Wednesday, 12 September 2007

What I like about libertarianism

The beauty of reading some of the Libertarian canon is that, when the unit of analysis is the individual and his freedom, the argument can proceed quite logically without much empirical debate. So it is gloriously neat, and you don't need to be an expert in all the world's ugliness to prescribe the right policies. All one needs is to remember that individual liberty is paramount. Hence this purist article arguing the libertarian case for immigration. But it also highlights the difficulties inherent on reducing debates to this one factor; liberties like rights inevitably conflict with one another. One man's right to range freely over this glorious planet in the search for security and economic success; another's right to keep his culture intact against the threats of multiple other cultures crowding in.*

Me, I come down on the immigrants' side, but not because libertarianism leads inevitably there, but because (a) I don't buy the "my culture is under threat" nonsense you get in the Torygraph and (b) I think some of England's most glorious acts have been when we absorbed some fleeing refugees (Hugenots, Jews under Cromwell, etc). I also like the way outside forces challenge stale thinking or the "distributional coalitions" that encrust a society over time, as discussed by Mancur Olsen.

All freedoms - movement of goods and capital as well as people - upset an existing order and force the challenges that ultimately produce capitalism's endless gains. I like those gains, but can recognise that each produce losers. Which freedom gets most effectively suppressed depends on power, as usual, rather than than the paramountcy of any particular liberty.

*today's generation of anti-immigration thinkers are not noted for condemning the massive emigration of well-armed British people over several centuries into the established orders of other countries.


Jackart said...

I think you'll find the Tories converted to Free markets around the time of the corn laws, and the post war socialist consensus was generally agreed to be as a result of Tory cowardice - the theory that they acted as a pause for breath between bouts of labour centralization.

And do you actually read the Telegraph? It is a lot more thoughtful (and libertarian) than any other paper, not the reactionary caricature you present.

Giles said...

Look, I hold up my hands to the Telegraph point. I was using shorthand - the only time I've read really blatant attitudes of that sort (e.g. if more Bangladeshis move in "our culture will disappear") it has been from Heffer or someone within 2 pages. There may well be many sensitive writers as well - I enjoyed Craig Brown recently - but it is very hard to be an expert in something that annoys you. For example, the only time I read Will Self I hated it so much that that was the only novel of his I read. If you have read several books by Polly Toynbee or Immanuel Wallerstein, I would be curiously impressed.

That consensus was a very long time - even reading Churchill's world war accounts you realise they had a very long period of seeing a government-ordered world as natural. I personally admire Thatcher because she came from such an uncomfortable position for so many Tories and yet stuck with it. Lots of what she did was ant-conservative and the opposition within her own party was extreme. There have to be trade-offs faced up to in taking bold views - you can't pretend ever policy of a party neatly captured all that was great and fine.