Libertarianism: attractive, but ultimately flawed – Part 1

It is not without merits, but the pragmatist in me can’t see it working in practice

Libertarianism – it’s an ideology that has its merits. It’s one of those things that I love in theory, but know I’d be disappointed with in practice. A good dose of small state with a great dollop of trusting people to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. What could be more conducive to a happy, healthy and free society?

Well then, let’s have a brief look at Libertarianism. It is defined on Wikipedia as seeking to “maximise political freedom and autonomy, emphasise freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgement” Libertarians “believe in individual rights and share a scepticism of authority and state power”.

All of which sounds great. But the key words for me are ‘maximise’ and ‘scepticism’. This implies to me that we cannot have complete political freedom or autonomy, nor can we totally dismiss the role of the state. So, whilst I would generally align myself with these stated aims, it becomes a matter of where along those axes you draw the line. And, if I may borrow and adjust a quote from Joey, to most pure Libertarians, ‘you can’t even see my line – my line is a dot to you.’

The state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so

I tend to believe that the state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so. ‘Very good reason’ is the space in which the conversation needs to happen. One person’s good reason is another person’s tyranny.

Strident Libertarians would have it that laws such as the smoking ban or the recent legislation limiting Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are outrageous interferences in the liberty of the inhabitants of Great Britain. The principles of small state limited government, freedom of choice and autonomy of the person would dictate that these laws are grotesque and not required in a society that ought to allow its citizens to smoke and gamble as much or as little as they please. And yet most of us can see the good reasons for these laws.

Taking the smoking ban for a start, if we were to strictly adhere to the Libertarian ideal, people ought to be able to smoke whenever and wherever they like. But it is perfectly clear that doing this doesn’t just affect them. I won’t go through the ins and outs of the effects (or lack thereof) of passive smoking, because that’s only part of the point. Suffice to say that restaurants, bus stops and Anfield stadium have become much more tolerable places to breathe since the ban. But then, as a non-smoker, I would say that.

I’m not in the least saying that people shouldn’t smoke. That is absolutely for each individual to decide for themselves. I also think the ban is starting to go too far and is unnecessarily embarrassing and shaming people who do smoke. The images on the packaging are quite intolerable (yes, I know that is the point) and the prices artificially ridiculous due to tax pressure. These things always affect the poor the most, and this should be taken into account when forcing such laws through Parliament.

But this is where the conversation happens. I can’t imagine a situation where pure ideology makes you either for the complete banning of cigarettes, which are in mass use, or for the complete and untrammelled freedom to infringe on everyone else’s space with your choices. So we need to discuss where the line is.

Let’s take the other example mentioned – the reduction in the amount any person can gamble on a FOBT has been reduced from £100 to £2. That may sound draconian, until you realise this amount of money is the stake that you can wager every twenty seconds. These machines, wherever they are, can suck up thousands and thousands of pounds.

The passing of this law prompted the Spectator columnist, editor of Spiked and staunch libertarian, Brendan O’Neill to complain that the ‘snobs had won‘ the battle over FOBTs. Now I don’t mind Brendan – sometimes he speaks complete sense, other times absolute wham. This feels much more like the latter.

What I do like about him is that he defends the working classes, the poor and the Northern against the horrible caricatures that can so often be painted in national media. He hates paternalism and nanny state-ism, as do I to a large extent.

The state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain…

But taking some lines from his piece, it feels much more like ideology than practical politics.

“I know people who frequent betting shops, mainly to bet on horses, and they will occasionally spend 10 or 20 quid on an FOBT if they’re bored. I expect that’s how the majority of FOBT-users engage with these machines.”

Great – then they won’t be affected by this then will they? They can still gamble their 10 or 20 quid. And the majority of users, I’m sure, do just use them for this purpose. But what about the minority who don’t? I’m not going to get into ‘addiction’ and what that word actually means in theory or practice, but the simple fact is that people can and do sit at these machines and watch their money disappear at a ferocious speed.

“A few years ago the Guardian sent a reporter to Slough — you know things are bad when the Guardian is willing to enter Slough — to investigate FOBTs. She watched in horror as people’s ‘£20 notes disappeared into them’. Yeah, well, I’ve watched in horror as impeccably middle-class people have queued for hours to get into some hip new restaurant and proceeded to spend £40 on glorified hotdogs and dirty chips. We all do stupid things with our money.”

Apart from the nice little dig at the Guardian, which seems to me to be an accurate summation of Guardian attitudes, the difference here is surely obvious? Endless £20 notes going into a machine (which, remember, can take £100 every twenty seconds) is not the same as a very silly (but probably well off) person overpaying for poncey food.

He writes well and much of this piece is persuasive. Whilst I back the legislation, I often recoil at the tone in which the topic is discussed. I agree that the state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain. All the same, I think restricting the amount you can put into these machines isn’t really harming anyone expect the gambling industry – you can still use the machine, you can still see the flashing lights and the spinning wheels, if that’s your thing. You’re just losing less each time.

The other big aspect of Libertarianism – an unshakeable faith in the power of the market no matter what – is something that is attractive, but not without its faults. I’ll come back to this in Part 2.

I’m all for reducing the power and influence of the state. It is too often creeping into our lives where it isn’t needed or welcome and it treats far too many people like they need to be saved and looked after. But it has its place.

The theory of Libertarianism is exactly how I would love the world to be. Alas, the world wouldn’t work like this in practice. It’s a shame, but we have to be pragmatic about these things.

If only hardcore Socialists took the same view…

The Windrush Scandal – how to unite a country in condemnation

When outrage comes from across the entire political spectrum, you know you’ve made a serious mistake

What an almighty mess this is. British people being sacked from jobs, unable to access healthcare and being threatened with deportation to countries they haven’t seen for decades. Welcome to government by ‘we think this is what you mean…?’

If ever a government wanted a clue, some sort of sign that it had made some errors in judgement, it couldn’t get much clearer than the reaction to the Windrush Scandal – a near universal reaction of horror from all corners, all political wings and all media outlets.

Governments these days seem to have no idea what those resistant to mass immigration actually mean. How can it be made any clearer? They don’t want a “hostile environment”. They don’t want people treated poorly. They don’t want cruelty and meanness. They simply want fewer people to come to Britain.

I’m in the familiar position here of trying to explain a position that I don’t particularly take – immigration has never been something I’ve hugely cared about, though I can see why there would be resistance to the scale we’ve seen in recent years. That said, you will rarely find anyone, anywhere in this country who opposes mass immigration and yet supports outrages like this.

Of course, you get the idiots, the racists, the horrid and the violent. These are people for whom we have much more to fear than simply their attitudes to foreigners. But these are in such a minority in this country, a point which is often difficult to get across to lovely liberals. There is a world of difference between hating people because of the colour of their skin (and therefore wanting them to stay away from Britain) and fearing that the sheer pace and scale of immigration is going to be too much. Conflating the two, which is all too common, is insane and counterproductive.

But that’s where you start to get crazy policies like these ones. “Hostile environments” indeed. Because we are constantly conflating the two distinct points of view, governments start to feel like they need to pander to the extreme, which is not how to deal with it. People don’t want others mistreated or put through turmoil, it’s not about cruelty and hostility, it is a mere policy position – slow the pace down, don’t be horrible and nasty about it. Those who do come should treated fairly and with respect.

The most strident voices I’ve heard throughout this ridiculous debacle have been from the ‘Right’ – that is, those who would typically oppose mass immigration. They have been furious at the treatment of these people. Why? Because they’re British citizens, and those on the Right have a keener sense of this fact than anyone else, being the more naturally patriotic side of the spectrum. They have been appalled at how the British state could treat British citizens so terribly.

Doesn’t this give you a clue? Does this not tip you off that racism isn’t a motivating factor? They are as British as I am, and as British as Jacob Rees-Mogg. They are completely naturalised and have been a part of this country for a lot longer than I have.

When the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Spectator and the Mail are united in condemnation, this should be an alarm bell that you have miscalculated. The blame lies squarely with the government.

From Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail:

“Like the British people in general, the members of the Tory Party are mainly a decent and tolerant lot and have always welcomed immigrants who want to make this country their home and contribute to society. Paradoxically, reaction to the Windrush scandal proves this.

“As soon as their plight was highlighted by the Press, led by the Guardian and the Mail, there was public outrage. This didn’t just come from the Left, but from all parties across the political spectrum — including Ukip.”

From Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator:

“This is truly scandalous. The Home Office harassment of the Windrush generation is a black mark, perhaps the blackest mark yet, against Theresa May’s government, and she urgently needs to end this wickedness.

“[A] driver of this scandal is Theresa May’s great misreading of public concern about mass immigration as public hostility to migrants. This is one of May’s key failings. From her time as Home Secretary and her creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants, to her unjust expulsion of large numbers of foreign students, to her playing hardball with the rights of EU migrants in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote, she has done a great deal to make life harder for migrants in the belief that this is what Britons want. But it isn’t. The majority of British people, as evidenced during the Brexit debates, want a greater democratic say over the immigration question, yes, but this doesn’t mean they hate migrants or want them to suffer. May is buying into the rather nasty outlook of that section of the political class which looks upon ordinary Brits as deeply anti-migrant, as a racist pogrom in the making, always just one dodgy Daily Mail editorial away from going on the rampage.”

I’m amazed there haven’t, so far, been any resignations. In normal times, this would have been almost automatic, but because of the strange weakness/strength of the government, the Brexit process, the fact that the Home Secretary at the time is now the PM and the fact that she faces a shambles of an opposition, this isn’t happening.

Whatever the solution is, it needs to happen fast. Deporting your own citizens is not a good look for a Britain attempting to make its own way in the modern world.