The Fear of Freedom

Having libertarian views and living according to libertarian principles are two quite different things. The first is relatively easy, the second, much less so.

There are many people who object to others exercising power over them and interfering with how they wish to live their lives, but it is much more difficult to allow others freedom and to refuse to take power over them. Yet, in my view, the latter is as necessary as the former for a libertarian.

And since most organisations operate through hierarchical power structures there is often little room within them for libertarians. Sometimes we will compromise our instincts out of self interest, for example in order to work and earn money, but, unless it is clear that to do so is to his material advantage, it is unusual for a libertarian to voluntarily submit to the dictation of his thoughts and actions by another.

Understanding the above largely explains the failure, because abject failure it has been, of the Libertarian Party since its inception. But we must now look to the future and it seems, from the proposals put forward for reform of the party, that there have been two quite clear paths identified.

The response articulated in the articles from Gavin Webb and Max Andronichuk can be summarised as arguing to replace the sadly flawed edifice that had been exposed with another, more disciplined, structure. This is described as being less centralised but it still features a clear hierarchy of decision making and a central NCC command. Indeed, the prescription seems often to be about increased levels of control rather than greater freedom from it.

  • The NCC dictating local party constitutions.
  • No open policy discussions- even the social networks to be moderated.
  • The NCC dictating selection rules.
  • Policy proposals to be finally approved by the NCC Policy Director in the interests of “consistency”.
  • The NCC overseeing local finances and taking half the money, from which officers are entitled to claim expenses.

By contrast, the proposals put forward by Andy Janes for a “Minimalist Party” and my own “Blueprint for Renewal” envisaged a party without any central control whatever.

  • No leader or NCC.
  • Specific fund raising for projects.
  • Multi party membership permitted.
  • Organic development of policy.
  • The party as a vehicle for libertarians to run for election.

I have no doubt that both sides will come to the forthcoming Special General Meeting with specific constitutional amendments to try to steer the party in a direction that will fulfill their objectives. Once these proposals have been voted on, the party officers, if there are to be such, will be elected.

But, it seems to me, that the difference between the two sides is exemplified by their attitude to debate. Following all the recent implosion there was an immediate and instinctive clamour for debate to be shut down at all costs and even, if necessary, for the truth to be concealed.

In my view, the whole debate conducted by members of the NCC regarding what had happened should not have been conducted in secret but should have been in the public domain, with everyone clearly accountable for all their words and actions. Catharsis only occurs when conflict between different points of view is allowed to take place and the notion that we suppress such conflict in the interest of some fake togetherness is never going to be acceptable to most libertarians.

Admittedly, part of the reason for first moderating and then closing down comment on the website has been to protect innocent parties from the (highly unlikely) possibility of legal action but, I have to say, that I sensed, as it happened, it was more than that. There was a tangible sense of relief among some that had we stopped presenting ourselves to the world as a party racked with division and acrimony.

But the fact is that we were divided, and the instinct to prevent our members and supporters from articulating their outrage by shutting down debate was, in my view, a betrayal of libertarian principles. Why did we seek to lie to the world about what had happened? And why, in the future, should we seek to conceal debate in some private forum?

As I said at the beginning, libertarians are not only identifiable by their expressed views but also by the way in which they conduct their affairs. We need to begin to act like libertarians.



Image by Faizal Omar

  8 comments for “The Fear of Freedom

  1. Jun 23, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Ken, I wonder if this apparent “split” is a false one. That is, whether there is a way to have a decentralised structure AND tight and well-coordinated control of the public image (which *is* important IMHO).

  2. James Rigby
    Jun 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Words like “control”, “structure” and “discipline” are not in the column headed “Good Words” in your average libertarian’s lexicon. I believe that anything we have in this regard must be light-touch. It is the statist parties that seek all their members to be “on message” and succumb to the edicts of the party discipline machinery. We must not only be different, we must be seen to be different. There is nothing wrong with individual members disagreeing fundamentally with party policy and arguing vehemently and publicly for an alternative. We are a broad church – encompassing minarchists, left libertarians, old-fashioned liberals, Georgists and some angry people who are just anti-government. Each must have a public voice – and the party needs to be mature and confident enough to say “yes – we have members who don’t agree with everything the party says – but that’s why we’re a refreshing change from the main parties”. I fear that too much control, discipline, rigid structures etc would make us look too much like other parties. Let’s dare to be different and make that difference a real positive USP as we rebuild the membership.

  3. Ken Ferguson
    Jun 24, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Well said, James. We need people prepared to think outside the box of traditional party structures and what it means to be a coherent political movement.

    Why can’t we have multiple views within the party on policy? Why do we need Gavin’s “consistency”? Each individual libertarian can stand for election propounding his own views. What’s wrong with that?

    • Jun 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      We need some identity for the party as a group, because asking the electorate to disassemble the conceptual package of “libertarianism” and decide whether they agree with particular libertarians is asking too much. Concepts speed up the decision making process and help spur action.

      If we promote a core set of policies or perhaps a broader set of principles which 99% of party members agree on then we can probably have both. The candidate can claim “I support this Party statement, and also have this to say…”.

      I’m beginning to wonder whether we need to bother having a manifesto to disagree on, or whether we can run without a manifesto.

      • James Rigby
        Jun 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm

        There’s a big difference between principles and policies. We can have broad principles such as “smallest possible government”, “simpler laws”, “freedom to do whatever you like provided you’re not impinging on someone else’s freedom to do the same” etc etc. Everyone in the party should support such a set of principles. If they don’t they’re probably in the wrong party. When it comes to policy/manifesto, at this stage we can be flexible. I am sure the policies for Uttoxeter council would be different from any other council (localism remember!), and if we get to the stage where we have a national platform and multiple candidates for national election, we can worry about policy details/difference at that time. The imperative now is to rebuild the party – and that means attracting a broad church. Having national policies which are too specific (and wouldn’t be implemented in the foreseeable future anyway) could turn off some natural libertarians who might otherwise join the party were it not for a minor policy point.

        • Jun 27, 2011 at 9:26 am

          James is right to draw the distinction between principles and policies. Of course we need to state and explain the principle of libertarianism and that is pretty much the whole function of the Party at a national level.

          We do not need, indeed we cannot have, a national manifesto because it is contradictory to our objective of returning control of their lives to individuals and communities at the lowest level possible. Let’s face it, there is no agreement about what the nation is. UK, Britain, England, there are objections to all of those. I want to see autonomy for the Wirral peninsula with substantial freedom of action for my own small town and most decisions affecting our lives to be taken within my own family home.

          I am no anarchist. Communities should police themselves so far as the matters they are dealing with are manageable within the community, but the threats to freedom and property that are presented by crime can have a dimension that goes to national levels and beyond. For individuals and the people with whom they identify to be protected from external threats there have to be firm arrangements and alliances to use military force where necessary. These needs can only be met by the establishment of state power

          The reality of the modern world is that the necessary powers are tiered and do not reside in the nation alone.

  4. Gavin Webb
    Jun 28, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I could spend minutes of precious time delving into the ins and outs of what Ken’s written, but I won’t. All that I wish to say is that the intention of the Fresh Start proposals are to provide a way in which the party can get back on its feet, without spending too much time reinventing the wheel which will detract from the real business should be getting on with, i.e. informing people about the libertarian alternative, encouraging party activists to stand in elections, and possibly getting some libertarians elected.

    It is around ten months until the next local elections, where 128 English councils have seats up for grabs, as well as all seats of all 22 Welsh and 32 Scottish councils.

    Whilst some are ideologically procrastinating about how pure in libertarian terms the party structure should be, some of us just want to get on with the work, and have a structure that ‘does’ give responsibility to grassroots level; which ‘does’ give members (and to a lesser extent, associates) a key say in which direction the party is to travel; which does enable activists to become effective and successful campaigners in their local areas; which does enable local parties the opportunity to draw up their own local manifestos which will deal with local issues; and if they feel that national party policy needs to change, that give members the opportunity to shape that policy by submitting policy motions for the party membership to consider and vote upon.

    In addition, the ‘them versus us’/’NCC versus members’ arguments seems to miss one key point – any member can put himself or herself up for NCC posts. The NCC is not some one-party state where membership derives from patronage. There is a democratic process which allow members to stand for and vote for the NCC.

    Likewise, the Fresh Start proposals will offer that opportunity at the more local level, where local members can stand for election to become Chair, Secretary etc, of their local party, and in doing so accept they take on some of the legal responsibilities imposed by the Electoral Commission and other agencies.

    Ideological purity is one thing, but it means diddly squit in the real world of getting the message out to the masses; getting from behind the computer and out onto the streets, door-knocking, delivering leaflets, talking with ‘ordinary’ people who haven’t the first clue about what libertarianism is – I refer you to

  5. John Watson
    Jul 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    If you like it or not, a political party is required to be structured to what is dictated by the Election Commission and that includes having legal officers.

    The legal officers are legally responsible for what happens with in the party, thus having a structure that individuals can do what they like but legal officers can be put in prison for those individuals actions will never work.

    Thus a minimum top to bottom approach is required, however as far as I can see the LPUK is as legally minimum that any party can get.

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