On libertarianism and anarchy

If libertarianism is to be taken seriously, we have to stop trying to overstate the case

by on 17 October 2012 10:27

One of the biggest problems with left wing ideology is its reluctance to face the world as it is. Rather, its language is full of ‘shoulds’: life should be fair, everyone should have plenty to eat, women should be in every way equal to men.

Whilst I wouldn't disagree with those desires, it blinds the left to the solutions because its reaction is then to try and force a resolution. Instead of finding out why these things aren't so and tackling the causes (or even asking whether the assumption is correct), leftists immediately set about 'fixing' the problem in the most direct manner.

Nobody should be poor – so we'll take money from rich people and give it to poor people. Men and women should be equal – so we'll take men's jobs and give them to women. No wonder they're so baffled when these over simplistic responses don't work. 

However, I've noticed an alarming tendency recently amongst the right wing libertarian movement to fall into a similar trap.

One of the things that most appeals to me about libertarianism is that it works with human nature, rather than against it. By allowing everyone to take responsibility for their own lives, we have a better chance of reaching mature, realistic solutions to the problems that human nature poses.

Yet some libertarians overstate the case and attempt to argue that libertarianism is some sort of panacean cure for human frailty. This doesn't do libertarianism any favours. 

An example of this was found in this week's Spectator. Peter Hitchens, writing in defence of drugs laws and arguing for their proper implementation quoted Sam Bowman, policy director of the Adam Smith Institute as saying "As an adult, I should be able to stick whatever I damn well like into my body. Provided that I am aware of the risks, nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action".

That is patently absurd, as anyone who has had an off day, drank more than they intended, and woke up the next day regretting it knows too well. Those who have dealt with friends or relatives who suffer from addictive behaviours know even better that people are not impassive economics calculators. Humans don't always do what's in their best interest. Like it or not, we're going to have to live with that. 

That's not to say that libertarianism isn't the answer. A few weeks ago I spoke at the Conservative Renewal Conference and referred to the famous John Stuart Mill quote: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

I truly believe that, but the quote has to be taken as a whole. If we take only the first half of the sentence and dismiss the role of the rule of law in managing possible harm through actions, what we have is not libertarianism, but anarchy. 

If libertarianism is to be taken seriously (which at the moment it isn't in the mainstream), we have to stop trying to overstate the case. We have to stop trying to pass off anarchy as libertarianism. 

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