Sunday, 18 March 2018

I was Wrong About...Libertarians

Afternoon - always a pleasure, never a chore and all that.

About seven years ago I found myself in the midst of what I can only describe as a political existential crisis. Dave had not been Prime Minister for long but was already setting off red flags that, after much musing over what type of conservative he was, it was already apparent that Dave was, well, the wrong type. Now I'm not a conservative in either the small or large c sense, but appreciate that some are considerably 'less worse' than others and would make an additional distinction between those amongst the general population who happen to be of a 'small c conservative' disposition (of whom there are many) and their political representatives. They're not the same thing.

Moreover I'd suggest that the former has a wholly legitimate sense of grievance and a claim to have been seriously let down by the latter - in fact I've expressed surprise more than once on these pages that any self-identifying 'small c conservative' continues to vote Tory at all. If you believe in a smaller, less intrusive state in economic terms but would also like an emphasis on defence, law and order and some subtle nods towards conservatism in social policy then in your position I'd be inclined to try and find out whether or not I could sue the Conservative Party under the Trade Descriptions Act. Their continued support for an organ that has quite demonstrably left them astounds me.

It was not ever thus and I actually went through a phase of being unpleasant and bordering on hostile towards conservative-minded people, but in the last 12 months or so I've re-discovered a genuine respect for them. The equivalence I drew in my own mind between 'small c conservatives' and the Toddler Left, as if they were somehow 'as bad as each other', was illogical, not properly thought through and something I now rather regret. The mirror image of the Toddler Left is not conservatism in either the political or apolitical sense at all, but the batshit village idiots of UKIP, the Tea Party and a raft of other self-styled 'alt-right' outfits. I refer to them as the Toddler Right for this reason.

Many small business owners, self-employed people and ordinary wage earners alike fit rather neatly under this 'small c conservative' umbrella. They want a safety net and for the state to look after those who cannot fend for themselves, but generally take the view that the bigger government gets, the more it attempts to do, the more wasteful and inefficient it becomes. They don't want the birch or the death penalty brought back but would like some degree of discipline to be restored in schools and habitual criminals to be punished before that criminality becomes an irreversible spiral. They don't 'hate' anybody but have a broad view of 'what works' socially and wish for that to be respected.

Now there's much to disagree with in that, but to suggest that this is in any way comparable to the neurotic and willfully irrational nonsense spewed by the New Left and New Right alike is not just wide of the mark, but unnecessarily insulting to sane, reasonable people who hold such views. I'm friendly with many who might fall within the 'small c conservative' umbrella, one which transcends divides over race, class, sexual orientation and religion as effortlessly as any other. Though I'm not a part of that it's quite apparent to me that the Uk could really use some imaginative and morally courageous conservatives at the moment, rather than the 'caretaker managers' they actually have.

Similarly, I'm on good terms with many on the 'sane left' who broadly identify as socially democratic and would wish for a socio-political framework I couldn't possibly agree with. However, while arguing for something rather more than a 'safety net', they accept that the private sector and profit motive at least can be a force for good as well as harm. They also see the silliness around 'identity politics', the constant obsession over race, gender, religion and sexual orientation as a means of political recruitment, as the cynical, destructive and divisive nonsense that it is. That their party does not represent them either (albeit for different reasons) is also strikingly apparent.

However, the recognition that the lie of the land circa 2010 rendered me politically destitute was what prompted a bold, outrageous and, on reflection, completely insane decision. I was (drumroll) going to start my own political party in the small l/classical liberal mould, with distinctive but realistic and achievable policies that would not amount to 'overnight revolution' in the economic, social or personal sphere. Not having any great aspirations to be some sort of guru or messiah, the plan was to kick-start the new organisation and then hand over the keys when somebody more suitable for that role emerged. All I had to do now was establish that 'my' party didn't already exist.

As it turned out there was already a Libertarian Party established and so, after a bit of correspondence with the regional organiser Stuart Heal (with whom I'm still friendly now) and a couple of party officials I was happy to join and even volunteer myself for a bit of canvassing and leafleting in the rain round Manchester on Stuart's behalf (we lost, in case you were curious). LPUK introduced me to a handful of fantastic people and for that I appreciate its existence at the time. Surrounded by sharp minds and cogent arguers, I quickly acquired some of the zeal and intensity of a convert before an introduction to the wider 'movement' brought its inherent problems into focus.

Straight away the online conversation amongst active Libertarians struck me as somewhat odd on a number of levels. As a movement it has acquired the unfortunate moniker of "the Marxism of the Right" and on reflection I'll admit that there is much merit in such an analysis based on personal experience. Many completely missed the point of what a party seeking election was supposed to be trying to achieve, namely the pursuit of policies that were either on the edge of or a fraction outside the received conventional wisdom of the time, an appeal to nudge the conversation slowly but surely in their desired direction - don't 'lie' as such, but keep it realistic, politically palatable and achievable.

In contrast the LPUK manifesto was no less Utopian than the plan for world domination hatched by Wolfie Smith and his Mutley-esque associates. Even if you believe in zero income tax (and I don't - I did an analysis of this and the sums simply don't add up), advocating it right now or within the next five years is nothing short of cuckoo island fantasy politics and deserves to be laughed at. I recall arguing with a newcomer at a meeting that we should go into the next election arguing to legalise marijuana as opposed to all drugs and it getting fairly heated. A sane call to pick off the low-hanging fruit and win this thing in increments got the full-on International Socialist call of 'sellout' - sad.

One of the more unsettling cyberchats I remembered having while a member of LPUK was one started by a fella who believed not only that child pornography should be legal, but that the party itself should be advocating such legalistion openly. Quite aside from what you think of the subject (and my answer to the question is that kiddie porn is rightly illegal and should remain so), you have to ask where the political antenna was with this guy. Had he any grasp of how that would play on the doorstep, of the difficulties he was inflicting upon the real people who would have to go out and defend it in public? This is where too much time in 'filter bubbles' gets you, unfortunately.

Rather than talking about (let alone doing) anything constructive, far too many political Libertarians seemed content to argue incessantly and try to 'out-Libertarian' each other. I've heard the term 'keyboard warrior' thrown about in recent years and it should be clear what that is as well as what it definitely isn't. An individual calmly articulating thoughts on a platform like this one does not qualify, but somebody using the internet to promote an ideological cause while shouting 'Statist' or 'Fascist' at anyone who only partially agrees with them has gone into full-blown 'edgelord' country and really has less than zero right to be taken seriously.

Political Libertarianism was a breeding ground for edgelords, sadly, as it misses three fundamental points and will go precisely nowhere until they are addressed. One is the need for realism and gradualism as I outlined earlier. Secondly you need to accept that a political movement or organisation is simply a vehicle upon which the broad direction of travel has been agreed, but members are (or at least should be) free to get off a couple of stops before or after others if they so wish. I don't dispute that on a personal level I was at the 'vanilla' end of this spectrum but would still argue for things we're decades away from realistically achieving. So what's the problem?

Perhaps most importantly, too many Libertarians fail to recognise that consequence, outcome and whether or not your plan 'works' or not actually matters. Freedom for the sake of freedom is fine up to a certain point, but I remember my good mate Chris Coey asking me a little while ago "if you did what you wanted to do and the outcomes for too many real people were a disaster, would you go back to the drawing board and think again?". The short answer is that I would have absolutely no choice, as a country with millions living in squalor and abject poverty quickly becomes fertile ground for riots, extremism and ultimate tyranny. Looking at this utterly selfishly, none of that is in my interest.

Arguing that a significant number of people suffering lower living standards is 'a price worth paying' in the name of your ideology is simply another variant on the "can't make an omlette without breaking a few eggs" view of the world. In its own way it's no different to the mindset of the militant left and so the 'Marxism of the Right' analysis is probably a fairly perceptive and accurate one. Any idea that results in negative outcomes for a meaningful proportion of the population is not simply a bad idea, but short-sighted and potentially dangerous. This surely applies to 'cult Libertarians' as much as it does to Marxists and we have to be logically consistent or what's the point?

In the end my trek into fully-fledged Libertarian politics was a worthwhile experience for all sorts of reasons, but I can safely say was not quite what I expected. Perhaps the very concept of a Libertarian political party and pursuit of 'the great leader' to 'liberate' us is central to the problem, but we can talk about that 'great leader' another night as his forays into the 'soft loan' market became the stuff of legend. Small-state, socially 'couldn't give a flying fuck'' types are those I will always find the most common ground with, but the active Libertarian wing of politics is simply too dogmatic, too ideological and too busy arguing amongst themselves about who's 'more Libertarian' to get anywhere.

I expected better and was probably wrong to have done so.

Am absolutely itching to write another about the nature of authority, but will save it til midweek - if you have any topics you'd like to see covered on here then I'm absolutely nothing without you as readers so will do the best I can.

Meanwhile I'll pass you the popcorn seeing as I'm nice like that - catch you next time.

1 comment:

  1. I am a minarchist. One of the many varieties of Libertarianism. What I mean by that is that I want government to be as small and unobtrusive a is possible compatible with citizens being kept safe from crime and invasion.

    I am also a gradualist. All political revolutions fail to achieve their declared objectives and they usually result in much suffering and oppression.

    I was a member of LPUK until it became clear that it was as corrupt and useless as other Parties.

    Rather than a manifesto and a Party, I would like LIbertarians to agree on a direction of travel towards greater individual liberty and a movement to promote ways of achieving those objectives. What that needs is supporters rather than members and spokespersons for different policy areas rather than leaders. In the digital age this can largely be carried out on the Internet.

    Another aspect that I think is worthwhile is the practical implementation of Libertarian projects such as Liberland and the Free State/Free County/Sea Steader ideas that have been steadily developing in recent years. These can help show what is and is not really achievable.