Saturday, 5 February 2011

Why Do So Many Libertarians Eschew Common Values?

The other week, I attended a meeting of young libertarian activists in London. Although not a strict libertarian myself, I have some views that broadly fit with theirs and am chairman of the Free Trade Society at Manchester University, so went as a representative of that. Although doubtless an informative meeting in many respects it struck me that some of the attendees were expressing the same sort of euro-sceptic opinion I commonly encounter at Conservative gatherings. This wasn't just objection to the nature of the EU or anything like that, but to the very idea of political union with Europe.

It made me reflect that I've encountered this elsewhere in what might broadly be defined as the 'Libertarian Movement'. UKIP, that vehicle of arch-europhobia, often claim to be a libertarian organisation. The manifesto of the Libertarian Party of the United Kingdom expresses deep objections to the EU and explicitly states that it is not the dry facts of it that are their guiding principle, but British sovereignty. Various eurosceptic blogs also claim to be domestic libertarians.

Nor is this limited to UK libertarianism. Although it is not laced with the nationalist elements of the UK phenomenon, American libertarians are also often supporters of secession Across the pond, Ron Paul goes where no other American politician will dare to talk openly about states seceding from the union. I've also had several arguments with libertarians on forums such as Facebook which are especially informative. Setting aside the sarcastic non-contributions of the sort that inevitably crop up when you have a discussion on an open platform, several arguments were put forward regarding their version of libertarianism that puzzle me.

1) "Libertarianism is about letting the smallest number of people possible rule themselves."

To clarify, this isn't about maximising personal sovereignty but about making as small as possible the groups of people who exercise sovereignty. It appears logical enough, in theory. One of the greatest supposed upsides is that: "If something I want to do is illegal in my state, then the more states there are the more likely it is to be legal somewhere". The problem with this is that it describes a non-libertarian world and is predicated upon a serious assumption. The world described in that statement is exactly what I'd expect the secessionist route to libertarianism would produce: a vast patchwork of petty tyrannies and people experiencing different levels of liberty. The major assumption behind that statement is the fallacy that you can freely and easily move to another jurisdiction. If whatever you want to do is illegal in your jurisdiction, why is there the assumption that you will be free to leave? Smaller communities are more likely to have a vested interest in retaining people.

2) "Small nations couldn't launch operations like the war in Iraq - that takes an empire."

Um... This is perhaps the more revealing statement: its libertarianism viewed through a lens of pure nimbyism. I always have been and remain a supporter of the war: the post-war occupation has been screwed up no end, but nonetheless Saddam's regime was probably the worst I will see in my lifetime and overthrowing him was right. The statement above isn't even in opposition to the Iraq War on the grounds of being lied to, or because the peace was screwed up - it opposes the very concept of overthrowing a brutal totalitarian regime and replacing it with a better one. What precisely is libertarian about that?

What this seems to suggest to me is that a great number of libertarians don't regard their creed as one based on common values. Widely different levels of liberty between jurisdictions are fine as long as they, the individual, can get to whatever jurisdiction that matches their particular shopping list of wants. As long as they have liberty for themselves, poor brown people in far off lands should be left to endure horrifically despotic governments that don't respect personal liberty on any level.

Surely the only way to ensure that everyone is equally free to live within a libertarian society is to operate a pan-human world government based upon libertarian values, that allows the free movement of goods and peoples across the world and protects everyone's personal liberties equally?

1 comment:

  1. I think part of the problem with these inconsistencies might be one of definition. Libertarianism isn't a hard and fast creed. Your vision of libertarianism appears to be one in which everyone has ultimate liberty to do as they wish. As you correctly point out these other strains of libertarianism are inherently more selfish, focusing, as so many ideologies do, on the concept of a personal desire to live under exactly the system of values that one or a small number of people perceive to be the best, not an egalitarian desire that everyone be equal in a meritocratic sense.