The Elephant in the Corner

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Posts Tagged ‘State

British Libertarianism: Planning To Fail?

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According to the old saying, those who fail to plan, plan to fail, and this is perhaps more true of British libertarians today than at any previous dark point during the Blair-Brown years. Granted that the 2009 Libertarian Alliance Conference did not disappoint, and that the UK Libertarian Party is finally contemplating how to get from statist here to libertarian there, but what may at first appear to be delegates’ brightest hope could end up becoming a terrible example of blowback.

The muted hope of many delegates appeared to be roughly as follows: the British State is, once again, on the verge of financial disaster, and this time the International Monetary Fund won’t be able to afford to rescue it from its own folly. So perhaps the State will finally be forced to surrender significant areas of British political, social and commercial life back to the free market. Delegates tempted to engage in such reasoning, perhaps especially by Dr. Richard Wellings’ illuminating presentation on the state of the UK Treasury, should resist the temptation to count their chickens for a number of different reasons.

The first, and perhaps most easily demonstrated from history, is that free marketeers have a habit of underestimating the resilience of an economically flawed State. Few twentieth century Western economists predicted the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, but far fewer still anticipated that it might last seventy years or so before it finally expired due to an accumulation of political and economic misjudgments. The truth is that ordinary people are capable of making incredible sacrifices to try to prop up a failed state if (i) they honestly believe that their very survival is at stake in the process and (ii) they’ve been raised to think and expect to act no differently.

The second reason for urging caution is that, short of a complete meltdown, the British State will dictate what, when, how and to whom it will privatize various areas of British life. All the major British political parties arguably need money more than they need votes, and given the ever more blatant penchant for currying favour with large corporate entities rather than mere voters, we should expect a subsidized corporatist hand back rather a genuine privatization. The so-called privatization of the British railway network is a very good example. Naturally, if the whole thing turns into a fiasco, British taxpayers will presumably be clobbered yet again for another subsidy while the Government of the day and its allies calmly blame “the market” for the ensuing mess.

The third and final reason I will give here relates to a serious misapprehension of the nature of Western democratic politics by many British (and other) libertarians. To put it bluntly, voters are often too busy, lazy or ignorant to bother with the content of party manifestos and election pledges (which aren’t legally binding anyway). So the voters go with their “gut instinct”… after all, that always seems to be the best approach for catching criminals on TV, so why shouldn’t it help the average voter to identify the right (or perhaps the least wrong) politician for the job?

The result is that the almost stereotypically rationally driven libertarian often fails to engage with the mass of emotionally driven voters, and this would be perhaps the worst time in 30 years for British libertarians to make such a mistake (again!). Why? Partly because maybe… just maybe the classical liberal ideal of limited governments and free markets is about to be framed for the coming disaster, but mostly because even if British libertarians achieve their dream of an expanded free market, they aren’t likely to keep it in the longer term as matters stand.

Emotionally driven democratic voters see the economy roughly as follows:

Good times = plenty of money + big government spending.

Bad times = lack of money + reduced government spending.

As long as the mass of voters sees the current crisis in this fashion, it will inevitably view any sell-off as a concession extorted by greedy big businesses from the cash-starved, sometimes incompetent but always better-intentioned hand of the State. Why would an electorate thus conditioned by state education and state supervised media not seek to renationalize various assets as soon as practicable?

My hope is that British libertarians will learn a number of important lessons from the foregoing paragraphs before it’s too late. First of all, implementation of libertarian ideals even if full and unconditional is not a substitute for mass dissemination of libertarian ideas. There is little point becoming more free from State interference if we can’t stay that way. Secondly, British (and other) libertarians have to fight and win both an intellectual and an emotional “battle of ideas” if they want to live in peace in a less governed society. Finally, libertarians everywhere need to learn to more carefully assess their opponents’ strengths as well as their weaknesses, while never forgetting that in the nature of political and social struggle, the current opponent could easily become the greatest ally in the next conflict. Without that last caveat, how will libertarianism ever gain even mass acquiescence, let alone a mass following?

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