I’m going to be controversial. Controversial for a British libertarian, that is. Whilst the generally accepted view, insofar as there is a generally accepted view, in the Libertarian Alliance, is that Britain does not need a Libertarian Party, I will answer the above question in the affirmative. As I see it, there are a number of problems that generally cause British libertarians to be sceptical of the merits of a Libertarian Party of Britain. These include, but are not limited to, the disaster of the Libertarian Party of the United States, the acceptability of voting for radical libertarianism, and then the concerns that libertarianism is too radical to stand a chance at winning support, or that libertarians will have to “sell out” in order to win support.
One response to a number of objections would be to explore what a Libertarian party would be for, what purpose it would serve. Critics of the suggestion worry that, like the US LP, it would stand no chance of electoral success without drastically watering down policy recommendations. On the concern of watering down policy recommendations, I shall return to this later, but on the lack of electoral success, that issue maybe misjudges what a Libertarian Party should be for. In my opinion, the primary end that would be served by establishing a UK LP and campaigning in elections is not electoral success, but publicity. Campaigning and running in elections allows Libertarians to gain publicity, and allows libertarian critiques of existing government publicity to reach a wider forum. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter that the LP will not be winning seats in local or central government. What matters is that libertarianism, and the libertarian outlook will be reaching a wider audience.
Brian Doherty, in his recent history of the movement, observes, only from an American context, that British libertarian pessimism is justified, as “What the government takes, what it presumes it can regulate, has been getting larger, not smaller.” Couple this with the developing hegemony of personal helplessness and irresponsibility, reflected in an increasing acceptance of a nanny state that controls our health and choice “for own good” because it is increasingly accepted that we can’t do it ourselves. I am reminded of John Hurt’s words towards the end of the film V for Vendetta, as his dictator character faces an impending anarchist uprising. Hurt’s character says,
What we need now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every television…. I want this country to realise that we stand on the edge of oblivion; I want every man, woman and child to understand how close we are to chaos; I want everyone to remember WHY THEY NEED US!
The word’s of Hurt’s character are the words of a dictator who realises that his last chance of retaining power lies in inculcating and building the fears of the public and then convincing them that salvation lies in the arms of the state. The scenario is frighteningly close to home, as our own government is feeding off a “State of fear,” with obesity crises coupled with “size zero” anorexia pandemics, coupled with passive smoking, global warming and environmental destruction, terror over fatty foods, even willingness to accept alcohol prohibition. The message is “read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every television,” that in every aspect of our lives there is a looming crisis that can only be solved by our benevolent rulers.
A pessimistic outlook indeed. Given the level of ruling class propaganda, especially distributed at the hands of the openly biased state propaganda engine that is the BBC, any efforts that libertarians can take to publicise our views should be seized, but beyond this, being able to put convictions into practice is needed. One thing is plain: We cannot rely on the Cameroon party now masquerading as modern Conservatism. This is a guy who refused to even consider a fairly reasonable program of tax cuts, advocates green taxes, flip flops on fighting the growing EU “evil empire” and thinks crime should be fought by “hugging hoodies”! There is absolutely no hope for libertarianism from the Tories who want to continue Blair’s terrible legacy. Of course, there is always UKIP, but what why would libertarians who complain about a Libertarian Party lack of electoral success then turn to UKIP?
I suggest that people seeking alternatives to the politics of the status quo are disenfranchised by mainstream politics. There is an entire position that goes entirely unrepresented, a more or less libertarian position that I suspect is held by some people out there, and this unrepresented position provides us with a target we can aim at to market libertarianism, to market the idea that life isn’t a perpetual crisis that can only be solved by an ever growing government. Doherty asks us to picture a person. This person has a rough, vague idea that people ought to be free to do as they choose so long as they don’t harm others, embraces a tolerant, live-and-let live world view. This is also a person that grew up after the fall of the Berlin wall, and so knows that central economic planning leads to “an ugly situation, a poor decrepit mess that people are willing to risk being shot to escape,” and so to an appreciation for the market economy. Such an economic position may endear him to the Republicans in a US context, or Conservatives in the UK.
However, our person is a young adult, and doesn’t want to push people around in affairs he believes are their business, and none of his. He doesn’t want to lock people up for what they smoke, or see people treated differently under the law because they are gay. On top of this, he may also he may also oppose Republicans for their bellicose foreign policy.
So here we have a liberal, tolerant person, opposed, at least loosely, to an interventionist foreign policy, and in favour, at least loosely, of free markets. So where do we place him? It is reasonable to place him amongst libertarians, at least insofar as they are summarised by the slogan, “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” Doherty continues
So what are you? You may start thinking of yourself as a libertarian. Even in right-wing circles, libertarianism has maintained a mostly admirable cred that pivots between edgy and geeky. Libertarians do enjoy their badboy reputation, especially among conservative ranks, for taking this personal liberty thing as far as it can go. As an old movement joke goes, “you libertarians are the types that would allow fornication in public parks!” “What do you mean, public parks?”
But this hypothetical young libertarian may think that certain regulatory agencies, such as the FDA and the Justice Department’s antitrust division, ought to exist, even if they are overly active and not always overly smart. Just as those who remained true to liberal principles of the nineteenth century had to change their name to adjust to changing fashions in the meaning of the term “liberal,” so might libertarians of the Rothbard variety have to reconstitute themselves as “classical libertarians” in the twentieth century.
Excuse the lengthy quotation, but this hypothetical young libertarian is our target audience, and yes these people exist, even in the UK. This is not a libertarian who will be persuaded immediately (though eventually, I hope) of the virtues of anarcho-capitalism. Launching into immediate accounts of how all taxes should be abolished and how police, courts, and laws can be provided, like any other service, better by the free market will simply put them off. These anarchist views are views you and I may hold, but will just turn our target off. This is not a fellow who may be turned on to libertarianism when given a copy of Rothbard’s For a New Liberty, but may be inspired by watching or reading Rose and Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. And, of course, a proposal to enact Free to Choose may not turn you and I on as much as a proposal to enact For a New Liberty… but Free to Choose stands a far better chance of being enacted, and would it really be that bad? (ii)
But does this constitute selling out? No, it does not. I am a Rothbardian, and would like to see the complete abolition of the state, in all its forms. But Rothbard himself advised (iii) against letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. He differentiated between two positions that would harm the cause of liberty - left wing deviancy, and right wing deviancy. The right wing deviants are those that hold to an extreme gradualism. They have their program for destatisation, and want it accomplished in that order. In clinging to that particular order - first abolish X, then Y, then Z, the right wing deviant ends up becoming an apologist for Y and Z until after X has been abolished - a statist, as it were. In the end, they also, in trying to play the pragmatist, in actual fact fail to be the realist. Pessimism for libertarians in today’s climate is realistic - chances at reducing the size of government will be few and far between. Therefore any chance should be seized at reducing government. Frankly someone who rejects any of these few and far between chances at reducing government simply because abolishing that program or department doesn’t fit with his preferred schedule is, frankly, a traitor to the cause.
But, on the other hand, we have the left wing deviants. These are the guys that reject a five percent tax cut because it is not a one hundred percent tax cut. They are the guys that let the better become the enemy of the good. Rothbard suggested that there is a better strategy for us: Remind everybody that what we want is the total abolition of the state, complete security for person and property, and that any reduction offered us just doesn’t go far enough, damnit… but accept the reduction anyway. Never turn down a tax cut, but never let people think that it is enough. Anarcho-capitalism serves a purpose. A Canadian individualist anarchist, Larry Gambone, once suggested that we could look at the issue using the analogy of a labour dispute. You are a union rep, going to the bosses. You want a ten percent pay rise. So you demand a twenty percent pay rise. You then, appearing to struggle, let the bosses bargain you down to the rise that you were perfectly happy accepting in the first place. This doesn’t mean that you would not have preferred a twenty percent rise, but acknowledges that you are happy with a ten percent rise. Likewise, demand anarchy, and we can let the statists bargain us down to a night-watchmen state - and we have won a victory.
Radicalism still has its place, then. But talk of anarcho-capitalism will turn our libertarian looking for a home away. No state is better than less state, but less state is better than what we have now - so radicals would be betraying the cause if they turn down less state.
So, in conclusion, I think that there is a case for saying that Britain needs a Libertarian Party. Having a Libertarian Party would provide publicity for libertarian ideas. It would bring to wider attention libertarian critiques of the status quo, and libertarian alternatives. The argument that libertarians don’t stand a chance of electoral success falls flat, because the primary purpose of such a party would be to use the electoral process to promote libertarianism, not to win power. The complaint that libertarianism is too radical to be a realistic alternative fails because, and the argument that libertarians must abandon radicalism if they hope to win power, both fail, because a radical vision can be sustained whilst moderate achievements are called for and achieved. And there is hope for a Libertarian Party because there is a disenfranchised constituency for moderate attempts to reduce state power.
James Bartholomew, The Welfare State We’re In
, 2004, Politico’s Publishing, Great Britain
Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A freewheeling history of the modern American libertarian movement
, 2007, Public Affairs/Perseus books Group, USA
Murray N. Rothbard, For a new Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
, 1996, Fox and Wilkes,
(i) Doherty, 2007 p574, and pp585-586
(ii) I even have a policy recommendation. Our moderate libertarian without a home is likely, like Friedman, not to want to end complete assistance to the poor by the state, out of tax revenue. But does that put him beyond hope? Of course not. We just face him with this question: Why have state hospitals or state health care? Ignoring the important and valid question of whether taxation is theft or not, crucial to talk of "socialised health care" is the question of nationalisation of providers, and having the state build and fund hospitals, and allow their use, free at the point of access? Why is this needed, if at all?
The most obvious answer that people would tend to come out with is "well, how could poor people afford hospital stays and treatment if the state didn't fund hospitals and allow free treatment?" However, this means that providing hospitals is a form of redistribution, taxing the rich and giving to the poor, only giving to the poor in the form of available hospital coverage if they need it. If this is the case, then, the actual redistributionist answer is no answer at all - since state provision of hospitals is not necessary for such redistribution to occur. The state could simply tax the rich and either give the poor hospital vouchers backed by the tax revenues, or divide the revenue and pass it out in cash form on the basis of how poor the recipient is. The redistribution would be accomplished without the need for state run free hospitals - they could be commercial enterprises, competing with each other, and the poor would simply back their own funds up with the vouchers or the cash given to them by the state, spending it at the hospital of their choice, or on the insurance policy by the insurance company of their choice.
So why have state hospitals?
The advantage of the above scenario is that you can have a complete free market in health care, with just about any method of provision, from for profit corporations, to consumer’s co-ops, friendly societies, even some Kropotkinist communal system, providing health care. Consumers of health care can chose the service they prefer, orthodox or holistic, whatever. There could be a functioning price system, responding to changes in supply and demand, to co-ordinate provision, and competition to keep quality up and prices down - and yet the rich are still taxed to pay for the poor. Such a policy may even be politically attractive. How many people would prefer to use some other institution than that provided by the state if they could afford to do so? An answer to that may be shown from simply looking at how many people presently pay twice for their health care and add private services to their consumption. In 1955 only 1.2 percent of the population went to the expense of buying private medical insurance. Five years later 1.9 percent did. For every five years interval, the proportion of the population 'paying twice' significantly increased until 1990, when it reached 11.6. It did not increase over the next decade may lead people to assume that a plateau had been reached, but that isn't true: There were other ways that people were resorting to private-sector health care. Company health insurance plans kept increasing the numbers covered in the 1990s. James Bartholomew writes,
Some people have more than one plan so we must be careful of double counting. But the Family Resources Survey of 1989/90 showed that the proportion of the population with insurance or a cash plan or both had reached 19 per cent. If the trend has continued to the present, one in five of the population now finds the service offered by the NHS so 'incomplete' that they feel must take out some form of private insurance.
On top of that, as insurance has become more expensive, partly due to unfavourable tax treatment, people have turned instead to direct payment - or 'self-pay' - for medical services. Between 1992 and 2002 the proportion of self-pay treatments in independent hospitals jumped from 13 percent to between 22.5 and 25%.
If that is a good indication, it means as much as 5 per cent of the population self-pay and a full quarter now use private medical care for some or all of hospital treatment.
Considering how expensive it is to 'pay twice', this is a damning indictment - by the customers themselves - of the NHS.
We could scrap the NHS, give back half the money spent on it in tax cuts, and use the other half to hand out regular cash payments, maybe proportional to income, maybe not (concessions to egalitarians are politically attractive). The sheer number of people abandoning the NHS or supplementing it with private services proves that there are likely to be huge numbers of people out there who would prefer to go private if they could afford, it, and so giving them their taxes back to spend on health care they prefer would afford them the chance.
Moderate, realistic, and reduces government. That is how libertarian policies could be.
(iii) Rothbard, 1996 (1978, 1973), chapter 15 “A Strategy for Liberty.”