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…

I will always vote – until the day I’m forced to

Why compulsory voting would be a step in the wrong direction

Since I was eligible to do so, I’ve voted in every ballot that has been available to me. Local elections, general elections and referendums, I haven’t missed one. No matter whether it’s an exciting, tense, close vote, a foregone conclusion or some bog-standard local election that nobody even knows is happening, I’ve trudged down to the polling station and marked my X (or scribbled something rather less tasteful).

It is a freedom that I am grateful for. Many people have fought for, protested for and been punished for this freedom in the past. But the crucial point is that this happened for the freedom to vote.

I’ve never been a fan of the growing shame culture around not voting. By all means encourage and cajole if that’s what you feel is right, and certainly shake people out of laziness or apathy. But if people want to exercise their equal right to not vote, then they should be allowed to do so. This is, for now (and less and less so), a free country. The state should be extremely limited in telling us what we must do. There is a world of difference between legislating what we can’t do and dictating to us what we must do.

My vote has had varying weights – in local and general elections, it makes barely any difference. I have always lived in some of the safest Labour council and constituency seats in the country, but I don’t bemoan this fact. In referendums, where all count equally, my votes against AV or for Leave have had more weight. But in all instances, I’ve offered my view willingly through the ballot box.

Turnout in this country can vary wildly between the different polls. And this is where problems start to emerge; problems to which politicians start to seek solutions that would begin to erode our freedoms.

Any talk of compulsory voting should chill us, and, in my view, must be resisted whenever is is even whispered. Compulsory voting is not designed to help us, the voters. It is purely designed to help politicians. This is why I am always minded to warn those who are heavily invested in one side and who think compulsory voting would benefit their side that this would not be a panacea.

It always seems to be assumed in this debate that everyone cares, everyone is engaged and every knows enough to cast a vote. This is obviously not true. This should never bar anyone from casting a vote, but compulsory voting would force all of these people into the voting booth. Given the completely anti-democratic and anti-universal suffrage reaction to the EU referendum (take votes away form the old, the stupid, the working class, the white, etc.), I’m not sure these people can square their self-drawn circle here.

One of the issues that seems to continually crop up is the high voting engagement of older people against the comparatively low engagement of younger people. This is sometimes completely disproven in the odd vote, but as a general trend it stands up to scrutiny. It also prompts those on the more left/liberal side of the equation to become exasperated in their attempts to ‘get out the youth vote’ – i.e. their core vote. This inevitably starts to lead down the road towards musing on compulsory voting, because they figure that if they can force everyone (i.e young people) to vote, their share will increase and they will sweep to power.

Makes sense. But if that were to ever happen, they would be making us all less free, not more free. I don’t owe politicians a thing, and they should remember that.

You see, what politicians crave more than anything – more than popularity, even more than power itself – is a mandate. Popularity without a mandate is powerless. Power without a mandate is weak. If it looks like the mandate is small, their power starts to wane. And one way (not the only way, but one way) of depriving them of a popular mandate is by staying away. It’s not the way I would choose, but it is legitimate.

Compulsory voting would force the entire nation to give somebody a mandate, and we would have no grounds to delegitimise them. You would be forced to go and cast a vote. Now, I understand that people have tried various ways to get around this – what about if we still allowed spoiled ballots? What if we offered a ‘none of the above’ option? These are not terrible suggestions, but would always have some problems.

Spoiled ballots would have to be discounted in a way similar to the way they are now. They have to be acknowledged, but not counted, which seems a sensible compromise. But why not just let people stay away? I myself spoiled my ballot in the last general election, but that’s because I wanted to go and show my displeasure – that was my choice. Why should I be forced to go and do that if I don’t wish to?

A ‘none of the above’ option is the one thing that could even remotely sway me towards compulsory voting, but again, there are problems – what if this option won? What then? No MP sent to Parliament? The second on the list wins? We vote again? Again, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem that compulsory voting is intended to solve. What about in referendums – should this be an option there as well? Would they be counted? Would they be assumed to be backing the status quo?

What about in a general election where there are constituencies with only one serious candidate? The entire population of that area would be practically forced to give a mandate to that person, with no choice not to. Spoiled ballots wouldn’t count, and ‘none of the above’ would produce the same issues highlighted above. Traditionally, the Commons Speaker stands unopposed by the major parties- what if I don’t like him? I either have to vote for Greens or UKIP? I don’t think so.

When Jo Cox was murdered, the Labour candidate stood unopposed by any major party. This was, of course, a totally unique situation, rightly engineered out of compassion and respect, but that respect would have been soured by, essentially, a forced vote for the replacement or going for a far-right alternative. As somebody who votes for the candidate above the party or the party leader, that would have caused me a major issue.

Forcing people to go to the ballot box would also be a violation of freedom of speech – the state would be making me send a message that I may not wish to send. This cannot be tolerable in a free society, surely? I should be able to choose what I say and when and where I say it, unless restricted by law (and these instances should be extremely minimal, if at all) – I should not be compelled to do or say anything I don’t wish to do or say, and certainly not by the state. It is authoritarian and a breach of the relationship between state and citizen.

If it ever came to it in this country, which seems unlikely, I would campaign vigorously against it. I’m all for encouraging people to vote, but active non-participation is a choice that many people make, and this shouldn’t be curtailed.

As I say – I have always voted. But as soon as someone tells me that I have to, I won’t.