Nicholas Rogers: Why this Conservative is a libertarian
When Tim Montgomerie called on "all Tories to drop the libertarian language" the other day, he undoubtedly knew he would rattle a few cages. Libertarians of one form or another make up a sizeable and growing section of the Conservative Party, especially among its younger members. Libertarian organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute and The Freedom Association enjoy significant levels of support from the young Conservatives who are the future of our party. In this article, I hope to take readers on a whistle-stop tour of my own personal libertarianism and to explain why I believe libertarian ideas can help the Conservative Party achieve electoral success.
What is libertarianism? Whole books have been written to answer that question and in truth it differs from person to person. I think it’s possible to sum it up in five words: "do no harm to others". David Boaz of the Cato Institute is more precise: "libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others." Libertarians seek to achieve this goal through maximising the role of the individual and minismising the role of the state, through free-market economics, property rights and liberal social policies.
I have experienced "the state" in several guises over the course of my life thus far, for example as a Special Constable in the Met and as a visiting politics lecturer at two further education colleges, as well as in my activities in local government and politics. Everything I’ve seen tells me one thing – the state just doesn’t work very well. When I try to think of services delivered by the public sector in an effective way that fulfills people’s needs, the only examples I can come up with (excepting, of course, the exceedingly well-run Tunbridge Wells Borough Council!) are ones where the delivery is in fact independent of direct government interference, such as academies and free schools. In almost every area of human activity, from welfare and housing through to small businesses and the environment, government action seems almost always to exacerbate problems or at most prolong temporarily the inevitable effects of an ever-changing world.
This should not come as a surprise. The free market is the sum total of all the independent, voluntary decisions of the sixty million citizens of this country and, increasingly, of the billions of people around the world, interacting, trading and cooperating with each other in a thousand different fields of work. How can a few government employees in an office in one part of the country possibly hope to know enough to direct even some of these activities in a meaningful, beneficial way?
Worse still is the use of economic policy as a crude political tool. There are so many examples of this I don’t know where best to begin. Gordon Brown’s Labour government imposed the 50p rate of taxation despite all the evidence that it would actually decrease revenues. It did this for no better reason than to posture to its left-wing supporters. Libertarians aim to make taxes flatter, simpler and above all – lower. The more of their own money people can keep, the better and healthier our economy will be. Pro-tax accountant Richard Murphy says that taxes are what we "owe" the government. Nonsense. To "owe" something implies some sort of voluntary transaction. We have no choice but to pay tax and very little control over how it’s spent or the level at which it is set. Libertarians would reduce spending and taxation, thereby increasing economic freedom and galvanising the economy far more effectively than any stimulus bailout could.
The second common theme running through libertarianism is the focus on the primacy of the individual. This is where many traditional conservatives differ with libertarians. Economically, we generally agree on lower taxes and smaller, more business-friendly government as outlined above. However, conservatives believe in an organic society bound together by common institutions such as the monarchy, the armed forces, the Church of England and the BBC, with laws and social norms drawing deeply from Christian teachings and always predicated on the idea that man is a fallen creature in need of guidance.
Libertarians believe in a more atomistic society, populated by sovereign individuals capable of making decisions about their own lives. If I want to do something that doesn’t harm you or infringe your rights, something that doesn’t affect you in any way at all except that you disagree with it – fundamentally, what right do you have to prevent me from doing what I want to do?
Take gay marriage (but leave aside political considerations of timing, government priorities etc.). Marriage is a legal contract that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. The nature of marriage has changed many times and varies from culture to culture across the world. In Britain, many – though not most: 68% of marriages in the UK are civil – imbue marriage with religious connotations. But no single group, religion or government can say plausibly that they own marriage. Therefore, if two people of the same sex want to sign a contract with each other and call it marriage, how does it harm anyone else? It cannot possibly affect the marriages of heterosexual people, because the success or otherwise of those relationships rests solely with the participants. One person simply does not have the right to impose their view of morality on others. And governments have no business sanctioning one moral code over another. People must be free to choose the values by which they live, as long as they respect the equal rights of others.
Add up all the little, seemingly innocuous, infractions on our freedom of action and you get to what we have now – the nanny state, where the Mayor of New York bans large soft-drinks, British people are unable to smoke in establishments where the owner might permit it, schools ban playground sports and where you seem to need a risk assessment simply to leave the house. All of these are decisions which normal, rational human beings are capable of making. We know that drinking sixteen ounces of Coca Cola probably isn’t a good idea. We know that smoking a cigarette isn’t as good for you as eating some celery. We don’t need government, well-intentioned or otherwise, to tell us these things and we certainly should not be prevented from doing them.
Being a libertarian, I often find myself defending ghastly people who say and do offensive things, as well as practices that many find immoral and wrong. But I just don’t understand how one individual can say of another who has not harmed them: "I don’t like what you are doing, so even though your actions do not harm me I am going to request that the coercive power of the state be employed to prevent you from managing your own life." When the government accedes to such demands, the usual outcome is that the activities in question are merely pushed underground, where participants lose legal protections against force and fraud and become increasingly cut-off from society.
I said I would talk about how a more libertarian approach from the Conservative Party can help win elections. To address Tim’s survey, in which respondents suggested that they were in favour of government action and intervention – well, maybe in theory they are, but talk to almost any voter about their actual experience of the state and you’ll receive precious little positive feedback. Coupled with the notion that most people are, with a broad brush-stroke, socially accepting and financially conservative, you have the basis of a libertarian vote – in fact, if not in name. (Incidentally, can anyone think of a Conservative politician who espouses socially liberal and financially conservative views and who enjoys massive popular support and electoral success? Who maybe runs a certain capital city? Anyone?)
In addition, a libertarian approach could be key to engaging disaffected, anti-politics voters. Speaking with my residents, its clear that most of them just want to be left alone to lead their own lives, to associate with whomever they chose and to not engage with politics, politicians or the state unless they really have to. A libertarian approach has much to offer these people.
Finally, I believe libertarianism is simply and inevitably the way of the future. I spent a year lecturing in politics to young people at two further education colleges in the south-east. Almost without exception they were financially conservative and socially liberal. They were concerned at the sort of things their future taxes would fund. They were infuriated by the nanny state and deeply distrusted the ability of politicians and bureaucrats to make decisions in their best interests. They were anti-war and pro-civil liberties. Want to engage the next generation of voters? Libertarianism might be the answer.
There’s much more I could say. I haven’t delved into libertarian attitudes on war, law & order, drugs and other issues. Whole articles could be written, and have been written, on such topics. I hope that this particular article will serve to stimulate good-natured debate about the future of libertarian ideas within the Conservative Party. I hope also that it will counter the notion that just because voters don’t necessarily self-identify as libertarian, they won’t support a libertarian approach to policy. Above all I hope that, as we approach the next election, those developing our manifesto will fight for policies that uphold the primacy of the individual, shrink the power of the state and hand us back control over our own lives.