Monday, October 31, 2005

Liberty versus Conservatism

The old Thatcher era Tory, Norman Tebbit, published a mini-manifesto this year, in the Torygraph (Telegraph). Tebbit, or "Tebbo," was important in British libertarian history, since he was both used as a hero by radical libertarian infiltraters of Conservative party youth groups, and he was also key in suppressing the libertarian and principled sections of those same youth groups. This issue is covered in Tim evan's interesting book on the Conservative party youth.

So, Tebbo put together an article summing up what he thought the Conservative party was about, and what it stood for, because what he, probably rightly, though was that the tories need a sense of purpose. So, duly, I saw it as my duty to smash this sense of purpose by pointing out precisely why I thought his article was wrong! I put my response on the Libertarian Alliance list, and also on Liberty Forum, but I have reproduced it here, because I like it.

On the Libertarian Alliance Forum someone responded to Tebbit's piece, writing

I'd be tempted to vote for a Tory party which was genuinely economically and socially liberal.

I don't agree with Tebbit's rebuke of the "permissive society" (though naturally as a libertarian, I wouldn't, would I?). If he believes that government shouldn't interfere with the lives of citizens, surely this includes their personals lives too.

My response follows:

I agree. Reduction of the state to simply providing and enforcing criminal and civil law, and a national currency would be a good thing - though, being an anarchist, I think, ultimately, these things are too much! The national currency role should be first to go. Likewise, as an anarchist, I'm not too bothered about the British unionist slant (Tebbo is obliged to be as a member of the British Conservative and Unionist Party!), I oppose the so called "devolution" as instituted recently by Labour because it centralises local life to a greater degree, not because it is devolutionist per se.

I am sceptical of school vouchers and would welcome them only with guarantees that they would not also come with clauses specifying what actually counts as a school where they can be used, and preferably with an abolition of the National Curriculum too. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, as he writes "An independent inspectorate would monitor school standards, with the redemption of vouchers conditional on the effective teaching of a core curriculum."

Tebbit seems actually concerned about multi-culturalism, and not simply the facade of multi-culturalism foisted on us by recent governments involving forced intergration. As such, I find this position contradictory. He says "Conservatives respect our right to enjoy the fruits of our creativity, in the form of property," and yet asserts that "since society is a community with common traditions and institutions, it cannot embrace widely differing cultures." Surely if people are entitled to their property, fully entitled, then they have a right to use it and any other property other owners voluntarily provide them, to live their lives according to whatever cultural practices they choose. Classical liberalism was about enforcing property rights so as to create an environment in which interpersonal liberty was possible, and each could pursue their own version of the good. Tebbit's views on culture seem to be that they should pursue one conception of the good, and that flies in the face of them being entitled to their property. As Rothbard once said in a letter to young American conservatives,"So what kind of free-market position is one that favours the outlawry of marijuana? Where is the private property right to grow, purchase, exchange, and use?" The same can be asked of Tebbit's criticism of anybody not living according to the state approved culture, and yet respecting property rights of others.

Likewise, this is reflected in his views on marriage: "All human experience shows the traditional family to be the most stable building block of society, and Tories therefore support economic and social policies favourable to it." I agree that economic and social policies should not be designed to be UNfavourable to marriage, but to design them to be favourable to it? I disagree with that. Marriage should stand or fall by its own merits, and that applies to any form of marriage, traditional or otherwise. In fact, policies designed to support "traditional" marriage must first identify what a "traditional" marriage is. In short, it would have to be a state-approved marriage. So far as I can see, this would amount to a nationalisation of the entire institution itself! The same goes for his statement that "The system should be rebalanced to favour, not penalise, conventional families." Conventional families should not be penalised. But they should also not be favoured, not at other people's expenses.

In fact, if it is true that "Conservatives believe individuals must be able to act in their perceived best interest, but be held responsible for the consequences. Those given responsibility will generally behave responsibly, whereas adults treated like children will behave like children" then we should ask whether responsible adults will forsake their families unless there are government policies to "favour" them? To me, part of what being a responsible parent or husband would be would involve tending for my family and supporting them, and encouraging it to grow up morally and not as delinquents. If Tebbit is true to his word, then he must think that families themselves should be given responsibility, and not sheltered under government "favour."

His attacks on the "permissive society" are off target. It is not permissiveness that has led to teenage parents and chavs running riots on the streets. It is state action, subsidising under age reproduction, etc, sheltering people from responsibility, and discouraging work and saving - essentially, as a Hoppean might say, raising their time preferences. It is perfectly possible to have a permissive society without any of these things.

This all said, there are plenty of good bits in Tebbit's article. I liked that "We would make state hospitals independent, self-governing charitable foundations, financed by payments for the individual treatment," and the linked collapse of various structures of local government. However, this should also go hand-in-hand with loosening of various regulations crushing mutual aid associations. For instance, the National Insurance act of 1911 forbids collective bargaining for doctors, and so destroyed the Friendly Society service of providing free consultation for members. Free Markets should be provided for friendly societies and similar mutual aid societies and co-ops.

It is also good that he wants to see inheritance tax cut to the point of abolition, and that "Business taxation and regulation would be simplified. Companies' compliance with the law would be judged by their actions, not the boxes ticked by compliance officers." But he does appera light on plutocratic sections of the ruling classes, not acknowledging that regulation often benefits big business and enables monopolisation, and so is often enacted at the behest of big business against competitors. Likewise, he does not mention subsidies to business whatsoever - it is all about cutting taxes to normal welfare recipients, but no mention of corporate welfare recipients. Indeed, whilst he says good things about weakening Europe's hold, government-to-government rade agreements are no match for unilateral declarations of free trade, and often cover up creeping corporate statism.

On Europe he is also good, calling for "An early exit from the European agricultural and fisheries policies, renewed sovereignty over our coastal waters." The trouble is that this all seems a bit like weakening the European government to strengthen the British government. Admittedly, a vast multitude of governments is preferable to a few big ones, since it allows people to vote with their feet, but libertarians should note that this is a stop gap on the road to reducing government, whether European or British. The single advantage is that we have more control over our government than the EU government, and so it is easier to reduce ours.. Scrapping the CAP would be great, but fisheries should be private and aquaculture encouraged (i.e., not hampered). One wonders, though, since Tebbit calls for ending the European Court, the CAP, European management of fisheries, the European Convention on Human rights, and replacing them with government-to-government treaties on trade, pollution, and extradition, why doesn't he simply call for complete withdrawal from the EU? What more does it do that he wants to retain?!

Tebbit concludes that his "would be a radical programme," and I can agree. It is not radical enough, though - but that is no reason, necessarily, to reject it. If you are offered half a cake, it is best to accept it whilst also demanding that you should be getting a whole cake, rather than to turn it down completely!

Richard Garner


Blogger Christopher said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

A good piece, but I feel that only similarity between Tebbit's views and libertarianism are an affinity for free market/laissez-faire economics. If fail to see how Norman Tebbit can be cited as a bastion of libertarian thought within the Conservative Party.

As a "New Right" conservative, Tebbit would be rather socially conservative. Besides, libertarianism is deeper than simply adhering to social and economic freedoms. Libertarians oppose force against the person and property. It's from this principle that we arrive at social and economic freedoms.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Chris, thanks for the comment. I agree that Tebbit cannot be cited accurately as a libertarian. I think that young conservatives liked to use him in poster campaigns because he annoyed the left, rather than shared affinbities with libertarians. And in the end, it was he who weeded out the libertarian influence on the FCS and YCs.

I also agree that libertarians start with a premise of the relationship of liberty to property and build from there. Many people, for instance, oppose minimum wages. But only few of them do so for libertarian reasons.

7:55 PM  

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