credit while at the same time urging radical reform). We have excuses for that, but if we’re going to make them, then in fairness we ought to listen to theirs. On the same note, while the left encompasses some pretty obnoxious sects, such as those that appear to be more in favour of dictatorship for its own sake than anything else, that doesn’t necessarily make the left worse than us, taking into consideration some of our less savoury fellow-travellers. The nature of mainstream politics has been such that the least ideologically pure on each side have been the most prominent outside of their own movement.
2. Ideals. Sure, if we reran the 1983 general election, I would probably vote for Thatcher. But that’s a lesser-of-two-evils judgement, it doesn’t come close to defining my politics. If someone thinks that the creation of a national paramilitary police force outweighed the benefits of denationalising the coal industry, well, maybe they’re right. It’s not the most important question today. (sensible article on the 1980s)
4. The Welfare State. None of us want to see the poor starve on the streets. The welfare state is not the only way to prevent that, but it is one way. We might have a better way, but we have to show that (a) it would work, and (b) there is sufficient wrong with the current way that we need to do it. We can make that case. That’s not an opening gambit, though, it’s an endgame – an aspiration that we can improve the economy, individual responsibility, initiative and cooperation to the point that we no longer need a coercive central state to be able to feed the poor.
This isn’t original – I’m following groups like Center for a Stateless Society, and I’ve been influenced by commentators like Chris Dillow. The important point is that I’m not revising my actual political views, just reassessing who it is worth talking about these political views with.