Irish Liberty Forum

When Everything is Political

with 16 comments

Browsing the latest Irish headlines on RTE early this morning, I was struck once again by the ubiquity of politics. In reverse order, beginning with the most recent stories from Sunday and leaving out crimes and accidents, we had:

500 farmers protest against payment charges

Gormley publishes new planning guidelines

Air traffic controllers back industrial action

Coughlan concerned about WTO talks

Louth car dealer faces price fixing charges

… and so on. Even the stories which appear on the surface not to be directly related to political action, concerning drug use, the internet, and job losses, are in fact heavily related to politics. The drug use study was carried out for the HSE and is being used to launch a government-backed campaign. The research on the internet was being provided to support another government campaign, this time by the Department of Communications. Finally, the company at the centre of the job loss scare receives grant assistance from Udaras na Gaeltachta.

It never ceases to amaze me how little recognition there is of the sheer scale and scope of government activities. As we see above, every news story revolves, in one way or another, around the actions of the State. In our daily lives, almost every transaction is taxed, be it a wage payment or a simple shopping purchase. Most professions are licenced and regulated. Public authorities exerts massive control over land use and development. Media are either controlled or, in the case of RTE, directly subsidised by the State. The list goes on and on. We swim in a sea of government power, yet we are blind to it.

Maybe the first task for libertarians should be to draw people’s attention to the fact of the ubiquity of politics, to the many ways in which the government controls and directs our lives. For until people realise that another world is possible, a very different world which they may not have ever considered before, they will not be ready to begin properly evaluating either that world or the one we have now. Before judging liberty as desirable or undesirable, they must have a satisfactory answer to the question: “As opposed to what?


Written by Graham

February 12, 2008 at 8:21 am

16 Responses

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  1. ermmm… could it be we live in an advanced highly complex society? It’s also worth pointing out that there is a difference between government activity and government control. I could as easily turn what you say around and point out that if one looks at the RTÉ website or the Irish Times that huge chunks of space are taken up by commercial advertising, pieces about commercial activities, etc, etc. It’s not exactly Stalinist Russia, now is it? I don’t think it would really prove anything either way.


    February 16, 2008 at 8:33 pm

  2. Hey WorldbyStorm, thanks for the comment.

    1. I’m sorry I don’t know what point you are making with respect to “we live in an advanced highly complex society”, though I agree with that statement.

    2. There is a difference between activity and control – I think I know what you mean: that, for example, government ownership and management of resources can be classified as activity, while regulations and licensing can be classified as control?

    3. The presence of commercial advertising and activities in news media – sure, it’s not Stalinist Russia. But my goal was to make some remarks about a typical news day, when every or nearly every headline revolves around the government in some way or another (leaving out crimes and accidents, for which the government usually bears a good deal of responsibility anyway). I don’t deny that there are commercial advertisements or that non -government -related stories will sometimes appear (though I believe these stories are rare). So you speak the truth, and I think what I wrote is not contradicted.


    February 17, 2008 at 6:31 pm

  3. […] When Everything is Political […]

  4. An advanced highly complex society with a strong commercial, civil society aspect, using a mixed economy, strikes me as requiring a mix of different elements to function. If we consider that complexity has increased since the late 19th century when the environment was near laissez faire and that the state stepped in across a range of areas where private capital was unable or unwilling to it seems to me reasonable to suppose that it is unlikely that private capital actually wants to do the things you seem to think it wants to do. The profit motive is indeed strong, but it’s not unlimited. Even in the vastly more deregulated US economy we see that private enterprise doesn’t take up much more slack across public services or the range of government. Indeed what we see is a cherry picking process occurring where private enterprise goes for the sectors most able to pay, while all but ignoring those unable to do so. Hence the continued calls from Bush et al to the voluntary/charity sector to involve themselves at that level.

    To be honest I can’t see your gripe. A social contract seems to me to underwrite government/state activity. It also seems to me to be necessary in a democracy to have some level of representation for citizens. This works in many different ways, the state becomes enabler and facilitator as well as provider of services. But then, so does the commercial sector in other areas.


    February 19, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  5. Hey WbS, I’ve read your comment but have very little to say about it – I don’t know enough about your assumptions to understand what you mean when you say something like “it is unlikely that private capital actually wants to do the things you seem to think it wants to do”, or “the profit motive is indeed strong, but it’s not unlimited”. It’s probably my fault but I can’t make sense of anything you’ve said above and again I don’t see how anything I said has been contradicted.


    February 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm

  6. Regarding the reference to “the vastly more deregulated US economy”, what is your basis for that description?


    February 20, 2008 at 5:10 pm

  7. To be honest I find that link from Freedom House highly dubious. Any acquaintance with labour law, health and safety, etc, etc in Ireland and the comparative situation will demonstrate that the US is less regulated than the RoI. The same is true of company legislation in many areas.

    incidentally, were this state the libertarian nirvana that the FH survey indicates, what exactly would be your beef? Two spots behind the top of the survey would surely indicate that this was probably as close to perfect as is possible in an imperfect world.

    Re the other comment, I’ve worked in the private sector on and off for twenty years in medium companies and multinationals at management and board of directors level. The idea that they are simply waiting to be unleashed into areas that the state takes up now is simply wrong. Hence my point about the profit motive not being unlimited. It simply doesn’t apply in all instances. That, in part, is why we have state activity, because, as in this state in the 1900s onwards and in particular after independence, indigenous capital was too weak or too disinterested to engage across a range of areas and hence the state had to step in. This was apparent across transport/industry and so on. This largely remained the case until as recently as the 1990s (albeit there had been a shift to wind up or privatise some semi-states after the 1970s, usually for cost reasons). Mary Daly is particularly good on the economics of this, and I’ve never taken her for a raving leftist. Joe Lee who is broadly centrist also deals with this in a more historical approach.

    The idea that beyond them there is a cohort of other business people even more entranced by this idea is also wrong. I’m not sure why you aren’t addressing my point about the US government having to call on the non-business voluntary sector to take up slack in provision of welfare/etc services when commercial entities simply won’t step up to the plate. That’s entirely factual and undercuts some of your assumptions.


    February 21, 2008 at 6:31 pm

  8. Very excellent and interesting comment, WbS. Thank you.

    Regarding my “beef” (a remarkable way of describing a critique of modern social organisation!), my views are not relative to the current state of affairs (or at least, I try to ensure that they are not). Whether or not my analysis is correct is independent of how many people agree with me, either in Ireland or around the world. It is also independent of how much freedom is enjoyed by Ireland or anywhere else.


    February 21, 2008 at 7:12 pm

  9. Regarding the private sector being unwilling or unable to step in across various sectors, I am trying to work out what the premises are to this line of reasoning. Correct me if I am wrong, but your general point of view seems to be that there are certain actions which ought to be taken, which private individuals and organisations may sometimes not voluntarily take, in which case the State should take them.

    If this is correct, my first question would be: how do you know which actions ought to be taken? And then in particular, if nobody is willing to take some action voluntarily, how can you know that it should be done?


    February 21, 2008 at 7:21 pm

  10. That’s an interesting response in your second point (not to ignore your first but the definition of ‘freedom’ is clearly contentious – at least in this debate 🙂 ).

    I think you’re correct in your first point as regards explaining my point of view, but I’d say ‘ought’ in the sense that there are social functions which the private sector won’t engage in which are necessary for the smooth running of a society.

    As for how do we know if an action isn’t taken voluntarily whether it should be done, well, consider as an example. education. Any liberal capitalist society requires a highly educated workforce. Making that education into a ‘product’ as it were is a complex business which there is little appetite to do so in commercial circles except in peripheral areas.

    And the point is that in some respects the market has already operated by the aversion of commercial entities to this area.

    The same is true – to an extent – of health, again an area where social cohesion is assisted by having a healthy workforce, etc, etc. Again a third area is social welfare/benefits/assistance etc, for example, a safety net that allows those who lose work through redundancy to subsist until they gain new employment can lead to a degree of security amongst those working which leads to better outcomes within companies…

    I’m not arguing these from a ‘socialist’ viewpoint at all, but instead from a utilitarian viewpoint. The provision or maintenance of these by the state assist commercial entities to concentrate on what they do best in the marketplace which is make money. Due to their nature they seem inappropriate to have provided by commercial entities due to the low – if any – returns, the necessity for them to be universal and so forth.


    February 24, 2008 at 7:29 pm

  11. Sorry, that was me as anonymous above…


    February 24, 2008 at 7:30 pm

  12. Hey WbS.

    I believe we have reached the point (as we seem to do very quickly in every thread) where underlying assumptions must be explained to make sense of our arguments. I can’t afford the time to explain everything I believe here – obviously – so I’ll just describe some of my reflections, and then move on to some questions.

    So what is society? From my point of view, society (in Ireland, for example) is the outcome of the actions of millions of individuals cooperating together. You could not say that there was any kind of meaningful society in times of self-sufficient hunter-gatherers. It also does not make much sense to me to describe as society a grouping of two peoples at war with each other. Society implies something about peaceful coexistence.

    So given this rather vague phenomenon we call society, what would it mean for it to run “smoothly”? I’m not sure, but I think it would make sense to think of a smoothly running society as one which was mostly peaceful, meaning mostly non-violent, where the essence of society -peaceful coexistence and cooperation – was not diminished by acts of aggression.

    There is another sense in which the “smooth running of society” may be taken, meaning the smooth running of the economy (i.e. material production, consumption and distribution). What this means is also open to interpretation. Clearly, Soviet planners believed that their Five-Year Plans contributed to the smooth running of their economy. According to some methodologies, that was probably true. (“Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower” – JK Galbraith)

    And so this brings us to the question of economic methodology.

    When I asked you “How do you know which actions ought to be taken”, I should have been more specific. I did not mean “Do you think that education is a good thing” 🙂 What I was getting at was: how do you think it is possible, as a government central planner, to make economic calculations? How do you know what your goals should be, and by what methods do you achieve them?

    For example, regarding your comment above, I don’t know the following:

    1. What “the smooth running of society” means.

    2. Why we should take that as our objective.

    3.. How we know that there is little appetite for businesses to provide education.

    4. If businesses won’t, why non-commercial organisations would not provide education as we desire it to be provided.

    5. Why the State is better positioned to provide education as we desire it to be provided.

    6. Fundamentally, how it is that we know in what form or how much education should be provided, and at what cost.

    7. Same questions for healthcare.

    8. Same questions for the safety net.

    9. Why the returns from the above services should be described as “low”.

    10. Why the above services must be “universal” (and what that word means).

    11. If this is all from a utilitarian viewpoint, then perhaps how we would go about measuring the utility produced by government policies, and why maximising this utility should be taken as our objective.

    I’m genuinely not trying to scare you away with all these questions! I just think they are necessary if we are not going to be be perpetually posting at cross-purposes.


    February 26, 2008 at 2:03 pm

  13. The problem is that every time something is suggested the tilt is immediately to some supposed ill of government such as ‘government central planning’ which is at least as amenable to the sort of decoding as the questions you ask above. For example, is it central planning to have a Department of Education? Or to have standardised testing across a society? Or to implement common curricula? I’d argue not.

    But take the questions you ask?

    1. that’s actually a good one. Perhaps we might argue that we’re talking about optimum functioning… equitable outcomes, high standards of health, welfare, income, etc, etc. Or are we?

    2. More or less self-evident. But if we argue as regards the US constitution that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is a goal we should presumably try to maximise that happiness.

    3. It hasn’t moved into that sector in any significant way in societies where there has been relatively comprehensive opportunity for it to do so. I’m thinking of the US in particular where despite a strong pro-business sentiment (and lack of regulation) the state at federal and state level still has to pick up the tab.

    4. Because education costs enormous sums of money, just like prisons actually and non-commercial organisations, say the churches and such like are, in the long run unable to sustain the investments necessary. This process is evident not just here, but again in the UK and the US.

    5. Provide is such a contentious word, isn’t it? Facilitate and fund. A rather different process.

    6. I’d argue that we require at minimum, whatever our stance politically, for a population that is able to address social and economic needs of a society. Higher educational standards equals higher outputs…

    7. Better health, better outputs… in terms of workforces, etc, etc…

    8. I’ve already mentioned stability.

    9. Erm… not sure what you’re getting at.

    10. Equality… of opportunity if not precisely of outcome.

    11. Well, it’s not just from utilitarianism, but I’m trying to base this in that area in order that we can converse in at least some sort of common language…


    February 28, 2008 at 11:43 pm

  14. Hey WbS. I’m mildly surprised and very glad that you made a response! To be clear, when I’ve used phrases like “statist central planning”, I’ve done so in a purely descriptive way. As far as I can tell, the debate here is between someone who advocates central planning and someone who advocates less central planning (which I would like to describe as “liberty” but I know that’s contentious 😉 )

    Now, when I refer to central planning, I refer to all attempts by government to manage the economy. Therefore, the monopoly, spending and other powers held by the Department of Education to control that sector is a perfectly clear example of what I mean by central planning. If you would prefer that I not refer to it in that way, I don’t mind! So long as we both know know what is meant.

    Comment on the questions to follow…


    February 29, 2008 at 10:58 pm

  15. 1. I’m sorry, but I can’t answer this. It was yourself who cited “the smooth running of society” as necessitating government. I was just curious as to what you meant. If you would like to define it as “equitable outcomes, high standards of health, welfare, income, etc”, that is perfectly fine by me, though perhaps you might like to flesh out the definition a bit.

    2. “Maximising happiness” sounds like an admirable goal! Let’s run with it.

    3. I’m willing to accept your point here, for the sake of argument.

    4. I’m willing to accept this point, too, for the sake of argument.

    5. I’ll take that too.

    6. …a population that is able to address social and economic needs of a society. Higher educational standards equals higher outputs… Sorry, I’m not really sure what you mean here. What do you mean by needs, and, for example, how are they measured? Also, how are “outputs” measured in ways which are relevant to our goal of maximising happiness?

    The problem raised by question 6 is fundamental. The problem is calculating how many schools should be built, their locations, with how many teachers, with which facilities, with which courses, etc. Every pricing, inventory, HR, day-to-day operating decision related to providing education must be made. Some people are going to have to make these countless decisions, and each decision is going to be made either on the free market or it is not.

    I don’t mind conceding the points that government can facilitate and fund education better than the market. But the question presupposes the idea that we have some idea of how education should be facilitated and funded. It particularly presupposes that we know how the decisions we are delegating to government should be made.

    How do we know how the decisions should be made?


    February 29, 2008 at 11:43 pm

  16. 9. Quote: Due to their [education, healthcare, welfare] nature they seem inappropriate to have provided by commercial entities due to the low – if any – returns, the necessity for them to be universal and so forth. I am just interested to know why returns to providing these services should be described as low.

    10. Equality of opportunity is often a stated goal of public policy. But this is complicated terrain…

    11. I appreciate your effort! And recommend this article:


    March 1, 2008 at 12:01 am

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