One of the frequent accusations of inconsistency thrown at UKIP is that this self-proclaimed libertarian party wants tight controls on immigration, would like to ban gay marriage and even once flirted with the idea of making the veil illegal. These positions are, of course, incompatible with libertarianism. Even the so-called ‘paleolibertarians’ who combine a strong cultural and social conservatism with a libertarian outlook don’t call for the state to impose their views.
However, UKIP are hardly alone when it comes to a confused mix of commitments to freedom and coercion. This is an issue that cuts across every major party. Farage and co. are just more noticeable because of that eye-catching claim to the libertarian tradition.
Take banking, for example. As has been pointed out widely elsewhere, demanding ever tighter regulation of the financial sector is hardly compatible with a desire for much greater competition amongst banks. Either the freedom of doing a certain type of business is tightly constrained by state agencies thus reducing the number of people willing and able to undertake that business or it is not. And yet this ‘more regulation and more competition’ position is one now held by all the major parties.
Then there’s welfare. Every mainstream politician will, of course, proclaim their utter commitment to the basic liberal principle that state interference in a citizen’s daily life is only justified to prevent serious harm to others. And yet, strangely, this view ceases to apply in the case of the unemployed. Once someone is receiving unemployment benefit the limitations on what the state can demand of a citizen are suddenly much looser.
Did that child benefit recipient consider contraception?
We are even at the point where all parties are signed up to the view that unemployed people should be required to do unpaid or very low paid work or face the sanction of destitution. This is often justified on the grounds that taxpayers’ money must be protected which, of course, is true but why we don’t apply similar strictures to everyone receiving some sort of state handout is unclear. Is that person on tax credits following up every promotion opportunity? Did that pension credit claimant do everything they could to provide for themselves in later life? Did that child benefit recipient really consider adequate contraception? We don’t act on these questions because it would offend our liberal belief in freedom from state interference but the inconsistency with the approach to the unemployed is clear.
Even the recently canonised Margaret Thatcher managed to build a whole ideological outlook based on an inconsistent approach to freedom summed up nicely in the title of Andrew Gamble’s influential book on Thatcherism: The Free Economy and the Strong State. As was pointed out at the time, and as it did indeed turn out, offering people greater economic freedom while demanding that they all behave like the bourgeoisie of Victorian mythology was hardly sustainable. Freedom is catching and once you have it in one area of your life you tend to want it in every other area.
So while Farage will rightly face an increasingly tough scrutiny from the other parties maybe they should reflect on the fact that UKIP are maybe just a less sophisticated version of their own contradictions.