Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Life Love and Liberty?

A few years ago I encountered an attractive-sounding socio-political philosophy; Libertarianism.  According to Wikipedia (Why not – you have to start somewhere.) “Libertarianism (Latin: liber, "free") is a set of related political philosophies that uphold liberty as the highest political end.”

Well, that sounds nice – and I’m not being sarcastic, it does sound nice – so nice, in fact that a great many people use this word Libertarian to describe themselves. I once flirted with the notion too, being a person who prefers as little interference in my life by others as is functionally possible. I've long thought we should be responsible for ourselves first and for others according to conscience and capability.

But Wikipedia continues: “Different schools of libertarianism disagree over whether the state should exist and, if it does, to what extent.” Now this seems to me to be a central plank of the whole thing. You either want a thing or you don’t – surely a political philosophy should agree on something as fundamental as whether you have a state or not? (A bit like the Labour Party having a clear stance on Union involvement, for instance, but best we leave that there for now.) For my part, a small state seems like a good thing.

It’s quite hard to organise something like national defence and foreign policy on purely local grounds, but I can see healthcare, policing, local services, food and water supplies and a criminal justice system operating reasonably successfully under provincial, even private control, although the borders will need some negotiation. So, all good then; a low tax, small state administration and the devil take the hindmost. No welfare, no free rides, every man for himself?

Not necessarily. The Wiki entry throws a spanner into the works:

While minarchists propose a state limited in scope to preventing aggression, theft, breach of contract and fraud, anarchists advocate its complete elimination as a political system.” 

So it’s just a matter of exactly how small the state is,then? But wait…

While certain libertarian currents are supportive of capitalism and private property, such as in land and natural resources, others reject capitalism and private ownership of the means of production, instead advocating their common, collective or cooperative ownership and management.

See my confusion? That's no help at all! It turns out that libertarians can be anywhere from Anarchist to Communist and support Capitalism or Socialism, or it would appear, any system on the continuum. But even if the extent of state responsibility could ever be agreed – and let’s face it, the last hundred years of British politics has failed to establish that little detail – what happens to a fiercely no-state libertarian who needs outside help? How does a commune-based libertarian society deal with an individual who refuses to contribute?

I’m sticking my neck on the block here but I don’t believe Libertarianism is a political philosophy at all. From a conversation on The Twitter last night, I guess the closest and most succinct elucidation I received was “Freedom and Do No Harm”. Freedom is pretty much yours to have if you live within your means and by doing no harm you should avoid unwanted intrusion into your liberties. But as for adopting the mantle of "Libertarian", It all seems a lot of fuss to go through just to say you’re a traditional British citizen… except for that ridiculous mask.


  1. You've summed up the inner machinations of where any ism could and can go. Some Libertarians are for more liberty than others.

    The danger is in calling yourself something without the resolve to stop calling yourself something.

    I call myself an AntiStatist because it's the only term that applies across the political functions. Will I one day change my mind? Maybe, if and only if people stop using the State to push their agenda onto other un-consenting people.

  2. You don't know what a Libertarian is?

    That's funny, because I'm not sure what this "Democracy" thing is all about.

    Apparently some "Democrats" believe in a small state and low taxes, whereas other "Democrats" believe in just the opposite with nationalisation and socialism. Then there are the "Democrats" for whom the Environment comes first. There are even some so-called "Liberal" Democrats who seem to believe in a supra-national EU run by appointed bureaucrats who get to tell the (democratically elected) European Parliament what to do.

    It's all very confusing!

    Much more so than Libertarianism, anyway....

  3. Pretty much the US Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment, rigorously enforced and not continuously being compromised away bit by bit, would be a good start-- we all know most of the provisions anyway, as they correspond to much in the English Bill. (This assumes anyone knows the English BoR.) Things like religious freedom, free press, freedom of association, petition for redress of grievance, presumption in favour of gun ownership, no requirement for individual citizens to outfit standing armies, security in person, property and home against unwarranted search,
    the right of non-self-incrimination, the right not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, the right to be compensated for government seizure of property, the right to defence counsel, speedy trial and cross-examination, the right to civil jury trial, the right not to be punished beyond conscionability, presumption in favour of granting bail, the rights enumerated are illustrative and not exhaustive, and all powers not given to the Government in this charter are prohibited to it and all powers not prohibited to the people are granted to them. And, last but not least, Equal Protection for all citizens of their rights, privileges and immunities, not that some citizens should have these at the expense of others, except where due process of law has intervened.

    You start advocating this sort of thing, and people will either look askance as if you are a nutter, or they will secretly agree but tell you it is impolitic to come out with it, or they will admit they are not for guarantees of personal liberty at all if they wish to be truthful and not hypocritical and mendacious about it.

    The Rabbi Hillel was challenged to explain the meaning of the whole of the Torah whilst standing on one foot-- he answered, "Love God, love your neighbour-- the rest is but elaboration."
    My explanation of Libertarianism is much the same: "Defend individual rights, before the State's power-- the rest is just details."

  4. All of which comments above prove my thesis;that libertarianism is simply being English in the traditional sense of the word. So the enemy of Englishness is simply politics.

    Good luck with your crusades fellas, I'm legging it.