Libertarian or Democratic libertarian?

One of the joys of our new Whats App sites is that you can have a jolly good debate over important issues and, as long as it doesn’t get personal, which all good debaters avoid, make substantial progress in developing them.

Inevitably in the aftermath of Brexit the debate has turned to the position of the party on the political spectrum. Before it really didn’t matter too much as we were all united behind the common objective of getting Britain out of the European Union. We have members from all walks of life and background, but once the tide goes out you can see what’s below!

Our constitution, clause 2.5, says we are a democratic libertarian party. Small ‘d’ and small ‘l’. It does not say, as some have claimed, that we are a Libertarian party, with a capital ‘L’. I don’t know how much thought went into the original wording? Perhaps not very much and they were just looking for something vaguely neutral. However it says what it says, so what does it mean and do we want to change it? I discovered a general reluctance to change the constitution, but I don’t think many realise quite what a Mad Dictator’s Charter we have been lumbered with. However I am not going to go into that here as I have covered it in a previous post.

My immediate reaction is that the words ‘democratic’ and ‘libertarian’ qualify each other. Traditional libertarian theory pretty much means no taxes and no government, at least in its American incarnation, where all taxation is regarded as theft and only those paying into the pot should be entitled to a vote. This was the position espoused by John Stuart Mill writing in the 1860s and based on the theories of classical economics. Since then of course John Maynard Keynes has produced his General Theory in which he introduced the concept of involuntary unemployment and observed that economic equilibrium can occur at less than full employment. Keynes’ view is now mainstream. More recently we have become familiar with the notion of dysfunctional markets where the imbalance of supply and demand is so great that the price mechanism no longer works, such as in housing or steel, and government intervention is required.

Mills’ theories are not redundant however, particularly in the realm of social justice, and Keynes himself was careful to stress that the classical laws of economics remain valid in normal conditions. As with Einstein’s general theory in physics, the classical laws only break down in extreme circumstances such as for matter approaching the speed of light or the interaction between subatomic particles. In fact I think Keynes was being a tad pompous in comparing himself with Einstein because by the time he was writing he was analysing a different ‘nature’ whereas Einstein was explaining more deeply the original nature. That is because during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the introduction of a full franchise and the advent of trades unions meant that a resistance to the downward movement of wages had developed which was not there before.

The principle tenet of JS Mill’s philosophy that I adhere to is that of the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’. If the majority decides everything then nothing is left to the discretion of the individual or to minority rights. Classic examples were Labour’s disbandment of catholic adoption agencies and their insistence on single-stream comprehensive schools and persecution of independent schools. In neither case is there any overriding national interest involved; no need for uniformity across the land. The Socialist view is totalitarian ideology in which Big Sister knows best.

A free society might be defined as one in which the domain of morality is greater than the scope of the law. A bit like concentric circles it is the size of the gap in between them. A free society requires respect for the law, and that will only occur if everyone is equal under it. The law is there to protect us from harm or loss by third parties, and to enable us to deal with confidence with second parties. It is not there to protect us from ourselves nor to coerce us into patterns of behaviour which are simply of convenience to the state. A free society requires a strong sense of moral responsibility and history shows that it not only requires one, it also breeds one. By comparison in the EU, where most laws are based on Napoleonic law, you can only do what the law permits you to do. Here it is the other way around. That is now threatened by incoming alien cultures to replace the threat posed by the EU.

All libertarians reject the tyranny of socialism, but how far to the right do you have to go to escape it? This depends on whether the majority of voters are socialist or libertarian, and I am quite sure the majority in this country are libertarian. Indeed I maintain that the word ‘democratic’ in ‘democratic libertarian’ places us firmly at the centre of the political spectrum pretty much by definition. That is where the votes are, and there is no point in taking an extremist position where there aren’t any. Activists in all parties like the simple clarity of extremist positions, but activists are not typical of the general population.

So we need a simple yardstick to say what government should be about and what it should leave to the discretion of the individual. I suggest that yardstick should be the concept of ‘national interest’ as assessed objectively by its very nature. For example there is clearly a national, or common interest in defence and equality under the law. That means we must raise sufficient taxes to pay for these things as a common good. It also introduces the concept of a transfer of wealth from rich to poor as our tax systems are progressive. The money could not be raised otherwise.

Other areas of policy are more debatable, but I argue that there is no national interest in allowing an unemployable underclass to develop. Not only do you have to be educated but you also have to be fit and healthy to pursue and hold down a job, and you have to be free of such structural unemployment factors such as the poverty trap and skill and regional imbalances. So education, health, welfare and regional policy also qualify, and so on. Those who argue that all taxes are theft should try earning a living on a desert island. They only reason they can do so is because they are part of a society that provides them with the economic opportunities and framework of law in which to do so, so some recompense is surely only just. I also pointed out that I do not myself now pay tax! Every year I use savings to make additional pension contributions so as to keep my taxable income to within the personal allowance. I would be pretty pissed off if I lost my right to vote as a result!

At the start of our discussions I tried to quantify such a centre position by saying we should limit central government expenditure to 35% of GDP. After all we have just been through a general election where Labour wanted to increase it to over 40% yet at the same time we are struggling to balance the books with a pre-Covid deficit of around £40bn, or 2% GDP, when the OECD says central government is currently spending 33.5% GDP and many public services are clearly struggling. This drew some sharp intakes of breath in certain quarters. OK the constitution in Clause 2.5 does go on to say that we will “seek to diminish the role of the State and lower the burden of taxation on individuals and businesses”. I can go along with that provided we remember that the majority of people in this country clearly want decent public services and a reliable welfare state. That means focusing on efficiency and possibly also on alternative sources of finance. There are plenty of opportunities to do so as my policy contributions demonstrate.

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