Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Notes From The Witchsmeller Pursuivant

James Graham's excellent contribution on libertarianism reminds me that I've said some fairly nasty things about libertarianism in the past (I believe I went for "it commits gross historical and sociological negligence" the last time) but haven't taken the opportunity to extend and revise those remarks.

It's worth reflecting, however, that I come at this as something of an amateur political philosopher. I'm sitting here with two degrees in physical sciences and with prior accusations of technocracy (charges that do tend to stick somewhat) and so with less of an interest in the minutiae of Mill, Hobbes, Locke et al. Nevertheless, I can see where libertarianism is coming from. The rights it proclaims and the moral philosophy it declares are hard to argue against.

The problem, however, is that the philosophy is exactly that; moral, not political. For all the talk of consistency in the libertarian position, where does maintenance of that position lead? Didn't the last country that tried to do things that way end with mobs carrying flaming torches and pitchforks leading noblemen to guillotines? Doesn't maintaining order in such a country require either a military police force that Stalin would have admired or a social hierarchy The Party would be familiar with? (This is where the historical and sociological negligence comes in, in case you were wondering...)

It's at this point that the religiosity of libertarian belief James points out betrays it. By obsessing over the righteousness of the morals they have identified, libertarians pointedly ignore the lessons of two hundred years of democracy in its various implementations; that people will guard their rights and ignore their responsibilities, that the exercise of those rights can constitute an assault on others even where none is intended and that there is a role for government in establishing not just fairness, but justice.

Not that libertarian philosophies are irrelevant by any means. They must inform our decisions, reminding us that government should be about enablement rather than coercion. Nevertheless we must be clear that libertarianism is not some pure, untainted version of liberalism that we should return to; rather, it represents an old ideal that liberalism has grown out of through sometimes bitter experience.

If such an arrangement will not suffice, however, I'd refer you to my original point; in a constitutional system that is broken, the Liberal Democrats must be a strong enough coalition to deliver the genuine reform we need and not the sticking plasters ordered by the decrepit hulks on the red and blue sides. For that, we must unite against the common enemy (no, not the Judean People's Front...)

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