Archive for March 2008
This is a post I’ve been intending to publish for several weeks, but finally got motivated to finish editing this morning, after some recent commentary on the Workers Solidarity Movement. It originally got started when one of my counterparts at the Cedar Lounge Revolution kindly linked to us, abbreviating the output here as “right libertarianism”, and I got thinking about about what sort of label I’d be most happy with.
Not speaking for Dermot or for others who will be writing here in due course, I wanted to commend “right libertarianism” as being very close to the mark. If people prefer to use that description for my views, it wouldn’t actually bother me too much. But, being who I am, I can’t just leave it at that! I have some observations which I feel should be made.
Firstly, it should be noted that the classic liberal tradition which inspires modern libertarianism includes among its most important figures the French economist Frédéric Bastiat, whose placement in the French assembly is rather illuminative:
The terms [left and right] were apparently first used in the French Legislative Assembly after the revolution of 1789. In that context those who sat on the right side of the assembly were steadfast supporters of the dethroned monarchy and aristocracy — the ancien régime — (and hence were conservatives) while those who sat on the left opposed its reinstatement (and hence were radicals). It should follow from this that libertarians, or classical liberals, would sit on the left.
Indeed, that is where they sat. Frédéric Bastiat, the radical laissez-faire writer and activist, was a member of the assembly (1848–1850) and sat on the left side along with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “mutualist” whose adage “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” graced the masthead of Liberty, the newspaper of the American libertarian and individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker.
This is important. If it is true, as I would argue, that nearly all government actions are in the aid of entrenched and already powerful interests, and if libertarians (depending on how radical they are) oppose at least a large chunk of government actions, then it appears to follow that libertarianism really should be seen as left-wing in the original meaning of the term.
That said, as someone who doesn’t vote and who has come to look on the politial process with disdain, (indeed, as mentioned to Stephie, I now view politicians as useful mostly for entertainment value), I would prefer not to be associated with parliamentary geography in general. But my point holds: if I was forced to choose a wing (and most people will probably put you in one whether you would like to be or not) I can say with a clean conscience that I would sooner take my historically accurate position with the left.
In truth, there is barely more justification for me to sit with the right in the context of the 21st century then in that of the 18th. The modern right establishment is just notoriously poor when it comes to protecting freedom.
For example, despite the conversion of some modern libertarians to the ideals of nation-building in the form of neoconservatism – and my own willingness to share a stage with them for the sake of our similarities on other issues – the modern Right in the US as epitomised by George W. Bush’s leviathan welfare-warfare state is something that would hardly have received support from many influential thinkers who helped to develop the classic liberal tradition. The US government of 2008 is the most powerful government in the history of human civilisation, and in many ways a shocking monument to the failure of libertarians to spread their message.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the perceived right-of-centre parties have always been irredeemably conservative and statist, with the sole exception of the Progressive Democrats, whose influence, despite whatever it may have done for the Irish economy, has waned dramatically along with their radicalism. And while it is true that the Conservatives in Britain maintained at least some of their classic liberal credentials for a time, David Cameron surely heralds the final nail in that coffin.
For all of these reasons “right libertarianism”, if it means that I must be associated with the right, is in many ways an uncomfortable description. I am sure that left and right-wing labels made sense in the past, perhaps in battles between republicans and monarchists, or socialists and fascists, but those are not struggles which interest me, and in any case the debate has moved on, particularly on the internet.
The obvious example here is the unprecedented internet and youth-driven campaign by Ron Paul, the US constitutionalist. His grip on the internet failed to convert the mainstream media or the majority of Republican primary voters, but there is some clear potential now for the defining struggle in coming years to be not between left and right, but between libertarians and interventionists.
And, if the older paradigm is on it’s on the way out, I certainly don’t want to stand in its way. What I’m advocating is a philosophy of peace and freedom. Can we just leave it at libertarianism or (classical) liberalism?
I’ve been reading some more about this upcoming healthcare rally. Part of me is suspicious that it will consist mostly of opportunistic trade unionists, but I’m willing to accept, for the sake of argument, that the protestors really will have the best of intentions.
An umbrella group of health unions and patient campaign groups is planning a march for a better public health service.
The group includes the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, medical and nursing organisations and families affected by the superbug, MRSA.
A march and rally will take place from 2.30pm next Saturday, from Parnell Square to Molesworth Street in Dublin.
The SIPTU representative makes a good point in the above article: Ireland is a wealthy country and can afford a decent, well-funded health service. My disagreement (again, assuming for the sake of argument that the trade unions really are putting the general interest ahead of their own self-interest) is over the correct process that would bring about a decent health service.
For example, I can buy a 1.8GHz desktop PC with Vista and a 17″ flat screen monitor for less than €500, yet nobody campaigned for a decent public PC service. There were no marches and rallies outside Leinster House. Nobody wrote letters to the Editor complaining that PCs were too expensive, that we had an “apartheid” PC market which exploited the working classes.
What happened was that governments did nothing, imposed no additional taxes or regulations over the computer industry, and spontaneous market forces were allowed to have their effect. The result was rapid technological improvement and constantly falling prices – benign deflation, if you like.
This pattern is visible again and again. If you leave industry alone, prices will fall while the product improves. But you politicise it and get the government involved, you invite a disaster like the Irish healthcare service.
I commented earlier on Dublin Opinion that it was a mistake to think that the US monetary system was an example of laissez-faire capitalism. This is no less true in healthcare. As Damien Kiberd has noted, the government accounts for an overwhelming percentage of healthcare spending, employs 120,000 health workers and exerts massively bureacratic top-down control through the HSE. To conclude from its failings that the free market must be rejected just seems terribly strange.
If you want to see healthcare costs go down while the product improves, you simply must remove the government from the industry. It’s true that not everybody will receive an infinite supply of healthcare in a free market (just as not everybody can afford as many computers as they might like), but an infinite supply of any good is not something that exists in this world. Either the market will allocate healthcare according to the laws of supply and demand, or the government will ration it politically, as it does right now, with endless waiting lists and shortages.
The choice is ours.
So I was browsing the website of the Workers Solidarity Movement this morning, prompted by posters around Dublin announcing their upcoming march and rally for a decent public heath service, when I found a pamphlet, complete with footnotes and a bibliography, arguing for universal healthcare.
Radical health reform, in terms of creating equality and accessibility, and stopping the agenda of privatisation and for-profit medicine, is one of the great challenges facing Irish society. In this pamphlet, anarchists explain the reasons why such change is needed, give examples of important first steps in creating change, and describe the type of struggle that is necessary if we are going to win.
It’s really quite an impressive pamphlet, both in its detail and research, though I didn’t didn’t quite have time to read it all. I wanted to find out some more about their overall perspective.
I discovered that they are in fact a very interesting group. For example, they say that they support individual freedom, socialism, and democracy; they see themselves as building a “broad libertarian movement” comprised of anarchists and libertarian socialists. They are influenced by Mikhail Bakunin.
I have read about this philosophy before, though not from the WSM, and my rather rough suspicion is that these folks are attempting to square some circles with only a compass and a straightedge. Perry de Havilland has written a fairly combative article on libertarian socialism, in response to another by Peter Hain, which explores some of the conflicts inherent in the conception:
The notion that a completely politicised democratic ‘society’ of the kind advocated by Hain could by its very nature allow any personal liberty whatsoever in a meaningful sense is manifestly absurd. If you cannot opt out of something you have not previously agreed to, in what manner are you free? If society is totally political, then you may have ‘permissions’ to do this or that, won by the give and take of democratic political processes but you do not have super-political inalienable rights at all. Politics can in theory make you ‘free from starving’ perhaps (in practise of course it tends to do the opposite), but what about being free to try or not try, some course of action? When every aspect of life is subject to the views of a plurality of other people, there is no liberty to just try anything at all on your own initiative. What Hain is arguing for is by his own words collectivism.
I need to reflect some more on this, but I imagine that the contradiction of describing libertarian socialism as compatible with individual freedom is basically wrapped up in the collectivist view of class which is retained by its proponents. It seems to me that any ideology which views people according to their membership of a perceived collective, be it the class, nation, race or religion, is doomed to struggle with incoherent notions of liberty.
Having said all of this, I hope that WSM members who read this will take it in the spirit in which it is intended – that of constructive criticism. I clearly agree with them that radical and fundamental change in our mode of social organisation is required. I agree with them that entrenched interests are due most of the blame for holding this back. And I agree with them on some substantive issues, most notably in global affairs (e.g. my strong opposition to war and military adventurism).
Nothing can hide the fact that I think libertarian socialism would lead to the end of civilisation wherever it was attempted. But people like these are clearly interested in exploring alternative points of view, so I think they have some potential, if not to show me where my classical liberalism is wrong, then to evaluate it and agree that it accurately explains political and economic reality.
Yes, it’s a provocative question, and no, it’s definitely not the only important point which should be raised in any debate about poverty. But I do wish people like CORI would consider it some time.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll probably understand that I’m coming from a general perspective which views government intervention as the primary generator of poverty, without which far more people would probably choose to climb a career ladder. Government policies generally cause the exact opposite of their stated intentions, and this is no less true when it comes to poverty reduction. Unfortunately, most people seem impervious to arguments “from effect”: the intention behind a law is apparently all that counts. So if the minimum wage, labour regulations, public schools, drug prohibition and social welfare all combine to trap hundreds of thousands of people in misery, it doesn’t matter – any government would be shirking it’s moral responsibilities if it didn’t carry out these activities.
So why not question the intentions? Our reasoning should reflect the broad scope of human preference and choice. Suppose some individual, John, decides that, on balance, he isn’t interested in pursuing any kind of advanced career path. John is mentally competent, he simply values his free time and comfort more than the salary he might receive through hard work. So he doesn’t bother finishing college and instead finds jobs with very low levels of responsibility and as few hours as possible. The pay is low, and John will probably be considered poor by most other people, but he figures that he wouldn’t be happier living any other way.
Now there are some very serious questions for those who favour broad-brush governmental anti-poverty strategies. Even if it were possible (which it mostly isn’t), why would we want the government to forcibly improve John’s standard of living? Those who have engaged in more productive careers will be robbed, having their own freedom violated in order to satisfy a perceived moral imperative to prevent John from experiencing the consequences of satisfying his own desires in his own way. Should John not be entitled to make his own choices, as much as those who choose differently?
Of course, when we are talking about poverty not directly caused by the government, there is more than one kind. There are the people who take huge risks starting their own business or aiming for artistic success, only to lose everything. There are the people who suffer freak accidents, for which they are uninsured, and which lead to a serious loss of opportunity. There are criminals. There are the people who prefer a simple life. There are those who suffer a devastating marital breakdown. Some of these will be looked on kindly and given help – and if they want it, maybe even a hand up – by friends, family, or charity. Others may not.
And this is basically what’s missing in every debate about poverty. Showing no insight into the complexities of the choices open to each and every one us, anti-poverty activists use income statistics as a blunt instrument with with to shame public opinion into agreeing with ever more interventions, while the logical economic justifications for these interventions are nowhere to be found. And as long as people feel that poverty can never be a valid outcome for anyone, for any reason, it’s unlikely that they will bother looking.
If there’s a problem, they’ll impose either a ban or a subsidy. So there’ll be no more fast food trips after a night out on the town.
In a remarkable development, the United Kingdom Independence Party is asking people to donate to Wise Up Journal, “the alternative media centre for Ireland”, to help them distribute their DVD, End of Nations.
It’s an opportune moment to remind yourself of the EMH, a pillar of modern neoclassical economics which, in it’s most frequently used form, states that the market cannot be consistently outperformed without insider or new information, except through continuously good luck. Try telling that to Jim Rogers, one of the masterminds behind the Quantum Fund. In recent times he has correctly and consistently identified a whole host of opportunities available throughout the financial crisis.
I maintain some scepticism regarding the ultimate effectivess of politics as a tool for libertarians. However, there are definitely some advantages to this approach, mainly by providing media access with which we can inform the public of our views. The very obvious current example of this is how Ron Paul used his candidacy to explain to millions of young Americans that there was a genuinely radical, peaceful, free market alternative to George Bush’s leviathan welfare-warfare state.
As has been remarked elsewhere, it’s been a long time since the idea of a sound, commodity-backed currency was raised in a US presidential debate. Ron Paul brought these ideas into the mainstream media in a way that would not have been possible in modern times without the vehicle of a presidential candidacy. He achieved some necessary first steps, acting as a vanguard to reframe discussions around libertarian themes, so that those following after him should have considerably less work to do explaining basic principles.
Given this, I can only wish the best of luck to the nascent UK Libertarian Party, which looks certain to act as a foil to the conservatism of UKIP on the British libertarian right. And as with UKIP, I think the success of the Libertarian Party should be measured less in terms of seats won, but more in terms of their ability to generate interest in their ideas. From my own perspective, it seems unlikely to me that there can be any quick fix to decades of statist encroachment over the hearts and minds of so many people in the West. Short-term concrete victories are extraordinarily rare. The odds may be stacked against them, but I think people behind the UK Libertarian Party are another manifestation of the massive grassroots interest in liberty, they have some great potential to influence the debate, and I wish them the very best.
Reactions to the collapse of Bear Stearns, what was the fifth largest US investment bank, will vary according to perspective. Some will probably view it as a market failure, consistent with the unsustainability of the free market. Others will, to some extent or another, blame particular actions by some of the concerned parties. The idea that state interventionism was ultimately responsible will remain a minority view.
If you are finding the economic news fascinating, and if you are not yet familiar with the ideas contained in this book, I suggest that you might find value in downloading this very accessible introduction to monetary theory by a libertarian legend: What Has Government Done to Our Money ? by Murray N. Rothbard. After reading it, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that the monetary system we are experiencing is grounded in free market principles.
With reference (1 2 3) to what I’ve been saying over the last few days about the beneficial effects of having many small countries, on what grounds could someone deny that putting a stop to emigration was a huge factor in the Irish government’s motivation to improve this country after the 1980s? Reforms were politically necessary, if not because people were suffering, then because continued emigration would have left the state with nobody to tax. So the state changed, and Ireland became attractive to people from all over the world.
Source: CSO (pdf)
But for the state to react to our migration flows, it needed to be independent. The pressure to change would not have come from anywhere else. The governments in migrant destinations such as the UK were happy to provide Irish people a home and boost their own taxpaying populations.
This is why a large political entity is not likely to closely monitor what happens to its smaller or more peripheral parts, particularly if people in those parts are only moving internally within that country. It doesn’t experience incentives in the same way that a locally elected government would. From the perspective of the larger entity, small regions don’t offer much by way of taxes, and if people from those regions rarely leave the country altogether, few resources are actually lost to the state.
And so, in the same way that we don’t expect the Irish government to be sensitive to migration flows from Leitrim, there is little reason to expect that the EU will react if Ireland suffers emigration again.