The evolution of liberal thinking

I am not an Anarcho-Capitalist nor am I a Utopian, and just because your society might exist on peaceful, libertarian lines doesn’t mean others will.

Bye bye big government
John Phelan
On 31 October 2012 11:45

I’ve never liked the term libertarian. The views held by the people called libertarians today are the views held by those people who, until about half or two thirds of the way through the 19th century, were called liberals.

Then, so called liberals like JA Roebuck and his descendants interpreted a hole in John Stuart Mill’s "harm principle" big enough to drive state education, state pensions, and state healthcare through.

Since then the people who have called themselves liberals, especially in America, have been anything but. However, their theft of the title has been so complete that the real liberals are left with the clunky, manufactured label "libertarian".

You can reach a libertarian philosophy one of two ways. Empirically, there is the fact that free societies fare better than those which aren’t free.

Morally, you can think that human beings are sovereign; that they have the right to choose what they do with their body and their property as long as anyone they do it with is consenting. That word, "sovereign", used to apply to kings and emperors like George III or Louis XIV. For the libertarian, every man and woman is a king or a queen.   

The belief in freedom of body and property is what sets libertarians apart from those on the left and right. In America, Democrats say you can do what you like with your body but what happens to your paycheque is up to the government. Republicans believe that you can do what you like with your paycheque but that what you do with your body is up to the government.   

This confused hypocrisy of selective freedoms leads both Democrats and Republicans into ridiculous contradictions.

Democrats loudly proclaim their support for people’s freedom to marry who they want whilst seeking to limit their freedom to spend their money as they want by taking it from them in higher taxes. Republicans noisily support the individual’s choice to spend their paycheque as he or she likes, as long as he or she doesn’t spend it on marrying their gay husband or lesbian wife; that’s a choice they want to deny you.

Their belief in the freedom of body and property helps libertarians avoid such confusions. A libertarian understands that to be socially free and to be economically free are indivisible. It makes no sense to believe in social freedom without believing in economic freedom and vice versa. A libertarian supports gay marriage for the same reason he or she supports low taxes.

Aren’t libertarians selfish? After all, aren’t all those taxes spent on good things like welfare? Well, no. Lots of your tax money is spent on dropping bombs on other countries, interest on ballooning government debt, and attempts at economic "stimulus" which have only stimulated the red ink industry.

But just because a libertarian thinks the government shouldn’t be doing something it doesn’t mean that the libertarian thinks that thing shouldn’t be done at all. Take welfare. A libertarian believes that men and women will not walk by while their fellow human beings starve. A believer in government provision, on the other hand, believes men and women will not help their fellow human beings unless they are made to by government.

A belief that the government must provide is a belief in the rottenness of other people. 

A libertarian would help that person themselves with their own resources. A statist would get the government to do it for them with someone else’s. The idea that libertarianism is selfishness is an inversion of the truth.   

Besides, why is it considered "selfish" for a person to want to distribute the money they earn as they wish while it is considered "compassionate" for someone else to want to take that money from them so it can be distributed as they wish?

If person A supports the government taking money from person B to give it to person C that does not make person A generous. Person A giving person C their own money would do that.

A libertarian does not seek to impose his or her choices on others. The same goes across borders. Most people do not choose to live under cruel and despotic regimes but, as we saw in Algeria in 1991 and the "Arab Spring" recently, sometimes they do.

Where people live under oppressive regimes they despise, history indicates that freedom has to be won, as on battlefields from Naseby to Saratoga, or as in Eastern Europe in 1989, it cannot be simply bestowed. Successful orders emerge from within; they are not imposed from without.

I am not an Anarcho-Capitalist nor am I a Utopian. There is a role for government and there is a role for armed force. Just because your society might exist on peaceful, libertarian lines doesn’t mean others will. Ultimately the only guarantee against a Hitler or a Galtieri is the ability to defend oneself militarily. This includes pre-emptive strikes.

If Poland had had a reasonable belief that a pre-emptive strike on Germany in 1939 would have stymied Hitler’s invasion plans the Poles would have been quite justified in doing so.

But crucially this is about defence quite narrowly defined. Attempts in recent years to define "defence" more broadly so as to include nation building, democratisation, and humanitarian intervention, have failed and a heavy expenditure in lives and money hasn’t even bought much discernible goodwill. 

The libertarian believes in twice as much freedom as a Democrat or a Republican. As long as everyone involved is consenting I would not seek to curtail what you do with your body or your property. I would not seek to use the government to enforce my choices upon you.

That’s why I’m a real liberal, a libertarian. It’s why you should be too. 

John Phelan is a Contributing Editor for The Commentator and a Fellow at the Cobden Centre. He has also written for City AM and Conservative Home and he blogs at Manchester Liberal. Follow him on Twitter @TheBoyPhelan

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