Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 2 Jul 2020, 2:09 PM


The strange death of libertarian England

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It wasn't just the Labour party that took a beating in last month's general election. So too, but much less remarked, did right-libertarianism.

The Tories won on policies that repudiated many of their professed beliefs: a higher minimum wage; increased public spending; and the manpower planning that is a points-based immigration policy. And the manifesto (pdf) promise to "ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government" should also alarm libertarians. John Harris quotes an anonymous minister as saying that the libertarianism of Britannia Unchained is "all off the agenda" and that "some of the things we've celebrated have led us astray."

Tories are not out of step with public opinion here. If anything, it is even more antipathetic to right-libertarianism than are Tories. Most voters support higher income taxes on the rich, a wealth tax, and nationalizing the railways, for example. Rick was right months ago to say:

British voters don't share the free-marketers' vision...The important thing to understand about right-wing libertarianism is that it is a very eccentric viewpoint. It looks mainstream because it has a number of well-funded think-tanks pushing its agenda and its adherents are over-represented in politics and the media. The public, though, have never swallowed it.

A bit of me sympathizes with right-libertarians here. I suspect that one reason for public antipathy to free markets is that people under-appreciate the virtue of spontaneous order - that emergent processes can sometimes deliver better outcomes than state direction.

Nevertheless, all this raises a question: why are we not seeing more opposition to Johnsonian Toryism from right-libertarians?

You might think its because right-libertarianism has morphed into support for Brexit. Whilst I don't wish to deny there is some link between the two, many Brexiter MPs have failed a basic test of libertarianism. In 2018 the likes of Bridgen, Cash, Duncan-Smith, Rees-Mogg and Francois all voted against legalizing cannabis.

One possibility is that they regard him as the lesser of two evils - they are supporting him with a heavy heart. Cummings

A second possibility has been described by Tyler Cowen. Intelligent right-libs have realized that free markets are not the panacea they thought and have shifted their priorities towards improving state capacity. Examples of this might - in different ways - be Dominic Cummings or Sam Bowman.

Perhaps relatedly, right-libertarianism has lost its material constituency. It once appealed to people by offering tax cuts. Today, however, many of the sort of businessmen who in the 80s wanted lower taxes now want other things, such as better infrastructure.

If these are respectable reasons for the decline of right-libertarianism, I suspect there are less reputable ones.

One is that we have lost the cast of mind which underpins right-libertarianism - that of an awareness of the limits of one's knowledge. We need freedom, thought Hayek, because we cannot fully understand or predict society:

Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseeable and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known....And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appear to be its individual merits, we always over-estimate the advantages of central direction. (Law Legislation and Liberty Vol I, p56-57.)

We live, however, in an age of narcissistic blowhards who are overconfident about everything. This is a climate which undervalues freedom.

Worse still, I suspect that some right-libertarians were never really sincere anyway. They professed a love of freedom only as a stick with which to beat the old Soviet Union. Liberty was only ever a poor second to shilling for the rich. And their antipathy to Gordon Brown was founded not upon a rightful distaste for the authoritarian streak in his thinking but upon simple tribalism. Maybe Corey Robin was right:

The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power.

This isn't just a UK phenomenon, illustrated by Paul Staines: some (not all) US libertarians found it easy to throw in their lot with Trump.

Whatever the reason for the demise of right-libertarianism, however, there is perhaps another lesson to be taken from it - that you cannot nowadays achieve much political change via thinktanks alone.

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