Libertarians have a very poor reputation outside their own ideological enclave. Generally associated with the wilder fringes of American politics, libertarianism has little purchase on mainstream thinking in the UK even if some of its spirit informs the Conservative Party’s approach and elements of UKIP’s.
A more tolerant attitude to the state exists over here, of course, but some portion of blame can be placed at the feet of libertarians themselves. Shrill, often glib and, like most deeply ideological types, as obsessed with purity as with influence, it is unsurprising that many recoil. A mirror-image, in fact, of the hard left with which they do regular and pointless battle in the blogosphere.
Libertarianism also suffers through its association with the Tea Party. This movement projects what might be called a ‘selective libertarianism’ – claiming to be the sole guardians of liberty from government interference in the economic sphere but then apparently discovering a deep statism when it comes to immigration, gay rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and various cultural practices they find distasteful. Many libertarians are not as incoherent as this (witness those within UKIP who have paid the price for consistency over gay marriage) but given that the Tea Party is the highest profile libertarian movement in the world, it is to be expected that many conclude that the whole ideological strand is confused.
Now, however, a new strand of libertarianism called Bleeding Heart Libertarianism (BHL) has emerged which wants to reach out to the mainstream to open an apparently serious dialogue. In particular, they want to discuss social justice driven by the view (heretical in libertarian circles) that if ‘libertarian institutions’ (non-state, mutually beneficial arrangements) cannot genuinely help the worst off then they should be abandoned or reformed. Should we return the favour? Here is one reason why I think we should.
The object of libertarian derision, the state and its agencies, has been enduring a painful decline for many years. The state is not about to disappear any time soon but its ability to effect change and, linked to this, the public’s faith in government has gone into reverse. The reasons for this and its outcomes have been charted extensively elsewhere. Clearly globalisation, more mobile populations, the emergence of a less deferential culture and, more recently, the rise of the internet, have made the state’s attempts to assert its will far less straightforward.
Now the state, at least in the advanced economies, faces a further blow to its role in the form of a deep fiscal predicament. The way this will challenge many of the core functions of government is only now beginning to dawn on those who have to deliver them. See, for example, the ‘jaws of doom’ and the 'graph of doom' . The long-run decline of the state is starting to look worryingly like existential crisis .
Under these circumstances, a dialogue with thoughtful individuals who have long doubted the state’s efficacy or moral right to govern, seems worthwhile. In some ways, libertarians have been ahead of the curve on the state’s inner contradictions and the public's changing attitudes while mainstream politics merely throws up its hands in despair at the rising constraints on effective policy and the popular hostility to government.
There are, of course, many routes (as yet undiscovered) to addressing the problems emerging as the state withdraws but if conversation with those who have long planned and hoped for such a withdrawal can help us discover one or two or those routes then we should seize it.
This is particularly the case for BHL. Its interest in social justice is fundamental to the prospects for serious dialogue. The decline of the state is a real threat to the worst-off and vulnerable who rely on its structures for all sorts of help from welfare payments to healthcare to social care. Those libertarians who believe blithely that such potential suffering is a price worth paying for liberty or, alternatively, believe the market will automatically deliver for these social groups would be useless correspondents.
But BHL has the potential to be different. It admits it is less sure of its ground on social justice and thus offers a chance to discuss this most pressing issue openly. Conversation could challenge some of their preconceptions but, more importantly, might also challenge ours and show us the beginnings of new ways of generating social justice that could be achieved with a much reduced state. In truth, the stakes are too high to ignore the possibility of inspiration no matter what its origin.
In the next post in this series, I’ll suggest a further reason for dialogue related to the rise of an ‘economic planning mentality’ since the 2008 Crash.